Rise of the Red Letter Christians
(Interview text originally published in The Baptist Times in June 2009)
Is Tony Campolo a dangerous, theologically heretical communist who wants to smash the state? Some of his critics would have you believe he is. I remember him as the guy in the videos they used to show at the church in which I became a Christian. And those videos were all about accepting Jesus as your personal saviour and telling other people about Him. Not exactly Che Guevarra. So I caught up with this Sociology Professor, author of 35 books and world-famous speaker what, exactly, the deal is.
Jonathan Langley: You released a book last year called Red Letter Christians. What is a Red Letter Christian, and why was the term created?
Tony Campolo: What happened in the United States, which I’m sure is happening in the United Kingdom as well, is that the evangelical community was gradually seduced into being part of what was called the ‘Religious Right’. They began to manifest attitudes that we felt were diametrically opposed to Jesus.
When you met an evangelical in the United States you could almost count on him or her being pro-war, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-environmentalist, pro-capital punishment – that was the image that the world outside the church had of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
There was a group of us, all connected with Eastern University, a Baptist university, who were saying: that’s not who we are. We are anti-war. We want to affirm the love of God for gay people. We want to affirm the dignity and equality of women. We are opposed to capital punishment, we are pro-environment.
So we had to say the word ‘evangelical’ has lost its meaning for us. The word ‘fundamentalist’ was a very respectable word a century ago. But it became associated with anti-intellectualism, legalism and all kinds of myopic thinking. And so Billy Graham said: we need a new word, let’s use the word ‘evangelical’, because the word ‘fundamentalist’ has all this negative baggage. Well, we’ve reached a point where the word ‘evangelical’ has all this negative baggage. We needed a new name for those of us who were progressive in our politics but still evangelical in our theology. We believe in the Apostle’s Creed. We believe in the inspiration of Scripture and in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
And a secular Jewish disc-jockey began to refer to us as ‘those guys who are into the red letters in the Bible’. And we said, that’s our new name. We’re Red Letter Christians. We’re going to develop our politics according to the words of Jesus. And if you do go to the words of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, you’re not going to come out a right-wing militarist. Jesus said love your enemies. And when he said that, he probably meant that we shouldn’t kill them.
JL: Red Letter Christians are politically involved, but you have also highlighted the dangers of being seduced by power. Should Christians get involved in party politics?
TC: We should never be partisan. Whenever someone asks me whether I am a democrat or a republican, my response has to be: ‘name the issue.’ On some issues I’m with the Democrats and on some I’m with the Republicans.
Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. Nor does he agree with me. I’m struggling every day to get more in line with Jesus, still trying to figure out exactly what Jesus wants me to say and do in the political arena. When you make Jesus a member of Republican, Democrat, Labour or Conservative parties, you’ve committed the sin of idolatry by creating God in your own political image.
Christians must speak the truth to those in power and call on them to do the will of God. But we have to earn the right to be heard. A church that has lived out, sacrificially, its love for people will have authority. One of the problems the Church has is its church budget. Look at any church budget and ask: how much of the money that this church collects in a given year is going to be spent on keeping this church going, and how much of it is going to be used to minister to the poor and the oppressed of the world?
People in the church get very uptight about tithing and people not giving enough. But after we give our money to the church, does the church give enough? In this economic downturn, what’s the first thing they’re going to cut? Mission work to the poor and the needy of the world. And because we are an institution that is primarily concerned with its own survival, we have no authority.
On judgement day, Jesus is not going to ask: ‘Did you build a new building? Did you put in new carpet? Did you buy a new organ?’ He’s going to ask: ‘I was hungry, did you feed me? Naked, did you clothe me? Sick did you care for me? I was the illegal immigrant, did you make room for me? For whatever you did to the least of these, you did for me.’
We need a church that speaks out of loving sacrifice for the needs of the world. I guarantee you that parliament would listen in a minute to Mother Teresa, were she alive. They don’t listen to us. Why? Because the life of Mother Teresa was of sacrificial love and she spoke from authority. We don’t.