Thursday, June 19, 2008
Book Review: Jesus for President
I meant to post my review of Jesus for President, the new book by Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw, a few weeks ago, but I got distracted. Anyhow, it is, on many levels, a simply amazing book. Before even getting into the content and themes, I should say that the whole layout and design is a work of art (much of it by my friends Chico & Tatiana Fajardo-Heflin, Paul Soupiset and Holly & Ryan Sharp - you can click here for examples of a few pages.) I've literally never seen a book like this before. The images found on nearly every page are evocative and unusual and add to the total experience.

In the book Shane and Chris set out to show how the biblical narratives, from Genesis through revelation, are decidedly anti-imperial, and how we as followers of Jesus must likewise resist being co-opted by the imperial systems of our own day by pursuing a counter-movement of simplicity, generosity, self-sacrifice, non-violence, and radical love for others and for one's enemies. In this, it is nothing new for me, as these are themes that I've been pondering for the past year or so myself (though much credit for that should go to Shane's earlier book). However, this is the first place I've seen it laid out so systematically and accessibly. I agree with this basic premise, and I think Shane and Chris do a great job of weaving in biblical analysis with issues of contemporary relevance. For this alone (and for the amazing artwork) I highly recommend this book.

However, I have to admit that the whole way through something was nagging at me. While I agreed with 95% of what these guys were saying, I kept feeling like there was something I couldn't quite go along with in their approach. Eventually I determined that it came down to two things:

1) Their critique of empire and the systems of this world, and their suggested solution that we ought to withdraw (as much as possible) into the contrast community of the church, is too "either/or". At times it seemed as if they saw almost nothing good out in the world, and likewise perhaps had too high a view of the goodness of the Christian community (for instance their suggestion that Christians ought to reinstate the practice of excommunication, without really addressing how to keep this practice from quickly becoming abusive) - though to be fair, this either/or dichotomy was far more implicit than explicit throughout most of the book. Quite honestly, it reminded me too much of the separatism of the conservative, borderline fundamentalist, Christian sub-culture of my youth. While the fundamentalists recommend separation from the world to avoid being corrupted by sexual immorality and false doctrine, Shane and Chris' neo-anabaptism recommends separating from it to avoid being corrupted by materialism, violence, and power.

But while I might resonate more with Shane and Chris' concerns than those of conservatives, I've still found the doctrine of separation itself to be flawed. What I eventually discovered when I was a conservative separatist was that "the world" is not always as bad as it it made out to be - that there is much truth and beauty and goodness even among non-believers. God is still at work, even outside the walls of the church. Likewise, I suspect that God is similarly at work for goodness and justice, even among the structures of empire. I guess what I found lacking in this book was a sense that God can work redemptively, not just outside of and in spite of the empire, but even sometimes in it and through it.

2) I also agree with Zack Exley's critique that this neo-monastic/neo-anabaptist movement of which Shane and Chris are stereotypical is in danger of "making an idol out of smallness and slowness". The book highlighted many fantastic stories of lone individuals or small groups of people living counter-culturally to the empire, and I am all about celebrating such stories. However, this were the only examples that were given, and I was left wondering "But, if all we ever engage in are these small, symbolic acts of resistance, are we ever really going to change anything?" and more importantly "What about justice for those who really are oppressed by the empire on a large scale?" I mean it's all well and good for the privileged children of white suburbanites to decide they're going to sell all their possessions and live among the poor and oppressed, but I can't help but think that some of those poor and oppressed might prefer it if we used our power and wealth to help them out of their poverty and oppression.

Besides which, there are some injustices that simply cannot be dealt with on the small, local scale. The Jubilee Campaign is a perfect example. International debt relief for impoverished nations can be advocated for by individuals and communities, but ultimately it has to be enacted on the national and international levels. Similar arguments can be made regarding the enormity of problems like the AIDS epidemic, global climate change, and extreme poverty, just to name a few. Something can and should be done about these problems, but they will not get done if we only ever insist on doing things small and apart from the existing structures of power and wealth. If we insist on maintaining our own self-righteous "purity" from the empire, we will be guilty of neglecting justice.

However, these critiques should not be taken to mean that I didn't appreciate and enjoy the book. There is still much here of value; and even these areas of disagreements are useful in provoking thought and conversation. In the end Claiborne/Haw and I agree that the way of Jesus - not the way of Caesar, or America, or Wall Street, etc. - ought to be our sole guide to how we live and act in the world. However, we perhaps disagree on the scale of those actions, and on whether it is possible to actually practice the way of Christ in midst of Wall Street or Washington or wherever.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 9:04 PM | Permalink |


At 6/20/2008 09:36:00 AM, Blogger Mike L.


Thanks for the great review! I agree with your praise and also your criticism. I love Shane's passion, but I think his ideals leave out the most important part of the Jesus story. They ignore Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem that is the cornerstone to the earliest Gospel stories. Jesus' mission was not a retreat. It was an intentional confrontation with power culminating in a political march on the capitol city and a final protest in the heart of the financial district. His protest was non-violent, but no less confrontational.

Jesus could have chosen to retreat and live in the country side, but he chose to speak truth to power at risk of his own death. If we truly desire to walk in the steps of Jesus, we must realize that path led him to the heart of the nation's political and financial systems. It is no wonder that his early followers made similar trips and suffered a similar fate.


At 6/20/2008 11:03:00 AM, Blogger Sally Big Woods

Thanks for the review. I'm going to add this book to my wish list.

Keep up the great work!


At 6/20/2008 03:55:00 PM, Blogger Linda

Great post. I haven't read the book yet. Based on what you have said, I would agree that the idea of alternative community or contrast community should not be interpreted as withdrawal or separatism. I believe that we are to be a countercultural witness in the midst of empire.


At 6/20/2008 03:56:00 PM, Blogger Linda

PS - Congratulations to you, Julie, Emma, and Aidan!


At 6/20/2008 07:42:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I agree grace, and I think that's mostly what Shane and Chris would say too. However, they were so negative on being involved in the structures of empire at all that I couldn't help but get the impression that they saw nothing there of redemptive value. A counter-cultural witness is good, but I think there's also a place for seeing and redeeming the good things that are already present in the dominant culture. To be exclusively counter-cultural would seem to deny the possibility that God might already be present and active within culture as well.


At 6/21/2008 11:35:00 PM, Blogger Amber

I went to highschool and church with Chris. And I was on his e-mail list in college when he was exploring and writing a lot of these topics in Pittsburgh? I think. He had a lot of good ideas even then and is 100% legit, but I would have still voted him most likely to found a cult and go live with his followers in the wilderness. :)


At 6/30/2008 06:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous


Hey Mike,

Thanks for posting this review and inviting a serious discussion on "our place of being" in this world.