Red Letter or Black Letter Christian? Which one are you? If you aren't sure, then you are in good company. "Red-Letter Christian" is a new distinction suggested between conservative and liberal Christians which has been proposed by guys like Tony Campolo
and Jim Wallis
. My favorite raving Baptist liberal Bruce Prescott
picked up on this a while back and now once again has posted on this in response to a well-written critique by Mark Tooney, Director of the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. Prescott uses the term "Red Letter Christian" in conjuction with another new distinction "Black-Letter Christian
" in hopes of showing how much more Christlike these "Red-Letter Christians" are. In Tooney's article, "Red Letter Leftists
," which was published by FrontlineMagazine.com on October 18th (and which Prescott has failed to link to in his comments on it), Tooney alleges that "[f]rustrated by the conservative tendencies of most religiously active Americans, a group of liberal religious activists have started "Red Letter Christians" to espouse political themes of the left." So what are "Red Letter Christians"? According to their website
, located at Jim Wallis's Sojourner's website, "The Red Letter Christians are a network of effective, progressive, Christian communicators urging an open, honest and public dialogue on issues of faith and politics." They go on to state the following:
We believe and seek to put in to action the red letter words in the Holy Bible spoken by Jesus. The goal of the group is to advance the message that our faith cannot be reduced to only two hot button social issues - abortion and homosexuality. Fighting poverty, caring for the environment, advancing peace, promoting strong families, and supporting a consistent ethic of life are all critical moral and biblical values.
Additionally, under the subtitle, "Why We Are Speaking Out" the group says:
For decades, leaders of the Religious Right have attempted to convince Christians and the American public that people of faith and strong moral values have only one option when it comes to voting. This narrow view continues to overshadow the majority of Christians in America whose faith motivates them to care deeply about a range of ethics and values. Our nation is hungry for an open dialogue on moral values and its role in the public square. God is not a Republican or a Democrat, and candidates should be measured by examining an array of social and economic issues.
Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners Magazine recounted in an article on his website entitled, "Red Letter Christians: Somehow, Jesus Has Survived Even the Church" how this term first came to be used:
“I’m a secular Jewish country music songwriter and disk jockey,” my interviewer on a Nashville radio station said. “But I love your stuff and have been following your book tour.” He told me he loved my “riffs” and would like to spend an evening together just to get some lines for new music. “You’re a songwriter’s dream.” Then he told me he believed we were starting a new movement, but noticed we hadn’t come up with a name for it yet. “I’ve got an idea for you,” he said. “I think you should call yourselves ‘The Red Letter Christians,’ for the red parts of the Bible that highlight the words of Jesus. I love the red letter stuff.”
Wallis goes on to say that,
The truth is that there are many people who like the “red letter stuff,” and many of them are not even Christians. Try it yourself sometime. Go out on the street or to your school or workplace and take a poll. Ask people what they think Jesus stood for. You’re likely to hear things like “stood with poor people,” or “compassionate,” or “loving,” or “he was for peace.”
In another article on the Sojourner's site, Tony Campolo weighs in with a commentary called, "What's a 'Red-Letter Christian'?" (originally published by BeliefNet on 2-27-06). In this article he further explains the motivation to refer to himself and others as "Red-Letter Christians":
In those red letters, He calls us away from the consumerist values that dominate contemporary American consciousness. He calls us to be merciful, which has strong implications for how we think about capital punishment. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he probably means we shouldn’t kill them. Most important, if we take Jesus seriously, we will realize that meeting the needs of the poor is a primary responsibility for His followers.
Moving on to "Black Letter Christians", Bruce Prescott says regarding them that they
. . . believe that the words of Jesus are too liberal and utopian for life in the real world. While claiming allegiance to biblical authority, in practice they deny any temporal authority for the words of Jesus. They emphasize the values of the neo-conservative police state -- pre-emptive strike defense, unregulated capitalism, social darwinism and Christian nationalism.
I find that these sort of distinctions only blur the debate that should be the focal point of discussion between moderate, liberal, and conservative Christians - and that is the authority of the Bible. What we have seen throughout history is that the axis upon which all of Christianity turns is the Biblical witness. When Christians have been made to emphasize one aspect of the Biblical record to the exclusion of another, then the Gospel itself has been compromised. So the question remains, "Which group is de-emphasizing certain parts of the Biblical text - 'Red Letter Christians' or 'Black Letter Christians'?" Bruce Prescott seems to indicate that it is the "Black Letter Christians" who are doing so, but since he seems to have invented the distinction, then the burden of proof rests on him to actually prove that what these Christians are doing is ignoring the words of Jesus to act in certain ways politically (which is a whole 'nother topic, given that Prescott blurs the lines here between political action and living out a Biblical worldview). What we can gather from Prescott's article is that it is certain that "Red Letter Christians" do ignore or de-emphasize a portion of the Biblical record in favor of another portion. Notice his words here:
While recognizing the authority of the entire Bible, "Red Letter" Christians believe that the words of Jesus should have precedence when weighing biblical values. They emphasize the values of peace, justice, equality and the common good. They are concerned about poverty, global warming, human rights, and health care.
Ignoring the fact that Jesus never spoke on global warming or heath care (and I say that not because I believe that to be a legitimate critique of Prescott's position, but because I find it a bit interesting given that Prescott must go outside the "Red Letters" to find support for such a position Biblically), what Prescott has done here is to openly admit that he and others who consider themselves "Red Letter Christians" actually do place an emphasis on certain passages. What we have seen in history is that this generally results in causing those who hold this type of view to do so to the detriment and exclusion of other relevant and authoritative Scripture passages (from early on certain figures like the Docetics, the Gnostics, and men like Arius and particularly Marcion, whose opposition to the Old Testament was starkly refuted by Tertullian, flesh out this tendency).
Additionally, what I think is happening here is exactly what began transpiring in the Southern Baptist Convention many years ago and eventually was brought to a head during the Conservative Resurgence (*note: this comment is not meant to endorse all the actions that took place during that time period in SBC life, but merely to point out that this sort of debate regarding the authority of Scripture provided a spark that resulted in the the conservative, moderate, and liberal in-fighting during those years). And so over the next week or so I hope to publish an article or two that deals with the idea of whether certain points of Scripture ought to be emphasized above other parts and on whether or not "Black Letter Christians" do in fact de-emphasize the words of Jesus, as Prescott has charged. Meanwhile I welcome your thoughts about the validity of such a distinction.