- September 17, 2008
- By Ken Camp, Managing Editor
WACO—Red-letter Christians committed to taking Christ’s teachings seriously have the potential to transform society in a way that moves beyond partisan politics, author and educator Tony Campolo told an ethics conference at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.
“We’re looking for a new way of doing politics that transcends partisanship and polarization,” Campolo said.
Rather than adopting a liberal or conservative political philosophy, it means conversion to a radical lifestyle of obedience to Christ, he stressed.
“To be a biblical, red-letter Christian is to be counter-cultural,” Campolo said, noting “conservatives worship at the graves of dead radicals.”
Conversion means a whole-hearted commitment “to what God is doing in the world at the present time,” he explained. “The kingdom of God is a transformed people at work transforming the world.”
Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University and associate pastor of an American Baptist church in West Philadelphia, spoke at a Sept. 16-17 event sponsored by the Christian Ethics Today Foundation.
Move beyond ill-fitting labels
Old labels that once described Christians who take the Bible seriously no longer apply. Fundamentalism—which began as the response of Christian orthodoxy to German skepticism—has become equated with anti-intellectualism, legalism and judgmentalism, Campolo observed.
And the once-popular term “evangelical”—once equated with Billy Graham—has been co-opted by political extremists, he added. “Sadly, the word ‘evangelical’ has become synonymous with the Religious Right.”
A secular Jewish country-western radio personality in Nashville, Tenn., first applied the “red-letter Christian” label to social-justice evangelicals during an interview with Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community Washington, D.C. And Campolo, Wallis and others in the movement readily embraced it.
Read all the Bible in light of Jesus
God inspired all Scripture, Campolo stressed. But red-letter Christians believe the rest of the Bible should be read from the perspective of God’s perfect revelation in Jesus Christ.
And people who interpret the Bible in light of the teachings of Jesus will have special concern for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, he emphasized.
“To be a Christian is to manifest a commitment to the poor,” Campolo asserted.
Red-letter Christians have the potential to offer solutions to “hot-button” issues—such as abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration reform—that defy traditional designations of liberal or conservative, he insisted.
“We can find common ground for the common good,” Campolo said.
Every thread matters
A comprehensive “seamless garment” sanctity-of-life ethic that not only deals with issues of abortion and euthanasia, but also encompasses torture, war, poverty, prison reform and capital punishment provides a distinctively Christian framework for dealing with tough issues, said David Gushee, Christian ethics professor at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
“In the fabric of humanity that God has made, every thread matters,” Gushee said.’
Sanctity of life means all human beings—at every stage of life and without distinction—are people who possess “equal and immeasurable worth” and “inviolable dignity,” he said.
“Therefore, they must be treated with the reverence and respect commensurate with this elevate moral status—beginning with a commitment to the preservation, protection and flourishing of their lives,” he said.
Belief in the sacred worth of all human life flows from biblical faith, Gushee insisted.
“In particular, life is sacred because—according to Scripture—God created humans in his image, declared them precious, ascribed to them a unique status in creation, blessed them with unique God-like capacities, made them for eternal life, governs them under his sovereign lordship, commands in his moral law that they be treated with reverence and respect, and forever elevates their dignity by his decision to take human form in Jesus Christ and to give up that human life at the cross,” he said.
“No social order treats people as immeasurably valuable—but Jesus did.”
Baptists bring soul freedom & hope to political discourse
Baptists and other “baptistified” Christians have distinctive insights they bring to political discussion that spring from two bedrock theological principles—soul freedom and Christian hope, said James Dunn of Wake Forest Divinity School.
Soul freedom means “everyone and anyone can come to God directly, personally, without formula or filter,” said Dunn, former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, D.C. Baptists “cannot conceive of coerced Christianity, forced faith or required religion,” he insisted.
“When we transplant that theological thought to the turf of politics, it helps us to understand why it is hard for us as a nation to force democracy on an unoccupied people—unwilling and unready to accept an ideology, indeed a theology, not their own,” Dunn said.
“Forcing religion on a people only makes hypocrites. Roger Williams got us started off right in that modality. A demanded democracy may not be authentic, serve well or last long.”
One critique leveled at Baptists as varied as John Leland, Walter Rauschenbusch, E.Y. Mullins, J.M. Dawson, T.B. Maston, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter has been they were naively optimistic, Dunn said.
“I tend to think that they have brought a deep, abiding hope to politics,” he said. Rather than being “hopelessly optimistic,” they were “hope-mongers” whose view of the future was shaped by their biblical belief in redemption.
“The message of hope—abstract, biblical, theological, heaven-sent—is clearly not the same a political optimism treated so snidely by the hopeless wretches who know everything but do little,” Dunn said.