Christ has implications in today's politics

  • April 4, 2008

{mosimage}Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw (Zondervan, 355 pages, softcover, $19.99).

If Christianity isn’t radical, isn’t subversive, isn’t dangerous and can’t get you into trouble it isn’t really following Christ. The established powers of Roman-occupied Palestine tortured and killed Jesus for a reason. It wasn’t because he was a safe, earnest, harmless reformer.

To follow Christ, particularly to follow Christ crucified, shouldn’t be the sort of thing that distinguishes Christians as dependable, obedient, patriotic citizens.

This is an obvious insight for anyone who has actually read the Bible, and it has been fodder for thousands of sermons delivered in middle-class parishes to Christians who sit in safe, comfortable pews. Most of us are well defended against such truths.

The challenge of Christ — who rejected the Roman empire, the global superpower of Jesus’ time, and declared a Kingdom of God to replace Rome’s legions in our hearts, minds and souls — is particularly at odds with the gospel of George W. Bush’s America. The gospel of American empire is the gospel of global supremacy ensured by military dominance and an occupying army roaming the streets of Baghdad.

{sa 0310278422}Dissonance between the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and the American religion of oil, arms and homeland security has raised for many citizens south of the border painful questions about how they can be both American and Christian. Jesus for President doesn’t answer those questions, but it asks them in intelligent ways. This is a book designed to counter the toxic, polarizing effect of right-wing Christian fundamentalists in U.S. politics.

The religious right, whose influence in American politics sickens and wilts under the fresh air and sunshine of each Barack Obama speech, has long raised the hope among some of a religious left. Jesus for President seeks to do much more than merely reorganize the church into a more effective lobby on Capitol Hill. Claiborne and Haw, scruffy young theologians (the former an Evangelical Protestant activist and the latter finishing a graduate degree in theology at Villanova University), want to recover the American Christian imagination — extracting it out of the arms of its love affair with wealth, power and progress.

Following St. Athanasius, St. Francis, St. Ignatius and Dorothy Day Jesus for President is written contra mundum —  against the world.

The authors begin, like good theologians, with a useful and intelligent guide to reading the Bible. You can’t follow Jesus if you don’t know the scriptures that formed His world view (the Old Testament). Nor can you credibly call yourself Christian if you don’t understand the basic Gospel truths about Jesus’ incarnation, passion, crucifixion and resurrection in their cultural and political context, plus the context in which these events were recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Books arrive at The Catholic Register offices every week which seek to reassure that we don’t have to pay attention to what scholars have discovered about the Gospels — that we can read our Bibles like newspapers then transpose our lives, our culture and our values onto the life and times of our Saviour. In Jesus for President we at last have a book that won’t let us off so easily. Haw and Claiborne understand that being Christian means the transposition goes the other way. We are to transpose the values, culture and very life of the crucified Saviour onto our own. We seek the Kingdom He preached in word and deed.

Jesus’ life — His presence in the synagogue, the temple, the countryside and on Golgotha — had political implications 2,000 years ago. Haw and Claiborne insist it has political consequences now for Christians living under the American empire.

“Much of the world now lies in the ruins of triumphant and militant Christianity,” they write. “The imperially baptized religion created a domesticated version of Christianity — a dangerous thing that can inoculate people from ever experiencing true faith. (Everyone is Christian, but no one knows what Christian is any more.) Our hope is that the post-modern, post-Christian world is once again ready for a people who are peculiar, people who spend their energy creating a culture of contrast rather than a culture of relevancy.”

Only the smuggest of the smug would dismiss Jesus for President as only important in the United States. Canadians live under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and grow rich off its market. We send our soldiers, fully interoperable with American forces, to fight the war on terror in Afghanistan. We don’t just dig up the oil to fuel America, we run our economy by oil industry rules.

The unresolved problem for Haw and Claiborne is the Christian flight or fight response. At times the authors adopt the stance of Christian Pharisees — separated ones who know they are better than the empire.  It’s an old problem for Christianity, one faced by monks from St. Benedict through Thomas Merton.

Christ was incarnated in the world, among us humans as one of us. Christians have no right to separate themselves if Christ did not. Christ is still one of us — not in some vague, spiritual and abstract sense but concretely in our society, in our culture, in our politics and in our economy.

If Christ has seemed abstract to you, if the words in your Bible sit lifeless on the page, if your Christian heritage has been reduced to insipid cliches and plaster saints, read this book. It will challenge. It is meat for hungry souls.

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