April 2, 2008
Book Review: Jesus for President (Part 2)
How do we live as the people of God in the American Empire?
A few months ago, while visiting a church out of state, I had a moment of crisis. Just before the sermon, the pastor stood to give the announcements. After wrapping up, he invited a young man in military uniform to stand. The young officer had grown up in this church and had just returned from his first tour in Iraq. The pastor thanked the congregation for their prayers for the soldier and his family. The congregation responded with enthusiastic applause. So far so good.
But then the pastor reminded the church of the dangerous and noble work America's soldiers were doing in Iraq. He said they were protecting our American freedoms and that we should be grateful for their sacrifice. The congregation stood to their feet and began clapping?and clapping?and clapping. I have never experienced a more enthusiastic and prolonged standing ovation on a Sunday morning in my life.
What would you have done? I sat.
After the service I admitted to my wife that I was uncertain what the right response was in that situation. The tenor of the pastor's remarks and the zeal of the congregation's response did not seem to reflect Christ's call to love our enemies. I wondered how a brother or sister in the Iraqi church, which has come under increasing persecution, would have felt about this Sunday morning display of patriotism. At the same time, I felt like a total jerk for sitting while the rest of the congregation demonstrated their gratitude to the military. This experience and the questions it raised came to mind several times while I read Jesus for President.
In chapters one and two, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw summarize the Biblical narrative. (I covered their perspective in my first post.) In chapter three they begin exploring the implications of this narrative for those of us living in the world's most powerful country. They describe America as an empire parallel to the Roman context the first Christians endured. They also believe Constantinianism was generally bad for the church, and that the book of Revelation is less about eschatology than living faithfully within a diabolical empire. Whether or not you agree with these assumptions, Claiborne and Haw make a compelling case that the church in America has become much to cozy with the state - a point that my Sunday morning experience seems to validate.
According to the authors, the great challenge facing the American church today is how to live faithfully as the distinct people of God within an empire that will preserve its interests at any cost. To press this point they quote often from the early Church Fathers who existed within the Roman Empire.
High treason is a crime of offense against the Roman religion. It is a crime of open irreligion, a raising of the hand to injure the deity? Christians are considered enemies of the State? we do not celebrate the festivals of the Caesars. ?Tertullian
We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools? the more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers. ?JustinThe authors point out that these earliest Christians fully expected to be persecuted by the empire. "The powers would drag them before governors and courts, beat them and insult them, feed them to beasts, and hang them on crosses. And hate his followers is what the world did- at least for the first couple of hundred years." Claiborne and Haw think American Christians have avoided persecution not because we live in a Christian nation, but because the church is content with the government's Christian veneer.
Jesus for President wonders if the reason the American church does not articulate a Christianity distinct from national citizenship is that we have lost our godly imagination. Or perhaps we have become so used to living with power and privilege that we are hesitant to articulate a different way of living. Let's assume these modern-day monks are on to something. What then? What is the role of the church within the empire?
Had I been in the pastor's shoes that Sunday morning a few months ago, I would like to think that I would have asked the congregation to pray just as diligently for the church in Iraq as for our troops. I would like to think that we would have mourned every life lost in the war - Iraqi and American. And I would like to think that we would have spent time praying for our enemies.
But maybe my courage would have failed me. After all, I too am a comfortable citizen of the empire.