I very much appreciated all the good things that Lucy Bryan Green had to say about "The Family" in the June 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine. (Read Lucy Green's article "A Friend of the Family.") The Family" is the name that writer Jeff Sharlet gives to "The Fellowship," a loose network of followers of Christ based in Washington, D.C. led by Doug Coe. The Fellowship has become a specialized ministry to reach out to key people in governments, not only here in the United States, but around the world. Also joining the Fellowship are key people in business, industry, and labor unions. When the Fellowship calls all of these folks together once a year for the National Prayer Breakfast, you have an assemblage of the power brokers of the world.
Ms. Green talked about all the positive experiences she had with the Fellowship during her year of interning with them while serving in the office of a prominent U.S. senator. She contrasted her good experiences with the very negative picture of the Fellowship that was written up in Sharlet's book, The Family. I do hope that she did not take what Sharlet had to say about the Fellowship too seriously because he misinterprets the motivations of the many good folks who work along with Doug Coe, and the book is marked by a host of distortions of the reality.
First, it is true that the Fellowship in its ministry reaches out to dictators and despots, as well as to some of the most respected and honorable world leaders. This is because the Fellowship endeavors to embrace all kinds of leaders in business and government. If you go to the National Prayer Breakfast, their big annual event, you will find people on the political left as well as those on the political right. You are as likely to find George W. Bush as Barack Obama in attendance. Hillary Clinton is a regular attendee, but I have also seen Jim Wallis, Bono, and dictators from Asia and Africa. The Fellowship does not make judgments about who are sinners and who are righteous. There is no need to get upset over the fact that a homophobic president of Uganda is as likely to be in attendance as someone like Mother Teresa. What the Fellowship tries to do is to get all of these people to take a good look at the teachings of Jesus -- those words that are highlighted in red in many editions of the Bible.
Most of us might know that those red letters in the Bible spell out statements wherein Jesus calls all men and women to reject violence, hatred, and all forms of injustice. Sharlet doesn't grasp the intentions of the Fellowship and judges them guilty by association with the wrong kinds of people. By Sharlet's criteria, Jesus should be condemned for making friends with the likes of Zacchaeus and for having disciples, a couple of whom had reputations for belonging to a terrorist organization called "the Zealots."
Ms. Green is quite right when she says she found the Fellowship to be entrenched with people who represent patriarchy, nepotism, elitism, and hypocrisy. But Jesus did not come to call the righteous to repentance. He came to call sinners to himself. When people try to imitate Jesus, there is no telling who they will end up making friends with.
There is an emerging group of young followers of Christ who call themselves Red Letter Christians. They are very much in line with the Fellowship in that they are trying to balance the strong emphasis that evangelicals have on the theology of St. Paul, with the lifestyle prescribed by Jesus that is found in those red letters in the Bible. I am not sure that the theology and lifestyle prescribed by the Fellowship is much different from that of Red Letter Christians.
Like the Fellowship, Red Letter Christians take seriously the criticism of Gandhi, who once said that he had no problem with the teachings of Jesus, but had many problems understanding how people like me (and most of those reading the article), who claim to be followers of Jesus, could be so different from Jesus. Imitating Jesus is what the Fellowship is all about, and Sharlet fails to understand that what he sees as a kind of political triumphalism is not what the Fellowship is all about. Instead, the Fellowship calls for the triumph of the loving lifestyle that Jesus prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.
I, for one, believe that that Kingdom lifestyle will win out as history comes to its conclusion.
Tony Campolo is founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) and professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University.