The Common Good
March 2006

Red Letter Christians

by Jim Wallis | March 2006

Somehow, Jesus has survived even the church.

“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.”

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.” Then ask them what Christians or the church stand for. And you’re likely to hear some very different things.

We have a problem. Most people have the idea, as crazy as it may seem, that Christians and the church are supposed to stand for the same things that Jesus did. And when they don’t, people get confused and disillusioned. It’s a problem.

When Jesus tells us he will regard the way we treat the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner as if we were treating him that way, it likely means he wouldn’t think capital gains tax cuts for the wealthy and food stamp cuts for the poor represent the best domestic policy. Or when he tells us “love your enemies” and “blessed are the peacemakers,” it might be hard to persuade him to join our “war against terrorism,” especially when there is so much “collateral damage” to civilians, including women and children.

Yes, Jesus is a problem —for many of our churches, the Wall Street traders, and the powerful people in Washington who maintain the American Empire. But for millions of people, religious or not, Jesus remains the most compelling figure in the world today. The church may not be much more credible than the advertisers, the media, or the politicians, but Jesus remains far above the rest of the crowd. Somehow, Jesus has even survived the church and all of us who name his name but too often forget most of what he said. Two new books are calling us to meet Jesus again.

This issue includes a section of Brian McLaren’s new book, The Secret Message of Jesus—a message often kept secret even by the churches themselves and utterly disguised by many of our television evangelists who seem to preach a different gospel. Brian is the spiritual leader of a new movement called the “emergent church,” which is drawing a generation raised in the churches back to Jesus and attracting many outside the religious community to a Jesus they never heard about from the churches. He knows that people intuitively recognize that Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom—a new world of compassion, justice, integrity, and peace—is the good news they’ve been searching and waiting for.

Read the excerpt, get the book, and learn the message of Jesus all over again—or maybe for the first time.

Shane Claiborne is a good example of the old adage, “Be careful what you pray for.” Evangelicals like to pray that Christian young people will learn to love Jesus and follow in his steps. Well, that’s exactly what this young Christian activist is talking about in his book The Irresistible Revolution. But the places that following Jesus have led him are not the comfortable suburbs and cultural habits of many evangelical Christians. Worst of all, his notions of fidelity to the gospel seem to directly counter the political loyalties that many conservatives on the Religious Right have made into an almost doctrinal litmus test.

For several years, Shane has been living the gospel on the streets of Philadelphia and Calcutta, in the intensity of Christian community, and even in the war zones of Iraq. In his book, he takes us on pilgrimage with him—sharing his passions while admitting his uncertainties, critiquing his society and his church while admitting his own human frailties and contradictions, revealing his hopes for changing the world while embracing the “smallness” of the efforts and initiatives he holds most dear.

They call their community “The Simple Way” and believe that by plunging deeper into what the earliest Christians called “The Way”—the way of Jesus, the way of the kingdom, and the way of the cross—they rediscover the biblical reversal of our social logic: that the foolishness of God has always seemed a little nuts to the world. I found the reading of this book a delight, as I also find the author. Read it and find your hope rise.

The landscape of religion, society, and politics in America is being transformed. As I crisscross the country, I feel a new momentum and movement. Perhaps the greatest sign of hope is the emergence of a generation of Christians eager to take their faith into the world. The Christianity of private piety, affluent conformity, and only “God Bless America” has compromised the witness of the church while putting a new generation of Christians to sleep. Defining faith by the things you won’t do does not create a compelling style of life. And a generation of young people is hungry for an agenda worthy of its commitment, its energy, and its gifts.

Brian’s and Shane’s books are evidence that believers are waking up and catching on fire with the gospel again. Their vision can’t easily be put into categories of liberal and conservative, left and right, but rather has the capacity to challenge the categories themselves. These books are a manifesto for all those “red letter” Christians who have fallen in love with Jesus again and want to live their faith in this world, and not just the next. God is again doing something new.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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