It is fair to critique Evangelicals in lockstep with a political candidate or party whose platform opposes Christian teaching. We’ve heard these critiques quite a bit lately. However, the recent “Lynchburg revival” proved Evangelicals who are liberal politically can fall into the same trap they so often accuse their conservative counterparts.
Over the weekend, I attended the “Red Letter Revival: A Revival of Jesus and Justice,” hosted by the left-leaning Red Letter Christian (RLC) group in Lynchburg, Virginia. I truly hoped the event would live up to its name. Preachers would share the Gospel, lost souls saved, and lives transformed by God’s goodness and mercy. But sadly, what I witnessed looked more like a rally intended to stir a partisan base, rather than a Holy Ghost-led revival.
The “Red Letter Revival” was originally organized by Shane Claiborne, an activist and leader within the Red Letter Christian movement, as a seeming protest of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support of the Trump Administration.
On Friday night, the “revival’s” opening prayer, sounding more like condemnation rather than a petition to the Almighty, clearly outlined the weekend agenda. As part of her prayer, Charlottesville-based Pastor Brenda Brown-Grooms implored:
Dear God, we have been seduced by the myth of redemptive violence. We have failed to resist the unholy and preemptive wars of choice and have even fought for the death penalty. As the youth of America are raising their voices against gun violence, many Christians remain silent, many even working to sustain and further a culture of guns and violence. From an unrestrained militarism, Lord save us.
Dear God, our nation was founded on the death of native lands including Monacan land upon which Lynchburg was founded and the systemic enslavement and stolen labor of African peoples. Having not fully acknowledged this history, we are unable to see how race and whiteness function as an exclusionary and protective privilege. Thus, we continue to marginalize and deny full access and rights to many, including immigrants, LGBTQ peoples, native peoples, African Americans, Latinx people, and too many to justify acknowledgment in this prayer. From our persistent racism, Lord, save us.
Glancing around the EC Glass Civil Auditorium, I noticed the usual middle-aged mostly white crowd nodding in agreement with Brown-Grooms. But there were several groups of young people scattered throughout the crowd and even some small children alongside their parents on day one of the “revival.”
When Shane Claiborne initially posed the idea of hosting an event in Lynchburg to challenge the “toxic evangelicalism of Jerry Falwell Jr.,” nearly 2,000 people responded favorably on Twitter. There were about two hundred people in attendance at the auditorium on Friday night.
Nearly 2000 of you voted in the poll… 81% saying you’re all about a #LynchburgRevival. It confirms what we’ve felt the Spirit doing. Soooo….. hang tight. We’re headed to Lynchburg! More info coming soon… https://t.co/XSaxsRJpuL
— Shane Claiborne (@ShaneClaiborne) January 28, 2018
All can agree that public confession is an important component of revival. So perhaps this is why after a brief introduction expressing concern over the “co-opting of Christianity today for political purposes,” RLC Executive Director Don Golden encouraged participants to “acknowledge what we did to Native peoples” because “that is our primal sin.”
The first two speakers were both members of Native American tribes. Kaitlin Curtice, an author and member of the Potawatomi Citizen Band Nation, called participants “back to the land” and to “seeing it not as people of colonized America, but as people who know that the land is a healer, that the land teaches us who God is.” I should add that Curtice’s speaker bio noted she writes on “the intersection of Native American spirituality, mystic faith in everyday life, and decolonizing the church.”
As I have previously stated, I found it especially difficult to listen as poet and musician Micah Bournes told service men and women that he is ‘not grateful for your service’ and stated “fallen soldiers are victims, not heroes” during his “spoken word” segment.
There is room for disagreement on Christian approaches to national security and opportunity for civil discourse. But instead of offering tangible national security measures, Bournes suggested we “fight evil with poetry.” This speaker received a standing ovation. As the wife of a veteran, I found it needlessly disrespectful and dismissive of the personal sacrifices military men and women—across the political spectrum—make in the hopes of security and peace.
LGBTQ activist and pastor Brandan Robertson also received a standing ovation. Reading his open letter to the Church from an LBGTQ Christian, Robertson declared “being on the fence about [LGBTQ] inclusion is not an option.”
“Because at the end of the day this isn’t a question of theological disagreement, but about human rights and dignity,” Robertson stated. “Silence is complicit in oppression. Indifference is the grease on the mechanisms of marginalization. It’s time to take up your cross and follow Christ.”
Robertson also co-led a Saturday morning workshop titled, “LGBTQ+ Christians and their Allies.” Unfortunately, by the time I arrived at the workshop the room was at capacity and so I chose another rather uneventful forum. However, my friend John did attend the workshop and he was shocked when a young woman made a defense for polyamorous relationships during the Q&A session and others nodded and “Mhmmed” as she spoke.
While dubbing himself theologically conservative, activist and North Carolina-based pastor, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II advocated for universal healthcare during his keynote address.”We claim allegiance to the Jesus. And if Jesus did anything he set up free health clinics everywhere he went. He never charged a leper a co-pay,” Barber said.
“But in the wealthiest nation–Oh but by the way, we have American exceptionalism, but we are the only country out of the twenty-five wealthiest that do not offer some form of universal healthcare.”
On day two of the “revival,” Religious Left fixture Tony Campolo delivered perhaps the most balanced discussion. Recalling Jerry Falwell Sr., Campolo spoke fondly of their unity in Jesus Christ. “I worry in today’s society that the political differences that exist in the Church are dividing the Church that grieves Jesus,” said Campolo.
“I don’t know about you, but I learn more from my critics than I do from my friends. They point out my shortcomings. They point out my inadequacies more than my friends do. So we need to listen to each other.”
Campolo went on to observe:
I’ve heard several speakers say ‘We Red Letter Christians care about poor people.’ Almost to suggest that those who are on the Religious Right, who are in the Tea Party don’t care about poor people. The truth is when the Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, these people on the Religious Right were down there in much greater numbers than those on the political Left. They were feeding the hungry, they were rebuilding houses, they were restoring the situation. They were there. What they differ with us on is the role of government.
Jerry Falwell Jr.’s name was cleverly left unmentioned. But Jonathan Martin, an event organizer and Oklahoma-based pastor, said, the revival “is not about any particular personality out there.” Martin warned, “What we do share in common is that we are followers of Jesus who believe there are some principalities that need to be resisted.”
In brief remarks during the opening session, Claiborne commented, “One of the reasons we’ve come to Lynchburg is because some of the loudest voices in Christianity haven’t been the most beautiful voices.”
Careful not to use prayer or a worship service on Liberty University’s campus as a showy spectacle, Claiborne invited “revival” participants to write down prayers on note cards to be delivered by Campolo to Jonathan Falwell, the senior pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Event organizers such as Claiborne and Campolo seemed to work hard to steer the overall tone away from blatant liberal political politics and protests. But not all the speakers got the memo.
Still, Claiborne insisted his group’s “revival” was not intended to protest, but to “proclaim Jesus in Lynchburg.”