ABOUT ONE-HUNDRED and thirty pages into Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s Jesus for President, I morphed into a peace-loving, floursack-wearing socialist locovore and flew off upon the airy wings of nonviolent resistance and Old Testament jubilee. I had to be shot from the clouds and talked back into good sense.
Perhaps like others reading this book, I went to my first pro-life picketing as an infant. I carried signs for every conservative Christian candidate running for any office from county clerk to U.S. Senator. I had a George W. Bush tote bag. I protested the Florida recount. So the first few pages resonated with me: “You grew up in a good family … You learned about the blessing that was America and were grateful to live in a country led by good Christian leaders. … You pledged allegiance to God and Country, for the Lord was at work in this holy nation.”
Now I’m a jaded ex-culture warrior whose crusading spirit still swells sometimes, with nowhere to direct it. So the picture of a wounded child splayed on a makeshift gurney also moved me: “But lately you are beginning to wonder if this is really how God intended things to be. And you question if God is really working through places of power. Maybe, you wonder, God had a totally different idea in mind.”
The “different idea” is to redefine political as “simply as how we relate to the world.” Instead of believing, as so many American Christians do, that “only the power of the state and its militaries and markets can really make a difference in the world,” the church is supposed to embody a political alternative—one of love, compassion, community, and peace.
Claiborne and Haw draw from Old Testament passages about forgiving debts, New Testament passages like the Sermon on the Mount, and examples from the early Church. “This is what Jesus had in mind,” they write, “folks coming together, forming communities, and meeting each other’s needs—no kings, no major welfare systems, no presidents necessary. His is a theology and practice for the people of God, not a set of suggestions for empire.”
I visited a New Monastic community in New York City—part of the movement Claiborne leads—and the members’ resumes exemplified this community-centered idealism: a community organization staffer, a 30-year-old who spent his twenties working for a non-profit organization, a social worker, a former Peace Corps member. One young woman is working to develop a product to provide money and employment for Cambodian women trapped in prostitution.
Jesus for President gets so much right. America is not a “chosen” or a Christian nation, never was and never will be. We can’t conflate what’s American with what’s Christian. Capitalism has its troubling elements and military force often breeds more violence. Christians’ first allegiance should be to the global church, not national borders. Government—even limited government—can’t change hearts or give people true security and hope. Christian community can.
But Claiborne and Haw’s portrayal of Christian community, which employs the language of “alternative culture,” “cultural refugee,” and “contrast society,” is troublesome because it echoes the language of fringe fundamentalism. There are four dangers in the “alternative community” Jesus for President advocates, all of which ironically also characterize the Christian Right and fundamentalist subculture.
First, legalism. We break free from one kind of legalism only to manacle ourselves with another because legalism assures us that we’re living the right way and doing the right thing. Could wearied ex-culture warriors like me replace the legalism of voting Republican with the legalism of making shoes out of old tires? Do you have to drive a veggie oil-powered car and grow your own food to be a good Christian? Jesus for President seems, at times, to wander too close to saying yes—for instance, when it talks about “holy nonconformity” and a “peculiar way of living” in the context of dumpster diving and powering a Laundromat with a stationary bicycle. The authors say, “Maybe people will ask, ‘Why do they run their cars off used veggie oil? And we can say, ‘Because we are Christians.’” And what are people who run their cars on gasoline?
Second, cultural irrelevance. Claiborne and Haw call on Christians to be “relevant nonconformists,” but then they hold up the Amish as an example of model community. (Oddly, the founder of the community I visited had family roots in the Anabaptist church.) Yes, there’s something idyllic about secluding yourself in a community of people who think the same way, follow the same rules and have a plan for taking the world by storm; but people living in a “contrast society,” only emerging now and again for a skirmish, aren’t culturally relevant. In fact, Claiborne and Haw call it “a culture in which it is easier for people to be good.” But it’s just a little too easy.
It’s easy to shun materialism when you grow your own food, live in a community that has all things in common, and live below the poverty level to avoid paying taxes to the military. It’s harder to shun materialism when you wear a suit and work at Credit Suisse in New York and are struggling for balance while everyone around you scrabbles for power. (Do you buy the Porsche or the Honda? Do you sacrifice your family for your work or do you make yourself content with less?) Achieving that balance will actually cause the rats still running the race to pause. Yes, it’s harder not to sell out when you live a mainstream life; that’s why those who don’t sell out are the real “relevant nonconformists.”
Third, replacing thoughtful compassion with meaningless activism. Claiborne’s group protests war by hitting battleships with hammers and baptizing them with blood. They protest anti-homeless laws by getting arrested for passing out pizza and sleeping in the park. By themselves—and arguably under any circumstance—these sort of protests are a cop-out. It’s easy to give a homeless person a piece of pizza and crusade for laws that enable them to continue their dysfunctional life; it’s harder to figure out why they’re homeless and let them wallow in their own filth until they’re ready for the harsh love that can lift them out of it. Claiborne urges active compassion, but it should also be tough and thoughtful compassion.
Fourth, making the perfect the enemy of the good. Claiborne and Haw say, “We need to insist on not settling for anything short of the politics of the cross and the kingdom of our God. When our options seem to limit us to choosing the lesser of two evils (or the evil of two lessers), then we must not put our faith in anything short of God, or we will be sadly disappointed by even the best things this fallen world has to offer.” (Yes, this may mean writing in “Jesus” for president.)
This idealism is good and beautiful, and we need more of it. But in striving to enact the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to remember that we do, in fact, still live on earth. Perfection here is impossible, and we injure the world when we reject the good for not being quite good enough. Like T.S. Eliot wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society, “We have to remember that the Kingdom of Christ on earth will never be realised; we must remember that whatever reform or revolution we carry out, the result will always be a sordid travesty of what human society should be-though the world is never left wholly without glory.”
These dangers would be less relevant if Jesus for President didn’t so deeply appeal to people who once lived the legalism, cultural irrelevance, and meaningless activism of the Christian Right. That belligerent edge and exclusionist spirit are easy to transfer to a new crusade. I spoke to a New Monastic member who was reared in Midwest evangelical culture and now (rightfully) finds he has more questions than answers. Another resident was beginning to ask questions about Communism—an ideology she said she’d always assumed was wrong until now. It’s natural—but dangerous—to catapult from one extreme to another.
Jesus for President is a little crazy, but it’s the kind of crazy that makes you wish it weren’t. While the way it shows is not for all Christians, the passion and the intensity and the love and the courage to be different are for all Christians. We’re free from the world’s idea of what makes sense. Claiborne and Haw write, “What the world needs is people who believe so much in another world that they cannot help but enact it.” They’re right.
Alisa Harris is deputy editor of Patrol. She teaches at The King’s College in Manhattan.
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