726 Tony Campolo: What is a Red Letter Christian?

Whether you’re Christian or not, here’s a phrase you should learn: Red Letter Christians. It’s both a religious and a political movement in the U.S. and now in Europe as well.

The co-founders of this loosely affiliated movement are Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis. Wallis is the best-selling author and evangelical, social-justice activist associated with Sojourners. Tony Campolo is not as well known as Jim Wallis in political circles, but Tony tends to have a wider audience in evangelical and Pentecostal churches. This week, we’ve invited Tony Campolo and his co-author, communication expert Mary Albert Darling, to talk with us about their latest book, “Connecting Like Jesus: Practices for Healing, Teaching, and Preaching.” Both Tony and Mary are part of this burgeoning Red Letter movement. So, we’ve got a great opportunity to hear where they see their movement heading.

One major motive behind their movement is restoring the political independence of evangelical Christians. In public statements, both Tony and Jim have argued repeatedly that the Republican Party seems to have co-opted millions of faithful American churchgoers. That’s unfortunate, they argue, because the actual words of Jesus (sometimes printed in red letters in Christian Bibles) demand that issues like poverty and peace should be primary goals in our public policies. Christians should be independent, they argue, and should not allow any political party to speak for Christianity.

On his own website, Tony calls himself “The Positive Prophet of Red Letter Christianity.”

Tony Campolo’s website gives this overview of Red Letter Christianity: The message of those red-lettered Bible verses is radical, to say the least. If you don’t believe us, just take a few minutes to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In it, Jesus calls us away from the consumerist values that dominate contemporary America, and challenges us to consider meeting the needs of the poor as a primary responsibility for those who would follow him. He also calls us to be merciful, which has strong implications for how we think about war and capital punishment. After all, when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he probably means we shouldn’t deny their civil rights or kill them.

What Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling
Say about Red Letter Christians Today

Tony Campolo on Red Letter Christianity:

All around the world, there are young people saying: We have no problem with Jesus. But, we do have great problems with the church. We want to relate to Jesus, but we are put off by so much of what goes by the name of “Christianity” today.

To those young people and to all Christians, we are saying: Can we at least agree that to be a follower of Jesus means to commit yourself to what Jesus specifically asks us to do? In the modern era, we’re so concerned about theology and orthodoxy. Red Letter Christians are equally concerned about what we would call orthopraxy: Doing the things that Jesus tells us to do. We take the Sermon on the Mount seriously so that moves us to be nonviolent resisters rather than people who are drawn toward supporting war. We take it seriously when Jesus tells us: “Blessed are the merciful.” We take seriously what Jesus says about economics. Does Jesus really mean it when he tells us that rich people are going to have a hard time getting into heaven? Should we take it seriously when Jesus says to older people like me: Do not lay up riches for some future day? Are we truly to minister to the poor of the world? That’s what Jesus tells us to do.

The Red Letter movement is just getting underway now. I just came back from the United Kingdom and the BBC is hot to trot to cover this movement. People inside and outside the church are tired of Christianity that is only concerned about theology and is not concerned about the real lives of people living around the world. We are mobilizing men and women around the world, mostly young people, and we’re asking people to wear a wristband that says I’m a Red-Letter Christian. We want to move beyond the word “evangelical.”

The movement is picking up steam even as we speak. Red Letter Christians are quick to point out that the word evangelical has too much ugly baggage right now for us. If you go to Harvard or Stanford, and you identify yourself as “evangelical,” they immediately assume you’re anti-gay, anti-women, pro-war and you support this whole host of issues that are part of the political right. Instead, we want to emphasize living Christ-like lives. That means living out those red letters of Scripture.

Mary Albert Darling on Red Letter Christians:

Being a Red Letter Christian means that we go back to the words of Jesus. A lot of people are mainly focused on reading the epistles, especially Paul’s letters in the New Testament. As Christians, many people seem to start with what Paul says as they define Christianity. That’s important, but for Christians the whole Bible needs to be read in light of the gospels—starting with the gospels.

We’re saying: Let’s look at what Jesus actually says and let’s frame our whole approach to the Bible in light of what Jesus says. Paul’s letters address a whole lot of relational issues in the church. That makes sense because churches were forming and people were having trouble getting along with each other. So, Paul is writing to people about what it means to be a representation of the kingdom of God.

But we want to go back and, first, look at what Jesus says. As Red Letter Christians, we’re not a formal organization. We’re trying to be inclusive. We’re trying to be holistic. We’re trying to say that, as Red-Letter Christians, we recognize that justice and ministry to the poor are essential to understanding and following Jesus.

Care to read more about Tony Campolo, Church Growth
and “Connecting Like Jesus” with Mary Albert Darling?

ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints,” “Beaches of Agnes,” “Mystically Wired,” “Creative Aging,” “Twelve by Twelve” and “Eyewitness 4.”)

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