Mother Jones has an article today about a new movement of young evangelical Christians embracing left-wing social justice issues as an expression of the true heart of the Gospel. The title of the article is I Went To an Evangelical Revival and It Was All About Fighting Racism and Protecting LGBT Rights. The subtitle: “What if Jesus actually meant the stuff he said?” The movement calls itself “Red Letter Christians.” According to the article:
The Red Letter Christians are an organization that intends to offer evangelical Christians an alternative to the old, white, predominantly male, and politically conservative evangelicalism that they believe has led the movement to lose its way. A great political and generational divide has driven a wedge in evangelical Christianity since Trump’s election. Over 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for him, causing many Christians, especially those who are young, to move away from even identifying themselves as evangelicals. Red Letter Christians are committed to combating racism, gun violence, and the death penalty, while supporting immigrants and the LGBTQ community. They describe themselves on their website as “taking the words of Jesus seriously.”
I am not making any political statements about conservative or liberal politics in America. I am not making any statements concerning support of, or opposition to, President Trump. I can certainly understand the viewpoints of Christians on either side of that question; and indeed, things are often not so simple as either side would sometimes have us believe.
What I am pointing out, however, is the unspoken message of the Red Letter Christian movement (or at least their message as portrayed by Mother Jones, perhaps not the most unbiased of publications): that “taking the words of Jesus seriously” is an intrinsically political matter. I’ve discussed the all-too-common politicization of the spiritual life before. And as I brought up several weeks ago, one of the telltale signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is being imitated rather than sought is when men’s hearts become fixed primarily upon this world rather than the next. And unfortunately this trap can easily be fallen into by anyone, regardless of where he or she falls on the political spectrum.
The article describes one of the founders of the Red Letter Christian movement:
What’s important to him is what was important to Jesus in the Bible when he reached out to help the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. “We’ve used our faith as our ticket to heaven,” he says, as opposed to using faith to help others. “We’ve promised people life after death when people are asking if there is life before death.”
Fr. Seraphim Rose once wrote of the New Christianity which he saw emerging in his own day. This New Christianity, he said,
is the religion of earthly bread. It has one central doctrine, and that is: the welfare of man in this world is the only common and indispensable religious concern of all men. To anyone capable of distinguishing between them, such humanitarianism seems indeed a paltry substitute for Christianity; but it is by no means superficial. It appeals to some of the highest human emotions; and its logic — once one grants the initial premise — is irrefutable. It is, in fact, the profoundest and most ingenious substitute for Christianity ever devised.
Fr. Damascene, in describing this unfortunately never completed work by Fr. Seraphim, wrote:
The religion… takes fundamental Christian values — peace, brotherhood, unity, love — and distorts them to be used toward the furtherance of purely earthly aims. It does not openly do away with Christianity; it only reinterprets it, so thoroughly that sincere Christians are eventually led to work for the same goals as secular idealists who are seeking to build their kingdom of heaven on earth.
Since the untimely death of Fr. Seraphim Rose in 1982, this New Christianity — which is in fact one of the forms of Antichristianity — has only continued to grow and spread, even among the most sincere and well-meaning of Christians, and even among some of the most sincere and well-meaning of the Orthodox. But as he warned, this New Christianity “is by no means superficial. It appeals to some of the highest human emotions.” And the statement of this founder of the Red Letter Christians is not something that we can simply dismiss out of hand: “We’ve promised people life after death when people are asking if there is life before death.”
This is even an echo of some of the most profound theology of Holy Orthodoxy. The Kingdom of Heaven is present with us even now; it is present in the Divine Liturgy. The life that Christ came to give us does indeed begin after death… but not after our physical death. It begins after our death to ourselves, and to this world, in Holy Baptism. Many of the most insightful Orthodox commentators on modernity have repeatedly emphasized that the great mistake of Western civilization was to draw too sharp a distinction between the spiritual and the material, between this world and the next.
And indeed the modern world, and modern Christianity, is in very sore need of the spirit of love, mercy and compassion which the Red Letter Christians are so passionately seeking. Our Lord said: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Much that the Red Letter Christians preach is true, and without doubt their love for both God and for His children is genuine.
So what is the problem?
Fr. Seraphim Rose answered thus:
Christian messianism — the coming Kingdom which is not of this world (John 18:36)—has been perverted into the coming Kingdom in this world that practically everyone believes in today.… But this world cannot hold the Truth in its fullness, any more than it could tolerate the presence in it of the God-man; for man is called upon to be more than man, he is called to deification, and this can only happen fully in the ‘other world’—which, though it constantly impinges on this world, never does so more than partially, giving us warnings and indications of what is to come. This world must end, man as we know him must die, must be crucified before that ‘other’ world can come into being.
And that crucifixion, as the Holy Fathers teach us, absolutely requires a crucifixion of our own will and our own understanding. Unfortunately, that crucifixion has been decisively rejected by the Red Letter Christian movement. One of their founders has said: “The Bible doesn’t say much about homosexuality, but it does talk about divorce and infidelity.” However, St. Paul writes very clearly: “Do ye not know that unrighteous persons shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor those who make women of themselves, nor who abuse themselves with men…”
In their sincere — and laudable — longing to show the love of God to all people, the Red Letter Christians have begun with certain undeniable precepts: the love, compassion, and mercy of God. And then they have begun to reason. Fr. Lawrence Farley has written insightfully:
For our beliefs do not depend upon the results of our own little philosophizing and store of accumulated wisdom, but on the words of Christ and His saints. Moral arguments about the supposed immorality of the doctrine must not be allowed to trump or overturn the teaching of Scripture.
I am not at all trying to suggest that the Red Letter Christians are monsters to be deplored. Their love is admirable, and their errors are only too understandable. As Fr. Lawrence Farley has also written:
[Our] culture forms a particularly unfortunate matrix in which to approach the Church’s traditional teaching… Everything within and around us pushes us in the direction of resisting this teaching and drives us forward in our search to find another door to escape a cosmos freighted with such terrifying possibilities. Those who resist the traditional teaching are not too sinful, but too sensitive.
I cannot overstate the importance of understanding this last statement. If we merely condemn sin and unrighteousness, if we merely argue against doctrinal error, if we merely speak of Thou Shalt Nots, then nobody will hear us, and they will turn their backs on the Church forever. We must speak to the sensitivity of their hearts. We must show them — first with our lives, and only then with our words — the true love of God. We must show them that obedience is the only path to freedom, that the fullness of being a human made in the image of God involves transcending rather than embracing the desires of the flesh. We must show them that, though it begins here and now, our true life is nevertheless the life of the age to come, in which we will neither marry nor be given in marriage… but in which we will be like the angels of God in Heaven.
Because in this the Red Letter Christians are very right: it is a monstrous hypocrisy to denounce and vilify others who indulge in forbidden lusts while at the same time shamelessly gratifying our own. I really think that Obergefell became an inevitability on the day that our society embraced contraception. But that is another article for another day.
In the meantime, while striving with all our might to show love to every human being and to remove any hint of self-righteousness from our hearts, we must nevertheless remain firm in our faithfulness to the Holy Tradition which we have received — no matter the cost. We must show the world with our whole lives the true love and the true freedom which Christ came to give — but we must also be prepared for the scorn, hatred and derision which we will undoubtedly receive in return. We must not quail before those who will continue to call us bigots, and we must not abandon the Truth even in the name of love. Such love would only be a lie, a hollow imitation and an easy answer. Make no mistake: the temptation to yield to this lie is now stronger than ever. We would do well to keep in mind the words of Jacques Ellul in his book The Ethics of Freedom:
Jesus Christ has not come to establish social justice any more than he has come to establish the power of the state or the reign of money or art. Jesus Christ has come to save men, and all that matters is that men may come to know him. We are adept at finding reasons — good theological, political, or practical reasons, for camouflaging this. But the real reason is that we let ourselves be impressed and dominated by the forces of the world, by the press, by public opinion, by the political game, by appeals to justice, liberty, peace, the poverty of the third world, and the Christian civilization of the west, all of which play on our inclinations and weaknesses. Modern [Christians] are in the main prepared to be all things to all men, like St. Paul, but unfortunately this is not in order that they may save some but in order that they may be like all men.
And to be like all men is to worship not the God of Christianity, but a new, a modern, an “improved” god. In the words of Fr. Lawrence Farley:
He is a God of love, of tolerance, of inclusivity, one who has no wrath, one who accepts all people, regardless of their deeds and their sins. In short, He is a God rather like ourselves, whom our liberal secular culture has remade in its own image.
Because at its heart, the temptation of the New Christianity — of Antichristianity — is nothing other than the same temptation at the root of all modernity, indeed at the root of all of human history: it is the temptation to worship ourselves.