At the second scheduled revival of the Red Letter Christians movement, Rev. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City compared the words of Jesus to racist atrocities and medieval religious violence.
“There’s not that much space between ‘only Jesus alone’ and the Crusades,” asserted Lewis during the Friday night session. “There’s only a little bit of space between ‘Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life’ [see John 14:6] and the pogroms that started on November 8th and 9th fifty years ago that led to the Holocaust.” And not just the pogroms, she added, but the Holocaust itself, the Spanish inquisition, white supremacism, and the recent shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
For those in shock, I believe Lewis has tacitly imported two assumptions from the secular academy that bolster her statement. The assumptions are: 1) refusing to affirm someone else’s belief is intolerant, and 2) all forms of intolerance are alike. From this point of view, Lewis’ comments make perfect sense.
The Middle Collegiate Church belongs to the Reformed Church in America, a mainline denomination whose declining membership is under 300,000. The self-described “progressive congregation” outlines their left-wing policy platform on their “Beliefs” page. That page also closes with this pithy saying: “Ours is a living faith; God is still speaking.”
Lewis speculated that the same God could be behind every faith. “Who am I to limit the imagination of my God? Who am I to say that my God can’t speak Islam? What? Can’t speak Buddhism?” In Christianity, the answer to the first rhetorical question is, of course, “you are no one, and God is everything.”
While I commend Ms. Lewis’ humble rhetoric, I fear that it may whitewash a less benign dogma. After all, it was Jesus who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Who am I to rebuke Jesus? Who am I to suggest that God does speak through Islam or Buddhism?
But Lewis insisted it must be this way because Jesus came to save the whole world, citing John 3:16. This comment was one of a number of Biblical inaccuracies. Lewis called Moses and Zipporah ancestors of Jesus, although they do not appear in Jesus’ genealogies (see Matthew 1 and Luke 3). She described the dialogue between Jesus and a lawyer about the two greatest commandments and the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) as if it happened with the rich young ruler, who shows up eight chapters later (Luke 18). The two men ask the same question, but Jesus gives them completely different answers, so the characters are not interchangeable. Lewis said, when Mary told Joseph she was pregnant, “I don’t know how well that played.” While humorous, that’s an oddly agnostic take, since Matthew 1 tells exactly how that played. It seems unlikely that Ms. Lewis was deliberately misrepresenting the Biblical narrative. Rather, it seemed like she prepared her speech from memory and didn’t have time to double-check the details of the passages she referenced.
But specifically to John 3:16, Jesus says there that God loves the whole world, but that eternal life is conditional on belief. Jesus repeats the same phrase, “whoever believes in him”—that is, in Jesus—as a condition of salvation in verse 15, verse 16, and verse 18. To further clarify, Jesus flips it around in John 3:18, saying, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” Jesus invites everyone to come, while also insisting that he is the only way.
Lewis also criticized Christians who regard non-Christians with an “us versus them” mentality. In one sense, her point was on solid ground. Even though Jesus said the world would hate Christians (John 15:19), he also commanded his disciples to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44).
Unfortunately, Lewis meant something much different. She suggested that loving non-Christians “has nothing to do with converting them,” but applied only to physical caretaking. While that might soothe one’s own conscience, I cannot see how it is loving to callously stand aside as a precious human soul hurtles toward eternal torment. Certainly Jesus considered a person’s relationship with God more important than their physical well-being. In Matthew 9, he encountered a paralyzed man. Upon seeing him, Jesus forgave his sins first, as of primary importance, and he only healed the man to prove his authority.
Lewis closed by encouraging her hearers to make heaven on earth, now. In contrast, Jesus said his “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). I wonder if her version of heaven would have room for Jesus in it.
At the same time, Lewis said much that agreed with Scripture. She insisted that Jesus is the beginning point of our faith. She cleverly pointed out that Jesus Christ was not a Christian, but a Jew. Thus, she said, Christianity has no room for anti-Semitism, racism, or misogyny. She criticized the tendency of the rich and the powerful to try and co-opt Christianity for their own ends by baptizing commercialism or imperialism.
Still, it seems odd that a revival of the Red Letter Christians would feature a speaker who so often contradicted the words of Christ as written in the Gospels. Perhaps this is why, when Red Letter Christians leader Tony Campolo took the stage after Ms. Lewis, he said nothing to affirm the content of her presentation, but moved right on to ask for donations.
The rally was hosted in Dallas by St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, a “mission-driven movement that is multigenerational, multicultural, multiethnic.” While the church’s mission webpage discussed mainly social justice concerns, it did provide the web address to an official UMC page that discussed the Gospel.
The IRD previously reported (and Mr. Campolo largely agreed) that the previous Red Letter Christians revival in Lynchburg, Virginia was more political than worshipful. While this second revival in Dallas, Texas still emphasized politics heavily, it also featured much worship and praise to God. Thus, the second revival seems to have improved upon the first by placing more emphasis on worship. Perhaps an improvement for future revivals could be to invite speakers who will agree with the red letters in the Bible, the words of Jesus.