The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Are You a Red-Letter or a Black-Letter Christian?

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In the Foreword to Tony Campolo’s new book Red Letter Christians, Jim Wallis tells a story about a secular Jewish country-music songwriter and disk jockey who told him that a new social movement was being birthed as a result of Wallis’ God’s Politics and other “social-conscience” books (listen to my radio show on this topic). Here’s how Wallis tells it:

“I love your stuff and have been following your book tour.” Then he told me he believed we were starting a new movement, but he 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.’ You know those Bibles that highlight the words of Jesus in red letters? I love the red-letter stuff. The rest I could do without.”

Wallis continues by telling how he shared this story with Campolo, who he calls “the ‘godfather’ of Red Letter Christians . . . after all, he is Italian,” and how excited Tony got when he heard it. It’s ironic that Wallis describes Campolo as the godfather of Red Letter Christians since similar to the mafia the policies of Red Letter Christians lack governmental legitimacy.

For the record, I’m Italian (DeMario), and my father’s first name is also Tony, and I didn’t get excited when I heard this story. Can you imagine a young Jewish man coming up to Jesus and saying, “You know, Jesus, if you would just drop some of your outrageous claims and your moral indictments, I might just follow you. The rest I could do without.” We don’t get to pick and choose what parts of the Bible we are to believe and act on. There were no red letters when the individual books of the Bible were written.

Several years ago, during the height of the influence of the Moral Majority, I was asked to speak to a class of very bright students at Emory University. During a time for questions, one student said that she believed in following the morals of Jesus. She was expressing the basics of Red Letter Christianity before it was given a name. She mentioned the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus offered a new perspective on the law. I noted that while Jesus was critical of the Pharisees, he did not change the law regarding adultery. Jesus told her, “from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus had upheld the law; it was her accusers who had violated the law. If she had been caught in “the very act” (8:4), where was the man?

After this brief exchange, I took her to Mark’s Gospel. “If you want to be a real follower of Jesus,” I said to her, “you must deal with what Jesus says to the Pharisees in Mark 7.”

He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that” (7:9–13).

How do Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, all who endorse the Red Letter methodology, deal with the above red letters of Jesus? Wallis writes, “Red Letter Christians are those who dare to take Jesus seriously; those who believe that if He said it, He meant it; and if He meant it, then we must live it” (12). Next time you encounter a Red Letter Christian, ask him what he thinks about what Jesus says in Mark 7:9–13.

If anyone claims to be a Red Letter Christian and does not deal with these verses, then he or she is a selective Red Letter Christian. But if we can be selective about what red letters we are going to use to identify our social agenda, then the whole Red Letter Christian premise falls apart. It’s either all or nothing. Of course, the principle of only considering the words of Jesus as authoritative is very problematic for Protestants who claim to be Evangelical when one of the main tenets of Evangelicalism is Sola Scriptura and not Partial Scriptura and certainly not Partial Red-Letter Scriptura. The last time I checked, 2 Timothy 3:16–17 is still in the Bible, which means the black letters also count.

Since we can’t dismiss what Jesus says in Mark 7, what does He mean by quoting Leviticus 20:9? (Notice that Jesus is applying the passage to adults and not little children who sass their parents.) The Pharisees had gotten around God’s law as it relates to caring for aging parents by creating a series of man-made laws that they rationalized absolved them of certain personal responsibilities that would cost them money. This verse strikes at the heart of the social agenda of Red Letter Christianity. Campolo declares “that there are more than 2,000 verses of Scripture that call us to express love and justice for those who are poor and oppressed” (24). What Campolo needs to find in these 2,000 verses is one verse that gives authority to civil government to redistribute wealth. Campolo takes verses that are directed at individuals and turns them on their head and gives them a political twist. Here’s a representative example:

Most important, when we reflect on all Jesus had to say about caring for the poor and oppressed, committing ourselves to His red-letter message just might drive us to see what we can do politically to help those he called, “the least of these” (see Matt. 25:31–46) [22].

On the day of judgment . . . [God] will ask whether or not we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, received and cared for aliens, and brought deliverance to captive peoples (see Matt. 25:31–46) [24].

Campolo sees a political solution in these verses when Jesus is addressing what individuals have or have not done.

Civil governments are the biggest hindrance in helping the poor, and it’s not because they don’t tax enough and redistribute wealth. High taxes and control of the money supply (inflation/deflation) enable civil governments to control people and their property. A ten percent tax is a sign of tyranny (1 Sam. 8:15), and yet Red Letter Christians believe in higher taxes on the rich to help the poor. It was a taxing policy by Rome that forced Mary and Joseph to leave their stable home environment, Joseph’s job, and spend money they probably did not have in order to register for a government taxing program (Luke 2:1–7). Wealth redistribution policies, with all their good intentions, have the effect of hurting the poor and making them dependent on civil government. Campolo is advocating what Jesus condemns the Pharisees for in Mark 7: nullifying the Word of God for the sake of a political tradition that is neither biblical nor effective.

Wallis states that Red Letter Christians “affirm the authority of the whole Bible, not just the explicit sayings of Jesus, often highlighted in red” (11). This is good to know, but I wonder how much of the rest of the Bible is actually applied? Paul tells those in Thessalonica, “if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Thess. 3:10). This hardly sounds compassionate given Red Letter standards, but it’s just as authoritative as what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31–46.

There are many Christians who believe the policies advocated by Red Letter Christians are contrary to the Bible and hurtful to the people they claim they want to help. I believe that many of the policies that Red Letter Christians propose actually encourage the poor to remain in a condition of poverty.

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