The Magazine

Surreal Faith

The dangerous world of a left-wing fundamentalist.

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By MARK TOOLEY
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"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?