March 28, 2008
Book Review: Jesus for President (Part 1)
Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw condemn the church's adulterous affair with political power.
We are seeing more and more that the church has fallen in love with the state and that this love affair is killing the church's imagination. The powerful benefits and temptations of running the world's largest superpower have bent the church's identity. Having power at its fingertips, the church often finds "guiding the course of history" a more alluring goal than following the crucified Christ. Too often the patriotic values of pride and strength triumph over the spiritual virtues of humility, gentleness, and sacrificial love.
As you can tell, subtlety is not what Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw were aiming for when they co-wrote, Jesus for President. Apart from the provocative content - a mix of stories, biblical narrative, and political manifesto - even the look of the book provokes a reaction. The pages are filled with photography, artwork, doodles, and strange typesetting. Some will appreciate the book's creative format and others will find the style too different - not unlike the authors themselves.
For those unfamiliar with Claiborne and Haw, both are associated with what has been called the New Monasticism movement. Known for their emphasis on community, racial reconciliation, and peacemaking, many of these new monastics live and serve in what they call the "abandoned places of Empire."
Contradicting the popular image of monks as recluses, Claiborne seems to be everywhere these days. His first book, Irresistible Revolution, remains on Amazon's top 20 list of Christian Living books two years after publication. And in addition to regular speaking engagements, Claiborne and Haw are about to launch a nationwide tour in support of Jesus for President. In an evangelical subculture of bad suits and comb-overs on one end of the spectrum and techno-glitz on the other, you've got to wonder how these postmodern monks have found such a large audience. Jesus for President's combination of prophetic zeal and prankster's wit may be a clue.
The book is divided into four chapters, with the first two serving as a summary of the Scriptures, new monastic-style. A few tidbits:
-You can tell a true prophet because he or she will either get killed or get "a national holiday in their honor."
-Regarding Old Testament laws protecting strangers and aliens, "God would have some harsh things to say about laws prohibiting dumpster diving for food."
-Taking Jesus' yoke means we will be "liberated from the yoke of global capitalism [while] our sisters and brothers in Guatemala, Liberia, Iraq, and Sri Lanka will also be liberated."
As they recap the Biblical narrative, it is clear what Claiborne and Haw believe the church should be associated with. It is also clear that they believe the church's "love affair" with politics and the state has blinded us to the counter-cultural power of Jesus' teachings.
The Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes just don't seem like the best tools with which to lead an empire or a superpower. Jesus' truth is that if you want to save your life, you will lose it. It's a whole new way to view the age-old quest for success in the world. Giving your life away doesn't sound like a good plan for national security. I guess that's why we hear a lot about God's blessing and God expanding our territory, but very little about a cross or love for enemies.
While "expanding our territory" may be so 2001, it could be said that the church's preaching and writing often avoids the sacrificial themes found in much of Christ's teaching. Not only does the Sermon on the Mount not make for a good national security plan, apparently it doesn't make for a good sermon either.
But then maybe Jesus for President overstates the case. Perhaps the authors are reacting to their particular upbringing in the kind of church that neglected much of Jesus' teaching. Perhaps our churches really are committed to discipling citizens of the Kingdom of God rather than encouraging people to simply be good citizens of the state.
In parts two and three of this review I will look at some of the questions the second half of the book raises - particularly for those of us who lead churches of questionable morals enticed by the power of the state. For now, let's consider the big picture of Claiborne and Haw's thesis. Is it true that the church in America has fallen sway to the enticing promise of power and legitimacy from the state? According to the authors, this is not simply a matter of the church's having wandering eyes. It is a case of full-blown promiscuity. Is your congregation in bed with the state?
Reviewed by David Swanson. Come back next week for Part 2 of his review of Jesus for President.