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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.

"Just as Caesar had his image on everything, America has its stamp," Claiborne laments. "The world is branded with America." America's oppression includes not just military conquests but also economic dominance. Predictably, Claiborne claims that NAFTA and other free trade agreements echo Rome's imperialism. He denounces the globalized economy, describing the worldwide trade thread that brings coffee to America as leaving a "trench-like trail" across a ravaged earth. America's wealth is carried "on the backs of cheaper laborers" overseas, he charges, while American cities are "blighted with hundreds of abandoned factories and a hundred more abandoned homes." So Claiborne on trade sounds a little like Pat Buchanan. But somewhat incongruently, Claiborne more predictably insists that "being born again radically dissolves affection for national borders." He is highly distressed that American churches display American flags, but his concern would be ameliorated if they similarly displayed Afghan and Iraqi flags in "solidarity" with God's family. "Maybe it's time for Christians all over the world to lay down the flags of their nations and together raise the banner of God," he suggests.

What are Christians to do about extreme evil if all violence is precluded? As with most Christian pacifist absolutists, Claiborne is vague. But he suggests that the anti-Hitler conspiracists who tried to assassinate the
Führer only fueled "his reign of terror" and invigorated his quest to "rid the world of evil"--a mission that the German dictator evidently shared with George W. Bush, of course. Claiborne quotes Hitler's secretary as claiming "any hopes for peace were lost" after the 1944 attempt against Hitler, as though a peaceful settlement to World War II was averted only thanks to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's failure to uphold his pacifist convictions.

Claiborne liberally quotes from early Christian martyrs who resisted Rome, equally admirable Christian resisters to Nazism, and U.S. military personnel who have repudiated their roles in America's wars, as though all were of a seamless moral garment. Supposedly striving for evenhandedness, he cites America's misdeeds along with Iran's, North Korea's and Saddam Hussein's--though, of course, he never expresses any personal solidarity with any victims of those regimes. He likens his mischievously giving away free pizza in a mall food court as a protest against the profit incentive (and for which he was arrested) to Jesus' overturning the moneychangers' tables in the temple.

On so many different levels, Claiborne lacks moral and spiritual perspective. In his appendix, Claiborne, parroting his theological mentor Yoder, strains to explain away the Roman 13 affirmation of the state as God's instrument for punishing evildoers. He asserts that the "sword" referred to in the text was actually a "short dagger" used in police, not military work. So evidently God countenances "police" actions but not military actions, though Claiborne does not explain the difference. He also falls back on a more traditional Anabaptist teaching that the text empowers the state to employ force but does not permit Christian participation in the state's dirty work.

Besides Yoder, Claiborne relies on deeply heterodox theologians such as John Dominic Crossan, Walter Wink, and Walter Brueggemann, none of whom, because of their rejection of Christian doctrines about Jesus Christ's deity, atonement, and bodily resurrection, would inspire confidence in orthodox Christians. Claiborne himself does not explicitly reject these doctrines, but as with Yoder, he prefers to direct Christianity to other emphases revolving around social action and community building.

In one genuinely impressive anecdote, Claiborne recalls being surrounded by angry inner city hoodlums who trapped him and a friend in an ally while bashing them with sticks. Refusing to run or resist, he instead implored his assailants to desist in God's name--which they did. But Claiborne does not explain how he might have reacted had he come upon a pregnant woman, or child, or elderly person, being beaten in an ally by less spiritually intimidated attackers. Would he simply have looked on in prayerful sympathy?

In Jesus for President Claiborne wants Christians to disavow their country and all civil governance in favor of exclusive allegiance to a nonviolent Jesus whose chief mission is resisting "empire." But Claiborne's interpretation of Jesus, his few selective quotations from early church fathers notwithstanding, is largely divorced from the universal church's understanding of the Savior. Instead, Claiborne insists on a narrowly reinterpreted Jesus as distilled by Yoder and several others in 20th-century America for whom Jesus is more social critic than Resurrected Redeemer.

Not many Christians are likely to "vote" for this redefined Jesus.

Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.