Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw has challenged me on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start. I guess it’s not so much the book itself that has inspired me, but the way the author’s continually refer to Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, teachings which no one in their right mind can truly contemplate without trembling at the sort of life changes it demands.
I chose Jesus for President (Zondervan, 2008) for our book club discussions, not because I agreed with all of the authors’ conclusions, but because never before have I so deeply questioned whether or not I really take Jesus seriously.
Did Jesus really mean it when he said “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek”? Does that apply to all enemies, even terrorists and enemy combatants? Did Jesus really mean it when he said, “blessed are the poor” and “woe to you who are rich”? What does that mean for me and my closet full of clothes and cabinets full of food? When Jesus follows His sermon by asking, “Why do you cal me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” does He mean that intellectual ascent to his lordship isn’t enough? Does He actually expect me to follow through with what He asks?
These are just a few of the questions we will be dealing with over the next few weeks.
(Note: I would challenge those of you who want to participate in these upcoming conversations to re-read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and in Luke 6. I’ve committed to reading it every day for a month and it is really messing with my head. It always does.)
We will get to the most controversial part of the book (the subject of pacifism) later. Today I want to focus on a few of the authors’ main points.
Kings and Kingdoms of This World
Claiborne and Haw begin the book with a broad look at what the Bible has to say about kings and kingdoms. They remind readers that the reason God allowed Israel to have a king in the first place was because the people insisted on “being like other nations.” It clearly wasn’t the ideal, and not exactly a fulfillment of God’s desire that they be a “set apart” people. (See God’s warning about the ramifications of kings and kingdoms in I Samuel 8: 11-16, and then His gentle “I told you so” in Hosea 13:10)
“One thing that is consistent throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is that God was deconstructing, redefining, and reclaiming kingship,” write Claiborne and Haw (p. 37).
The Kingdom of Heaven
This redefining reaches a climax in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ concerning the Kingdom of Heaven. And interestingly, the political language of Jesus, “doesn’t harmonize with the contemporary church project of ‘reclaiming America for God.’ Precisely the opposite: Jesus was urging his followers to be the unique, peculiar, and set-apart people that began with Abraham. He didn’t pray for the world in order to make governments more religious: he called Israel to be the light of the world…” (71)
Jesus wasn’t interested in running the world via the government. In fact, he rejected Satan’s offer to give Him all the kingdoms of the world. Instead, “Jesus would enter his people’s story, tears, sweat, and hunger and show them a way out that doesn’t require the financial, military, and political powers of kings and presidents and cabinets.” (86)
Jesus outlines the nature of His strange Kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount. I love this paragraph on page 86 of Jesus for President:
“Jesus would make for a bad president. It’s hard to imagine Jesus wearing a ‘God Bless Rome’ T-shirt and promoting his campaign with stickers and buttons and a hundred-million-dollar campaign. And he would be considerably uncomfortable as commander-in-chief of the largest military in the world. Nevertheless, he was political. All of his titles granted him political authority. Calling him Messiah or Lord is like acclaiming him-unlikely as it is-as president. He was the president who did not want to be the president. His politics aspired to something different from state power.”
I Pledge Allegiance To…
As citizens of this Kingdom, followers of Christ are to play by these rules. According to Claiborne and Haw, “to claim that one’s citizenship in heaven is to say that you pledge allegiance not to any of the kingdom of the world but to Jesus and the body of those who take on his suffering, enemy-loving posture toward the world. This is what Peter meant when he called the church ‘a holly nation, a people set apart, a people who are supposed to live as ‘aliens and strangers in this land.’” (107)
Now, there are some who might say that one should not compare the United States of America with Rome, that America is a “Christian nation,” and so it is not at all a conflict of interest to claim allegiance to both Jesus Christ and the good ole’ U.S. of A. However, Claiborne and Haw remind readers that if “Christian” literally means “little Christ,” then “the United States is Christian inasmuch as it looks like Christ.” Clearly, that’s not the case. Sure our leaders and politicians promote the ideas of “freedom” and “justice,” and they even sprinkle their speeches with biblical references. But when “freedom” and “justice” are supposed to be achieved via death and retribution, they are not the same virtues of which Jesus speaks.
Rather, “the church is a people called of the world to embody a social alternative that the world cannot know on its own terms. We are not simply asking the government to be what God has commissioned the church to be. After all, even the best government can’t legislate love. We can build hundreds of units of affordable housing (a good thing by the way) and people still might not have homes. We can provide universal health care and keep folks breathing longer (another nice move), but people can be breathing and still not truly be alive. We can create laws to enforce good behavior, but no law has ever changed a human heart or reconciled a broken relationship. The church is not simply suggesting political alternatives. The church is embodying one.” (228)
Election Year Politics
The whole thing makes me think twice about Obama’s claim that America is the “last great hope for humanity.” (Isn’t that supposed to be Jesus?) And as y’all know, I’m a pretty avid Obama supporter.
…Or at least I was. This book has served as such a great reminder that no earthly king or president is responsible for building the Kingdom of Heaven. As soon as we start relying on a democrat or republican to accomplish God’s will, the Church loses its calling to be set apart, to change the world not by power or might, but by the Spirit. As soon as we "get political," we lose our imagination.
While Jesus’ name won’t appear on the ballot this fall, I imagine that every time I care for the poor, attempt to live more simply, turn the other cheek, and love my enemies, I’m casting a vote for Jesus, who will one day return to rule His Kingdom in person.
I’ll probably check the box next to Barack Obama on election day, but I’ll do it knowing that he does not have my first allegiance. I'll do it knowing that we don't need his social reforms (as nice as some of them may be) to change the world.
What do you think?
So, is it unpatriotic to think of yourself as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven before a citizen of the United States? Do you think it is a conflict of interest to pledge allegiance to the American flag in a church service? Is it a conflict of interest to pledge allegiance to an earthly kingdom at all?
Do you support Christians holding public office? Do you think of America as being a “Christian nation?”
Did you only read this blog because you thought I’d seen the light and become a republican? (Go ahead! Admit it!)
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