Last week I blazed through Jesus For President by Shane Claiborne (and Chris Haw). I had never read anything by Shane up to this point, although I had a vague impression of him residing somewhere in the sorta-liberal counter-cultural not-really-Super-Patriotic-American neck of the Christian woods. The book covers the political landscape of Jewish history, from Genesis through Jesus, and offers opinions about how modern Christian Americans should think about politics in light of all that.
The book is an easy, pleasant read and overall not too dogmatic or overly opinionated, although parts of it seemed a little sloppy and biased. For example, Shane says the Old Testament temple wasn’t really what God wanted, quoting 2 Samuel 7 where God prevents David from building it to make an anti-imperialist connection: “God likes pitching a tent with the people of struggle… a long way from the center of power.” Of course, the book completely ignores the account in 2 Chronicles where Solomon actually builds the temple and initiates it with an epic prayer that apparently didn’t bother God too much since he responded with fire from heaven and “the glory of the Lord” filling the temple and an equally epic blessing. It’s not that important to the points the book makes, but in context we definitely don’t get the impression that God disliked the temple the way he disliked Israel asking for a king. It’s especially ironic considering that later Shane explains Romans 13’s submission to authority by inviting readers to look at the entire context.
I also disagreed with some of the economic remarks, which include many popular clichés indicative of an unfamiliarity with economic concepts. The books includes a story about a tragic child laborer from a foreign country; while I agree that the worst of globalization is very bad, and that American Christians should be more concerned about the ethics of their manufacturing, it’s also important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Global trade doesn’t have to be exploitative, and if we care about the poor, we need to recognize that it actually is lifting hundreds of millions across the globe out of poverty by simultaneously providing better jobs for foreigners than they would have otherwise and cheaper goods for Americans (not all of whom are rich, either).
Similarly, Shane praises a community that avoided cars “because petroleum supplies are finite and will become.. one of the major sources of conflict this century.” I’m all for reducing oil use and reducing global conflict, but it’s also important to recognize that globalization itself can reduce and has reduced conflict as nations engage in trade that improves all of their lives. The book also lauds people who try to live sustainably off the grid instead of “making money off” other people. Again, a noble goal, but the terminology sounds like the zero-sum fallacy; if you produce goods or services that lots of people want to buy because it’s better or cheaper than something else, you’re not “making money off” them, you’re engaging in mutually beneficial voluntary trade.
But enough of economics.
Most of the political stuff revolved around non-violence, and I actually found it a lot more compelling than I expected. I’ve been trending away from the government war machine for a few years now, but I think this book definitely moved me closer to the “other side.” I’m not ready to say we should have stayed out of World War II, but I’m actually starting to become a little ambivalent about the American Revolution (along with any hushed talk of the need for another one). I liked learning more about the political landscape of first century Israel and being reminded of the political revolution that Jesus explicitly refused to bring – contrary to many expectations!
I am finding it harder to condone the killing of human beings when we’re supposed to be in the business of saving their souls. It’s not just the example of Jesus – “Love your enemies” – but also the example of the early Christians living out that example of Jesus. I love the idea of Christians being known as the ones who love their enemies. The early Christians seemed much more interested in martyring for Christ than fighting (killing?) for religious freedom or the right to bear arms. I’m still musing over Shane’s observation that Christianity seems to be “at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering” than when it’s “popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful.” Still trying to reconcile that with all the other things I believe.
This means I’m really excited for the new book by Preston Sprinkle, who just happened to be speaking at AudioFeed last weekend about his new book “Fight! A Christian Case For Non-Violence” at the same I was reading this Shane Claiborne book about non-violence. OK, there’s a lot of hippy Cornerstone/AudioFeed roots, so maybe it’s not that coincidental. But unlike Shane (who did write the foreword to Preston’s book), Preston is coming from a conservative, hunting, Marines-and-cops-in-the-family background, and it sounds like he’s not dogmatically trying to defend an existing bias, but instead trying to look as objectively as possible at what the Bible says about violence. I also like his distinction between pacifism (which sounds like “passive…”) and non-violence, clarifying that you can still confront evil without perhaps killing people. I also like his admittance that he doesn’t have all the answers, and that some issues and scenarios are harder than the others. So I’ll probably write about that book when it comes out, too.