New Monastics in Politics

Shane Claiborne is the de facto
leader of the “New Monasticism,” a
movement predominantly among
young adults who have forsaken the
trappings of middle-class comfort to
move into poverty-stricken urban communities.
There they seek to incarnate
the Kingdom of God through work with
the widow, the orphan, the alien, and
the poor. Claiborne is a founding member
of The Simple Way, a redemptive
community located in inner-city Philadelphia.
His co-author Chris Haw, a
Villanova University graduate student
in theology, is part of a similar community
in Camden, New Jersey. Not always
able to offer “a hand up,” a good
deal of the work of the new monastics
can be described as “suffering with,” in
keeping with the work of Christian monastics
throughout the centuries.

Claiborne and Haw’s book, Jesus for
President
is an exploration of what radical
Christian discipleship looks like in
21st century North America. They have
issued a call for a practical theology of
intentional and active nonviolent resistance
to the powers and principalities of
contemporary American empire, where
often the “American flag has smothered
the glory of the cross” (195).
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Jesus for President is all the more
remarkable in its thesis because it was
published in the middle of the 2008
United States presidential election.
Thus the title is not so much a theoretical
construct as it is an indictment
of all who would too easily associate
the work of the Kingdom of
God with a particular political
party or the nation as a
whole. If Jesus were president,
argue Claiborne and
Haw, he would not use the
tools of empire to build an
earthly kingdom. If Jesus’
followers claim him as their
“president,” they too should
reject the tools of empire
and earthly kingdom building.
“Christianity is at its
best,” write the authors,
“when it is peculiar, marginalized,
suffering, and at
its worst when it is popular,
credible, triumphal, and
powerful” (165).

The subject of their critique is clearly,
but not exclusively, the close association
of the conservative evangelical/Religious
Right with the Republican Party
during the past 30 years. However, the
authors do so in a gentle way such that
they can not be easily dismissed. Their
compelling argument restructures U.S.
evangelical loyalties. The oft-found
sense of America as a Christian nation
is replaced with the notion of America
as the new oppressive Roman Empire
(192). Faith in redemptive violence (as
illustrated by recent polling that correlates
frequency of Sunday worship
with approval of torture) is replaced by
faith in redemptive suffering, illustrated in numerous personal stories from
themselves and their communities.
But the authors also criticize perspectives
from the left. For example, they
call out then-candidate Barack Obama
(and others) for saying that the United
States is “the last great hope for humanity”
(182). Unfortunately, the now-President’s first name is misspelled.

Jesus for President is thoroughly
rooted in scripture, which provides another
reason for conservative evangelicals
to not too easily dismiss the critique.
Sections one and two are a careful
working through of the Old Testament
and New Testament respectively.
Long-overlooked political implications
are highlighted in appropriately revisionist
retellings of the familiar stories
of Creation, the flood, the Tower of Babel,
the Exodus, judges, prophets and
kings. Turning to the New Testament,
the authors describe a new kind of
commander-in-chief, one who “put skin
on to show the world what love looks
like…the Prince of Peace is born a refugee
in the middle of a genocide and is
rescued from the trash bin of Imperial
executions to stand at the pinnacle of
this peculiar people” (16).

On the surface, Claiborne and Haw’s
theology is a biblical, practical theology
from a decidedly “Christ against
culture” perspective. In fact they suggest
that “it’s time for another movement
of Anabaptists” (238). It is clear,
however, that the authors do not advocate
a withdrawal from the world into
a Christian subculture which isolates
itself from the rest of the world. Yet
there is a withdrawal from the priorities,
powers, and principalities through
which the world’s denizens seek to defend
themselves, enrich themselves,
and make themselves comfortable. In
this way, though the authors don’t use
this language overtly, they advocate a
Reformed worldview which seeks the
transformation of “every square inch”
for the Kingdom of God. However, the
means by which one does this remains
true to the Anabaptist advocacy of nonviolence
and suspicion of participation
in the fallen institutions of government.
Rather than taking control of realms of
culture and society, the radical Christian
enters those realms as salt and
light, seasoning the world and illuminating
God’s way through redemptive
suffering and sacrifice.

Beyond its insightful and challenging
content, the book offers an interesting
postmodern engagement of the
reader. Its pages contain a variety of
comics, art, historical artifacts, pictures,
quotes, poetry, sundry sidebars,
and inset blocks of text which will likely
appeal to some readers while potentially
proving bothersome and distracting
to others.

Certainly Jesus for President will
provoke discussion even as it provides
the reader with practical and challenging
ways to stop reading “the Bible
through the eyes of America” and rather
to “read America through the eyes of
the Bible” (194).

Mitchell Kinsinger teaches in the religion department at
Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.