The first week of Eastertide is bringing hope of revival in Lynchburg, Va.
Christians gathering for the Red Letter Revival in Lynchburg this weekend are seeking a resurrection within evangelicalism. The two-day event, organized by Red Letter Christians, a group of progressive-leaning evangelicals, will assemble several prominent faith leaders — those decisively within the borders of evangelicalism, as well as those on its fringes — for preaching and training rooted in the words of Jesus.
The intention of this gathering? Confronting “toxic evangelicalism.”
Several key events in the last two years built motivation for the revival, scheduled for April 6-7. The aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, in which 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, triggered a full eruption within already-fragmented evangelical Christianity. In the aftermath, evangelicals have divided, with anguish at what they identify as a crisis in their community, or with certitude as adamant Trump apologists.
Don Golden, executive director of Red Letter Christians, views the overwhelming support for Trump by white evangelical voters as evidence that American evangelicalism has been coopted by “imperial religion.” But in speaking with Sojourners, Golden also identified the current climate as merely the latest in a longstanding pattern of religion being used to baptize power — from King Solomon to Constantine.
Today, the president of the largest Christian university in the world, Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University, is at the epicenter of religion and coercive politics.
Falwell has been perhaps the most inflammatory evangelical in his validation of Trump’s “America First” rhetoric. Last year, leading evangelicals were incensed by the president’s claim that “very fine people” existed among the white nationalist and neo-Nazi demonstrators at the violent rally held in Charlottesville, Va. But Falwell came to his defense. This led alumni of Liberty University to return their diplomas in an act of protest.
Last fall, as Christian Liberty students organized against Trump to “regain the integrity” of their school, evangelical pastor and author Jonathan Martin was forcibly removed from campus after attempts to hold a prayer meeting. Activist and author Shane Claiborne has since been publicly requesting a peaceful debate with Falwell. Yesterday, Claiborne received a letter threatening him with arrest should he step on the Liberty campus.
While Falwell’s actions specifically spurred the call for revival, organizers emphasize that their vision, and the need, extends far beyond Falwell and Liberty.
“This revival and our crisis is much bigger than one person and one institution,” Golden told Sojourners. “It is the general posture or position of American white evangelicalism.”
For Golden, evangelicalism’s problem lies not only with virulent “keepers and purveyors of distorted and toxic Christianity.” It also extends to “the great silent Christian majority” — those who disagree with an agenda of Christian nationalism but remain complicit by choosing not to speak out or act.
Lisa Sharon Harper, founder and president of Freedom Road, LLC, sees evangelicalism’s current impasse as perilous to the core of Christian faith.
“American evangelicalism has become divorced from the Scripture itself — the word of God,” Harper, who is scheduled to speak at the revival, to Sojourners by email.
“According to the Apostle John, one cannot be separate from the Word and have relationship with Jesus. …Jesus is the Word. It stands to reason, then, evangelicals have become divorced from Jesus himself.”
For revival attendees, the revival aims to serve as more than a confrontation of an “anti-gospel” cocktail of power, violence, and exclusion. It will also represent a re-alignment to the good news of Jesus.
“In the same way that protests in Birmingham and Selma provoked protectors of the white supremacist order, like Bull Connor, Jim Clark, and Governor Orval Faubus, to reveal the true depth of their collective depravity, [today’s] rise of white supremacist protests and bigoted presidential policy-making has illuminated the utter depravity of many of today's evangelical spokespeople,” Harper said.
“Their understanding of Jesus' ‘good news’ has either been rendered mute or they have tabled Jesus all together in favor of state-religion that protects the white supremacist order.”
The weekend, which will include training and preaching, intends to take steps to undo this order. But with recent critiques of a posture of “thoughts and prayers” at the March For Our Lives and elsewhere still ringing, Golden is making a point of distinguishing the revival from more of the same.
“We need more puke and fire, like [Sam Fuentes] who vomited in the middle of her speech, who stuck her finger in the eye of all things considered appropriate, to preach this message,” he said, calling the students “secular prophets preaching the gospel of Jesus to the world.”
Yet even in preparation for resurrection, the revival has struggled to translate to inclusivity for all. Shortly after the revival dates were announced on social media, Christian LGBTQIA activists and allies asked whether a de-toxified evangelicalism would hold enough room to include them, given the more conservative theological positions among some of the Christian organizers. According to Golden, the revival will be “very purposefully open to everybody … everybody is welcome in the company of Jesus.”
But the question of whether evangelicalism can be salvaged remains, even for some leaders involved. “Will evangelicalism surrender to God?,” Harper, who said she believes the fruit of 19th century evangelicalism is worth fighting for, asked.
Her words echo an urgent question from Golden in a post announcing the revival: “Is a new world possible?”
This weekend, evangelicals in Lynchburg are hoping to demonstrate an answer.