Jake bought Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals because he liked the design, and he found it on sale somewhere.  I saw it laying around, had been curious to read some Shane Claiborne, and picked it up, which vastly annoyed him because it was supposed to be HIS book.  If nothing else, I figured, it would be a thought-provoking read during this tumultuous election season.

And thought-provoking it is.  Claiborne raises some interesting questions, and while I certainly don’t agree with some of the conclusions he reaches, he does provide a non-normal way of looking at things and I think it’s good and healthy to consider things from a different perspective.

I agree with a lot of Claiborne’s overarching ideas, though.  His chief assertion, I believe, is that many believers separate their faith and their politics, in practice if not in word, or allow their politics to inform their faith.  In reality we should be asking how a follower of Christ would practice politics, or how it would look for Jesus to be involved in politics.  Here are some of the concepts I affirm:

  • “Jesus didn’t pray for the world in order to make government more religious; He called Israel to be the light of the world – to abandon the way of the world and cultivate an alternative society in the shell of the old, not merely to be a better version of the kingdom of this world.”
  • “Addressing our needs versus our wants and making sacrificial choices to buy less or differently is not something the state can do for us.”
  • “So often we do things that make sense to us and ask God to bless our actions and come alongside our plans, rather than looking at the things God promises to bless and acting alongside of them.”
  • “It’s easy to have political views – that’s what politicians do.  But it’s much harder to embody a political alternative – that’s what saints do.  The greater challenge is right living, not merely right thinking.”
  • “One of the most important questions for the church today isn’t whether Christianity but how is Christianity political?”
  • on the exile of God’s people: “They would be sprinkled like salt throughout the earth, blessing its various places of residence with their homes, gardens, children, and peace.  They would seek the peace of wherever they landed…The peculiarity of the church is not for its own sake but for the sake of the whole creation, for the cities and neighborhoods in which we find ourselves.”

But I didn’t agree with a lot of his specifics.  For example, he is one of those folks who thinks any type of violence is always wrong.  I will say that his is possibly the best explanation of this stance I have heard/read, because he does address situations where inaction leads to destruction of innocents.  I think his argument still has some holes in it (isn’t insisting the government act according to Jesus’ teachings on love kinda the same as trying to fit Jesus around the government – which Claiborne teaches against?), but it is still one of the better nonviolence persuasions.  He points out that if, for example, the Body of Christ had been acting like Christ during Hitler’s rise to power, no military intervention would have been necessary because Hitler wouldn’t have gotten far.  I don’t think that addresses the fact that the church in general WAS sitting on its haunches during that time and once evil has gotten that far, peaceful demonstrations will not accomplish much – but it IS a good point.

I am concerned about Claiborne’s scholarship, too.  He admits that “we are taking a path different from most contemporary biblical scholarship,” and I find that troublesome.  I could be naive, but I am just thinking that in a few thousand years of people devoting their lives to the study of the Bible, if you are reaching wildly new and different conclusions it is probably YOU that is on the wrong path, not the hundreds/thousands of people who have gone before.  And some of his research definitely reaches different conclusions from those I am familiar with.  Like saying that palm branches represent “resistance to the empire.”  Um…well, in all the Bible dictionaries and handbooks I have looked at and all the Palm Sunday sermons I have heard, palm branches represent peace.  (I asked Jake just to be sure.  “Hey – what do palm branches represent in the Bible?”  He didn’t even look up to answer.  “Peace.”)  I had a few notes about things to research but unfortunately all my reference books are in the back of a storage shed so for now you will just have to take my word that a few things he said raised some red flags.  He quoted Ann Coulter but didn’t cite where he found the quote so I couldn’t check, but I am pretty sure the quote was out of context, because nobody uses the word “rape” in a positive light.  I am no Ann Coulter expert but I do know she is very sarcastic and Claiborne seems sharp enough that he should have picked up on that.  Of course, maybe he did and used the quote anyway because he thought it would help prove the point he was trying to make.  Also, he says, “The Baptist church in the South excommunicated people who didn’t vote for Bush.”  Um…I am a Baptist, and I have lived in the South my whole life, and Bush was never mentioned from the pulpit in either election (actually, churches aren’t allowed to talk about specific political candidates from the pulpit).  And I never heard of anybody being excommunicated over that.  I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I’m just saying he makes it sound like a widespread issue among an entire denomination and it absolutely was not.  So I take issue with that.  Finally, at one point Claiborne says, “Grace triumphs over judgment.”  God IS gracious…but He is also a perfect Judge.  One of His attributes cannot trump another, or His judgment would not be perfect.  The way I see things, you pretty much get to pick: do I want His grace, or do I want His judgment?  There is no triumph among qualities that balance each other.

Also, the writing style, while compelling, needs a bit of polishing.  Rather than coming out to make pointed observations or remarks, Claiborne slips in vague remarks or tries to make a point in the design of the page.  Like putting the Cheney family Christmas card in there.  The stuff written on the page is about Rome’s power and how it afforded the empire peace, and how people assumed that was a sign of God’s favor.  Then at the bottom is a scan of the Christmas card which carries a Benjamin Franklin quote: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it possible that an empire can rise without His aid?”  Now I agree that is a strange message for a Christmas card, but the text of the page (and the next) has absolutely nothing to do with it because the author is speaking specifically of the Roman empire.  The scan of the card was intentional enough that there is a footnote about it, and I think if you want to say “Dick Cheney is a pious jerk” you should just say it, rather than slyly hoping your readers pick up on your point.  Also he’s constantly making comparisons between biblical and modern times that make no sense.  Here’s a few comparisons that come out of nowhere:

  • the story of Cain & Abel to migrant farmers
  • the tower of Babel to Hiroshima & Nagasaki
  • God’s directive to not touch pigskin as a “corrective for our obsession with contemporary imperial games” (football)
  • David as a shepherd boy to sweatshop kids
  • Legion story to Army suicides
  • American soldiers in Iraq to Roman oppressors
  • Caesar using coins to spread his image to the US government’s use of media (um…what?  I don’t watch much TV but when I do the government certainly isn’t cast in a flattering light)

That sounds like a lot of negatives but like I said, this book is very thought provoking.  There is a lot to process in it and I will probably read it again.  I kept hearing a Derek Webb song in my head while reading, and Claiborne quoted a little over halfway through the book so we can all agree on:

My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man

My first allegiance is not to democracy or blood

It’s to a king and a kingdom