Being a red letters Christian isn't an original concept of mine. In fact, it's not even an original title.
Founded by Pastor Tony Campolo and Christian social activist Shane Claiborne, the organization Red Letter Christians states its mission is to "mobilize individuals into a movement of believers who live out Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings."
They go on to state, "The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount. By calling ourselves Red Letter Christians, we refer to the fact that in many Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. What we are asserting, therefore, is that we have committed ourselves first and foremost to doing what Jesus said...".
I am a red letters Christian who has become dismayed and disillusioned at the state of the current mindset of what has become the unfortunate standard among many (not all) Christians and the various denominations that profess to represent Jesus in the world.
The directives Jesus gives his followers are no more specific than in the Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapters 5-7.
Somehow or another, though, it seems concepts such as humility, peace, unconditional love, radical forgiveness, mercy, speaking up for justice and the oppressed, clothing the naked, feeding the poor, and "doing unto others" have been all but lost in our discourse.
My personal faith is very simple. I am an evangelical in that I believe in the gospel, or "good news," of eternal salvation and personal transformation offered to humanity through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (The National Association of Evangelicals provides a more detailed description of the term on their website here)
As an evangelical Christian, I hold the Holy Bible in high regard as the ultimate authority in all matters spiritual and earthly.
This is where things begin to get a little tricky, though.
Christians oftentimes criticize other Christians of "cherry-picking" Scripture to suit their own particular agendas or beliefs. If we were honest, we would probably all have to admit to some level of guilt on the matter. However, above all arguments theological and doctrinal, I have to believe that Jesus and his thoughts, words, and actions must serve as the absolute guidelines for my faith. In short, He actually meant for us to do what He said do, act like He said act, think like He said think.
One thing I've learned since surrendering my life to Jesus is there are many in Christian circles who like to claim Jesus, but few, it seems, who want to follow his counter-intuitive teachings on living spiritually in the world. Blessed are the peacemakers, the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, the pure of heart? These ideas don't sit well in a culture where we're taught from a young age to be self-sufficient, always looking out for number one. Living the life prescribed by Jesus isn't an easy one in a "me"-centered society, so those things are conveniently pushed to the side or considered irrelevant to the overall message of the gospel of eternal salvation.
On the role of Christians in society, I am constantly reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 42-46:
For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.
Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life. (NLT)
I don't think Jesus could be any more specific or direct regarding the role of Christians in society than he is in this passage.
Unfortunately, American Christianity has become so entrenched with right-wing politics over the last three decades or so it is known more by non-Christians for its self-righteous crusades on moral issues, extreme judgmentalism, insensitivity to others, and hypocrisy. While I have developed this opinion based on my own observations of Christianity and professing Christians both prior to and since my dedication to Christ, these statements are backed by fact. The 2007 book, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (both conservatives) addresses these very hard to swallow facts based on research conducted by the Barna Group.
The constant mantra I hear preached from conservative pulpits is that the world hates the church and is doing everything it can to suppress it, but what are we giving them to love? What if we were as passionate about the virtues of love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and peace espoused by Jesus as we are about promulgating anti-gay and anti-abortion sentiments? (Two issues which, incidentally, are rarely mentioned in Scripture and never directly addressed by Jesus, but we'll touch on that at a later date) Are we reflecting Jesus in our personal, social and, yes, political lives, or are we really just reflecting our own self-interests, desires, and beliefs?
We'll pack the courthouse square, hold rallies and prayer vigils to protest Supreme Court decisions, purchase advertising and erect signs outside our churches in opposition to Sunday alcohol sales, but we're overtly silent on the very issues mentioned by Jesus in the above Scriptures.
Most of us are familiar with the story of the destruction of Sodom from the account in the Book of Genesis. The story is often used by conservative pastors and others in condemnation of sexual sins, but rarely have I heard the rest of the story preached from the pulpit. There's a reason for this, we're all a little like the inhabitants of Sodom.
Ezekiel 16: 49-51 says, "Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door. She was proud and committed detestable sins, so I wiped her out, as you have seen."
I mention this verse because I believe Christianity, in particular American Evangelicalism as it has become, needs a wake up call. Who of us is not guilty of the sins mentioned in the above Scripture, yet this particular passage has obviously (and intentionally) been ignored by the conservative masses of the faith.
I believe wholeheartedly that sin destroys the individual and humanity as a whole: spiritually, emotionally, and physically - but not just one or two sins that don't apply to me, all sin. Pride, envy, greed, jealousy, wrath, lust, gluttony - every one of us, whether we occupy a church pew on Sunday or not, are guilty and contribute to the decay of society. Christians must come to the point where we admit that we, too, are a big part of the problem.
The answer to me lies in the "red words" of Jesus. The gospel offers the beginning of a personal transformation and the promise of eternal life, while the teachings of Christ provide us a way to live in the earthly realm, especially as it pertains to our relationships and society.
I often get accused of espousing a "social gospel," applying Christian ethics to social problems, so let me clear this up. I absolutely, 100 % believe Jesus' words not only infer this responsibility, but command it. This, among other reasons, is why I am a "Red Letters Christian."