In case you missed it, Red Letter Christians is holding a revival in Lynchburg, Va., on April 6-7. The idea for this revival took shape at our annual Red Letter retreat last December in New Mexico. Gathered with Father Richard Rohr to learn about contemplative prayer, we were challenged that deep and abiding prayer is essential for activists to nurture the conviction that a new world is possible.
Another friend in New Mexico, Father John Dear, took us to the desert near Los Alamos to teach us about peacemaking. Pointing to the nearby mountains that house the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, he began his talk with the bone chilling words, “welcome to the end of the world.”
These are, in fact, the two fundamental revival-related questions that motivate us: Do worlds end? And is a new world possible?
When Shane Claiborne presented the revival idea to the gathering, it resonated. Yes, we agreed, let’s go old school! Let’s preach Jesus in the public square. Let’s confront toxic Evangelicalism on its own terms by preaching the Bible. And let’s have great music and powerful testimonies and give altar calls for folks to give their lives to Jesus and the work of justice, where we can all repent of warmaking, consumerism, racism, and our treatment of sexual and gender minorities and immigrants. Yes! Let’s hold a revival.
It’s an ancient biblical tradition to respond to crises by seeking revival. When Solomon’s Israel began its slide away from covenantal fidelity toward imperial religion (as we are today), the prophet implored Israel to humble themselves and pray and seek God’s face and turn from spiritual unfaithfulness and social injustice. He promised that if they would do so, God would hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).
In exile, threatened and seduced by Babylonian imperial power and promises of security and prosperity — as so many are threatened and seduced today — the Psalmist prayed, “God, you restored the fortunes of Jacob in the past. You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins. Do it again, Lord! Put away your displeasure and revive us again!” (Psalm 85.1-7).
The focus of RLC’s #Lynchburg Revival is Jesus and justice, and we are partnering with local Christians who’s love for their city is guiding our preparations. We aren’t targeting any person or institution. We are not championing one political party over another. Our beef goes way beyond a single person or institution or party.
As Walter Brueggemann, a patron of the Lynchburg revival, teaches us, the crisis of American Christianity has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative and almost everything to do with trading our Christian identity “for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”
Lynchburg, in many ways, reflects America’s national spiritual and social crisis. Twenty-four percent of the people in Lynchburg live in poverty, including 33% of the children. Racism is deep and structured even if, as with the rest of America, it remains unacknowledged by most white folks.
Progressives in Lynchburg struggle, like many progressives do, to take the Bible seriously — and there are many church-wounded. Yet Lynchburg’s progressives show the same deep desire to believe that dead things can live again, that resurrection is real, and that new life is possible.
Evangelicals in Lynchburg, like those in Wheaton and Colorado Springs and Orange County, are hyper-cautious of the “liberal social gospel,” and any confrontation with the Evangelical status quo causes deep anxiety. Yet conservatives, too, are eager for a more socially active faith that serves the poor and marginal, and some are moving toward a more inclusive and affirming posture toward gay Christians. Many are concerned about racial inequality, gun violence, and the death penalty. Most want to uncouple Jesus from political divisions.
Revivalism is a very American way of responding to social crisis. Charles Finney preached in a context of deep division not unlike ours. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening called for conversion to Jesus that went beyond personal piety and the promise of heaven. People responded to altar calls that served as recruiting rallies for the Abolitionist Movement at a time when, according to 1859 records of Lynchburg city resolutions, abolitionists were viewed as an “interference… violative of the pledged fate of the country and promotive only of evil”.
We are holding a revival, because America is wealthy and powerful and self-interested and scammed — and its Christians are too sectioned off and divided and co-opted to respond. Our blessings are not forever or for us alone. Social transformation is the purpose of power.
We are holding a revival in order to remember that judgment is real and that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne” (Psalm 97:2).
Do world’s end? The land that is now Lynchburg was for millennia the home of the Monacan Indians. When John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, met Chief Amoroleck of the Monacans in 1608, he asked why he had fired arrows in hostility when Smith and his company came only in love. Amoroleck said he had heard that Smith’s people came from under the world to take their world from them. It turns out, of course, that Amoroleck was right. Worlds do come to an end.
Given that our vision for revival began in New Mexico, with ominous words of nuclear apocalypse, there is a surprising tie to Lynchburg that adds urgency to America’s need for a renewed Christianity that takes the words of Jesus seriously.
The largest employer in Lynchburg, after Liberty University, is BWXT Technologies. BWXT is the corporation that sold the uranium to the Manhattan Project that was used for the nuclear bombs tested at Los Alamos and dropped on Japan in 1945. In 2005, BWXT was awarded the defense contract to manage Los Alamos. It turns out, the end of the world is managed from Lynchburg, Va.
Meanwhile, the most well-resourced and powerful church in the history of Christian missions — the white Evangelical Christianity that empowers our current politics — has no ear for prophetic witness. It does not read Isaiah or understand the prophet’s warning that all compromised religion that colludes with coercive power ends powerless, impotent, “eunuchs in the court of the king of Babylon” (Isaiah 39:7).
Worlds do in fact end. The question remains, is a new world possible? We believe so. We are praying for one.