In these times when both national security and global harmony are so impacted by religious differences, any responsible, educated person cannot afford to be ignorant of the beliefs that motivate so many people. If we are to coexist, respecting each others’ religious freedom so long as the adherents of a particular sect don’t pose a violent threat, then we must understand each other. Even those atheists, agnostics and secular humanists who are irritated by others’ choices to believe in God, must acknowledge their rights to do so in the interest of free speech and freedom of thought.
It is in this spirit that so much of my writing is dedicated to defending the Christian traditions with which I was raised. Much of the resentment of Christians that one encounters in our culture, or perhaps more accurately the resentment of particular Christian perspectives, results from churches forming such close alliances with political parties that the denominational divides become virtually indistinguishable from the Democratic and Republican agendas. In The Red Letter Revolution, best-selling authors Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo provide a refreshing departure from this alignment. This book, which was published in 2012, has been around for awhile. Nevertheless, this commentary on it is timely, since I first learned about the book on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. As we are discussing his legacy, I have an opportunity to both affirm his unique contribution to American culture by inviting authors to speak, a contribution matched only by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, even as I respond to the writers he helped me to discover.
In Red Letter Revolution; What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said?, Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo, who represent two different generations, engage in an easy-to-read dialogue about the religious and political landscape of this country and of the world. Both men identify themselves as evangelical, and both have a more literal approach to interpreting every line of scripture than I do. My background in linguistics and literary interpretation inclines me to very carefully examine which passages are meant to be taken literally and which ones are more metaphoric in intention, as were Jesus’s parables. I also allow myself more latitude in application, which may be a weakness of mine. We all want to rationalize our own preferences.
If we are to coexist, respecting each others’ religious freedom so long as the adherents of a particular sect don’t pose a violent threat, then we must understand each other.
But Claiborne and Campolo don’t cut Christians any slack. Neither do they kow-tow to the Republican or Democratic platforms in their entirety. For instance, both Claiborne and Campolo interpret pro-life to mean no abortion, no euthanasia, no capital punishment and no war. They reject both unrestrained capitalism and communism as acceptable economic systems for believers. They believe that God wants fairness and freedom for Palestinians as well as for Israelis, and that God wants family reconciliation between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael, both of whom are the seed of Abraham, to whom God promised the Holy Land. They also point out that Bethlehem was once 80% Christian Palestinians, whereas now it has been reduced to 15% Christian due to Israeli aggression and fear of the Hamas. Both Claiborne and Campolo are hard on racism, soft on poor people and immigrants. They are interested in bridging the differences between Catholics and Protestants, since they see Christianity as an “organism” rather than an institution.
What made me curious about this book were the comments that Claiborne and Campolo made regarding homosexuality when they appeared on “The Daily Show.” First of all, they noted that while Jesus said a great deal to discourage divorce and second marriages, which most Protestant churches rationalize, nowhere in the Gospels is homosexuality specifically mentioned. So Claiborne and Campolo wonder why this particular subject has become such a hot-button issue for evangelicals, whose rationale is a literal interpretation of scripture. Compolo writes: “I’m not saying that people are born gay. Nobody knows for sure what causes people to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or want to be transgendered. I do believe , however, that sexual orientation occurs so early in the development of children that they never remember choosing.” The position of these authors is that local churches should follow their own consciences on this issue, and that the government should get out of the business of defining marriage for anyone. The authors believe that grace should be extended to both divorced people and homosexuals, and leave the judging to God.
The authors also have some unconventional attitudes about national debt. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush set a precedent of canceling the national debts of the poorest countries. In the case of Uganda, stipulations were established wherein the money forgiven the nation in debts owed to us was to be put into a special fund to address the AIDS crisis. Clinics were put up all over the country, large amounts of money were spent on medicines for people who already had AIDS, and a massive education program was set up to teach people how to prevent getting infected. In a five-year period, deaths from AIDS declined by 30%, and there were also fewer new cases.
I think that this book offers hope for what great good can be done when churches, secular humanists and governments work together. I won’t address every single issue that is discussed in it. I would rather encourage people to read it for themselves.