The language of my faith is replete with appeals for believers to “be faithful to Jesus.” Other words include “faithful follower,” “loyal disciple” and “let Jesus be Lord of your life.”
The theology behind the language is simple and yet profound. Most Protestant evangelicals believe that Jesus fulfilled everything God has ever tried to tell us. They believe that God has spoken authoritatively and truthfully through Jesus. As a result, what we need to know about living and being human the way God wants us to be can be found in the life and words of Jesus.
This line of thinking is what lies behind the WWJD bracelet craze from a few years ago. Any problem, any dilemma, any crossroad faced in life can easily be resolved simply by figuring out “what Jesus would do.”
This simple theology has recently developed an interesting political angle. For two decades now, conservative evangelicals have been pursuing a social agenda which includes matters such as abortion, restriction of gay rights and prayer and Bible reading in public school. They have also managed to gain enough control over several school districts in various places to seriously impede the teaching of evolution.
All of this, mind you, under the umbrella of “being faithful to Jesus.”
But not all evangelicals dance to this hymn. There are Christians, Bible believers and Jesus followers, who are dismayed by the narrow use of the faith in the political arena. Outspoken critics such as evangelist Tony Campolo argue that the heart of Jesus’ message is completely overlooked as conservative Christians try to impose their version of Christianity on the rest of by means of the legislative process.
For instance, Jesus never spoke about homosexuality at all. In fact, the case can be made that he actually set aside the requirements in Leviticus that call for the execution of those who engage in sexual practices prohibited by the law. He at least set them aside on one occasion.
But beyond what Jesus did not talk about are the many important matters that he did talk about, and seemed to practice in his own life. Campolo believes it is time for Christians to re-discover the “red-letter” way of being faithful. What he is referring to is the practice of many Bible publishers of printing the words of Jesus in red ink. Campolo believes that “red-letter Christians” have concerns beyond the usual conservative laundry list of social issues.
The way this plays out politically is quite a bit different from what we have seen recently. Campolo, and others, are not interested in building a religious left with Democrats as the favored party—that’s the same mistake conservatives have been making. They are telling candidates from all parties that if they are going to invoke the name of Jesus then let their actions and policies reflect the red-letter portions of the New Testament. And if they are not, then leave Jesus out of it.
It’s really quite an illuminating exercise to simply go through the New Testament and read the red-letter parts. Toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus paints a picture of God’s final judgment. Standing center stage in his vision of the end is an array of social outcasts.
Jesus calls them “the least of these,” and suggests that if we have not cared for them, then we can’t really claim to have known him. It’s right there in red and white.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.