LONDON (RNS) — The evangelical movement known as Red Letter Christians, still a relatively little-known, left-leaning counter to the Christian right in the United States, is breaking new ground at the invitation of Christian activists in Britain. Next summer, the group's founders will help launch a new branch of the movement in the U.K.
Named for its stated commitment to living out the radical social justice message of Jesus — its name is derived from the practice of printing Jesus’ words in red in many American Bibles — Red Letter Christians was formed in 2007 by Tony Campolo, a liberal evangelical writer and professor of sociology at Eastern University in Philadelphia, and Shane Claiborne, the leader of a communal Christian group, also in Philadelphia, called the Simple Way.
The two men already reach a British audience through a radio program, Across the Pond, which is broadcast every week by Premier Christian Radio.
Plans to expand their presence in Britain took shape just before Christmas, as Campolo and Red Letter Christians' executive director, Don Golden, joined a group of 40 Christian activists at a retreat center in the Peak District in central England. The two were invited by Ash Barker, a 49-year-old Australian who first heard Campolo speak when Barker was 18.
Campolo's words inspired him, Barker said, to spend 25 years working in inner-city Melbourne and another 12 living in a slum in Bangkok, Thailand. Four years ago, Barker came to England to run a ministerial training center in Birmingham.
The Red Letter Christians, unlike most prominent U.S. evangelicals, have been vocal in their criticism of Donald Trump. In 2018 the group issued a challenge to two of the president’s most ardent fans, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress, by holding “revivals” in their home cities of Lynchburg, Va., and Dallas.
"There’s a sense that Christianity has been hijacked and given a cultural meaning that doesn’t come close to what Jesus was talking about," Campolo told Religion News Service.
“There are so many resonances between the work of Red Letter Christians and activists here that it hasn’t been difficult to get a core group together to instigate the movement in the U.K.," said Barker. “We’re just looking forward to seeing what God will do with us.”
Plans for the U.K. launch will include rallies in major British cities including London, Manchester and Edinburgh.
The Rev. Ian Paul, an Anglican priest and member of the Church of England’s General Synod, says he’s concerned that bringing the Red Letter Christians to the country could increase divisions between Christians in Britain, which so far have been generally less acute than in the U.S.
“I think there’s a danger that the assumptions the Red Letter Christians are bringing will make us more polarized, and I don’t think that’s helpful," he said. "We do see the glimmers of polarization in the Brexit debate where some have complained that it seems all church leaders think Brexit is a bad idea and they’re disconnected from ordinary views, but we certainly don’t want to exacerbate that.”
But the Red Letter Christians' allies in the U.K. say they are alert to those dangers.
“That was one of our big concerns throughout our discussions,” said Deirdre Brower Latz, principal of Nazarene Theological College in Manchester and the group’s theological adviser. “We’ve wrestled with how we make RLC work in the U.K. The situation is not as toxic as in the USA, but on the other hand we would be fooling ourselves if we don’t think we have some of the same issues."
Naomi Bennett, a student from Birmingham, says RLC U.K. won’t be a carbon copy of its American parent. “It won’t be a direct transplant. It will be its own entity, reflecting British issues and values.
"Christianity is defined by what it fights against," said Bennett, "and who it is willing to stand with, and the reason Red Letter Christians is coming here is because we feel a calling to be a voice for an expression of Christianity that isn’t getting heard at the moment.”
In addition to rallies, the June 2019 launch of Red Letter Christians U.K. will involve acts of “prophetic witness," patterned after Claiborne's Simple Way, such as melting down semi-automatic rifles and refashioning them into garden tools, a reinterpretation of God’s promise through the prophet Isaiah to turn swords into plowshares.
— Ash Barker (@DrAshBarker) December 20, 2018
Sally Mann, a Baptist minister in East London, says she will be planning a similar act in protest at the epidemic of knife crime that is afflicting her community in London.
“In Newham we have a really serious knife problem. We’ve already approached our mayor to help us get knives from a weapons amnesty and melt them down," said Mann. We thought we’d create forks and trowels but she suggested we make a new mayoral chain of office. We think that’s a beautiful expression of the difference that the message of Jesus can make in a community.”
But Campolo believes the British Red Letter Christians will find ways to make the movement their own, and in that they have an advantage. "The first thing is that no one will know who you are," he said. "That’s an asset. You have the privilege of defining who you are."