In a recent perusal of the internet, I have come across an organisation called Red Letter Christians. This group, headed up by the noted American evangelical Tony Campolo, wants its followers to focus on the sections of the Bible that are printed in red letters – the words ascribed to Jesus. By chance I have such a Bible which is printed in this way and it is the one known as the Scofield Bible. This is a version of the Authorised Version published for Christians focussed on End Times. Scofield’s notes in the margins help the reader to follow the text within the framework of what is known as Dispensationalist ideas. Users of this version would be among the most conservative of Protestant readers and many would follow the ideas of the late Tim Lahaye, whose life and work we considered a few days ago. Red Letter Christians, by contrast, are among the more radical and socially engaged, right on the edge of the evangelical family. Indeed, Tony Campolo himself has recently asked not to be counted as an evangelical. This is because he is aware of all the negative associations that he believes are attached to the word by those who are outside these circles. We might note, by way of comment, that the word ‘Christian’ has also become contaminated by similar negative associations.
What kind of Christianity do we find when we focus on just the words of Jesus? To answer this question, we need first to mention the things that we do not find mentioned in Jesus’ discourses. We do not find copious condemnations of ‘unsound’ people who do not believe what ‘orthodox’ people do. We do not find an obsession with sex as long as partners entering into a commitment are faithful. We also do not find a preoccupation with building barriers and boundaries which would exclude people who are not like us from intruding into our lives. This last point is perhaps an indication that Jesus would have had very little time for the styles of political life that have developed in our time.
What are the values that we discover when we look at Christianity through the eyes of Red Letter Christians? According to the website, (which is of course freely open to everyone), the first mark of taking the words of Jesus seriously is for us to regard all people as being made in the image and likeness of God. Any kind of racism or one of the phobias directed against other people are completely ruled out when we consider the words of Jesus as in some way authoritative. A second point is that the perspective of Jesus concerning the Bible and indeed the world itself is normative for Christians. Jesus appears to have read the Bible in a distinct but nuanced way. From my perspective, this approach does not allow the followers of Jesus to cherry-pick particular passages from the Old Testament in an effort to find the model for a perfect society. The law may say one thing according to Jesus, but this does not stop new things emerging out of the old. A readiness by Jesus to add to and qualify the revelations of the past gives us permission today to escape from the tyranny of inerrancy doctrines. We are encouraged to read, study and listen to Scripture. Jesus allows us to discuss and critique passages of Scripture and decide whether or not particular passages are relevant to us today. Of course we cannot claim to get it right every time or know with precision what Jesus might think on each passage. But at least we seem to have his permission to engage in a discussion, even if more than one possible solution may emerge. Such differences are, I believe, healthy and will always be part of the life of a Christian mind. The fact that some Christians find the lack of a single answer intolerable is no reason for the rest of us to close down healthy discussion.
Many of the words of Jesus are commands to act and behave in a particular way. The command: ‘Go and do likewise’ at end of the Good Samaritan parable is not just telling us to do something; there is the expectation that we will learn through doing it. Love is not just a word on a page, it is an attitude and disposition which, when we practise it, we are learning how to live in a Christian way. When we learn to love in Jesus’s way, we are also learning about power and its use and misuse in society. Love through service, as we noticed in a recent blog, is a type of love that is able to avoid any abuse of power. The words of Jesus also teach us to have a radical understanding of how power in fact operates in society. Jesus’s words are often radical and counter-cultural on this topic.
Another particular concern of Jesus was to bring to our attention the needs of the poor, the sick and those in any kind of trouble. Helping such people in whatever way we can will also help us to learn how important it is to love without any expectation of reward. Any looking for some kind of payback when we help others is, if we think about it, a subtle power game. Too often we do things for others as a way of making ourselves look good or to gain some other advantage. A genuine concern for the ‘poor’ will bring nothing for us; rather the person we are helping will, we hope, feel supported and sustained. Jesus, in other words, is concerned that our world should be a place where people love one another with a love which genuinely seeks nothing but the welfare of the one who is the target of concern.
The Red Letter Christian through his or her study of the mind of Jesus will be an individual well attuned to the way that many assumptions within our society need to be challenged. In short there is a political dimension to this movement which might mean that some of our comfortable certainties about society need to be examined afresh. Working for the good of others, particularly the poor, is not easy in a society which wants to protect the privileges of the better off. Not unnaturally radical Christians have tended to side with a more left wing approach to political questions. But whatever our politics, the Red Letter Christian will probably never want to remain in a defined political party. Subversive counter-cultural thinking, such as we find in the sayings of Jesus, will always be on the move. As soon as a group of Christians think they have found a political stance worth following, it will probably be time to move on. The words of Jesus will never be contained in a single political point of view.
One final remark about the attitudes of Red Letter Christians would be to note that any follower would want to challenge every kind of human boundary. A Christian listening to the words of Jesus would want to reach over boundaries of class, faith and every kind of cultural or racial difference. We have already suggested that the Red Letter Christian would never reach a point of equilibrium. The attitudes and the understanding of the world among such people will probably never stand still. This last comment is probably my own reading of what such an organisation might do. No doubt Red Letter Christians are probably compelled for practical and organisational reasons to be a little less maverick and more flexible than I have suggested. I have, nevertheless, given my reader a commentary and my hopes for this new movement for some Bible loving Christians in the States. Perhaps it will catch on in this country as there. Whatever form it may take in the future, it will provide something refreshing and potentially transformative for us all.