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Surreal Faith

The dangerous world of a left-wing fundamentalist.

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By MARK TOOLEY
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Jesus for President

Politics for Ordinary Radicals

by Shane Claiborne

Zondervan, 348 pp., $16.99

Shane Claiborne is a Christian counter-culturalist and pacifist who went to Baghdad in 2003 to express solidarity with Iraq when the first U.S. and Allied missiles landed. Still in his thirties, he is not an aging hippie but a post-modern, "emergent" evangelical of sorts, who appeals to a new generation of believers anxious to shun traditional evangelical stereotypes.

Jesus for President was published in time for this year's elections, but Claiborne was not backing any earthly candidate; instead he is denouncing the United States as a uniquely reincarnated Roman Empire and, therefore, the enemy of God whom Christians should shun. Shunning violence and profit-making, Claiborne's Christianity demands a new monasticism, which he has attempted to create in his Philadelphia ministry called "The Simple Way."

The America-as-Rome thesis is common now within the pacifist evangelical left, which is especially enraged by the wars of George W. Bush. Many of its adherents rely on the theology of John Howard Yoder, the 20th-century Mennonite who reinterpreted Christ's crucifixion as a renunciation of all violence. Widely popularized by his best-known disciple, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke, Yoder deemphasized Christ's substitutionary atonement and focused, instead, on the church as a new community that rejects all earthly powers.

Claiborne relies heavily on Yoder and echoes Hauerwas, who is fierce in his mocking denunciations of all things American. Supporting Jesus for president, to Claiborne, means accepting the Yoder/Hauerwas thesis: Remove flags from the churches, do not serve in the military, denounce U.S. foreign policy as imperialism, and reject the ostensible materialism of free market capitalism. Claiborne goes further, berating the seductions of technology and science. He confesses to struggling with the idea of publishing a book, with its reliance on 21st-century media. But he ultimately justifies Jesus for President by pledging part of the profits for carbon offsets.

Although purportedly rejecting worldly ideologies, Claiborne, like Hauerwas, repeats the secular left's political mantras. His version of the politics of Jesus sounds remarkably like MoveOn.org and Greenpeace, neither of which professes to be christocentric. His colorfully illustrated book is laden with photos of American tanks and bombs and suffering Iraqis who are victimized by the heavy imperial arm of President Bush's AmeriKa, amplified by political and historical assertions by secular leftists such as Noam Chomsky and Harold Zinn.

Ostensibly, according to Claiborne, the Whore of Babylon that John describes in Revelation is the Roman Empire, whose political whoredoms are replicated by modern America, which follows Rome in trying to "slaughter God's love in the world." If the apostle were writing his Apocalypse today, he would use a "phrase such as 'mission accomplished' or describe the image of a flaming oil field under a sky of black smoke."

Claiborne repeats the conventional narrative that early Christians abandoned their martyrdoms to become the empowered oppressors when Constantine Christianized the empire. This betrayal of authentic Christianity continued with the early Puritans of New England, who confused their earthly conquest with God's Kingdom, thereafter setting the permanent imperialistic and genocidal tone of all European Americans for the next four centuries. America's imperialistic hubris became personal for Claiborne when his shame over the impending U.S.-led war in Iraq took him to Baghdad, where he composed a ditty after CBS News asked him whether he was a traitor:

If this bloody, counterfeit liberation is American .  .  . I am proud to be un-American. If depleted uranium is American .  .  . I am proud to be un-American. If the imposed "peace" of Pax Americana is American, I am proud to be un-American.

Claiborne likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr., not admitting that King himself was a believer in the dreaded "myth" of American exceptionalism. He observes: "How ironic that he was granted a national holiday by the nation he called the 'greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.'" King said those words in his famous 1967 denunciation of the Vietnam war at Riverside Church, a speech that has not aged well because of its glaring naïveté about the communist North Vietnamese regime, whose crimes King did not discern, and which still do not fit the preferred narrative of purportedly Christian anti-imperialists like Claiborne.