Chandra is reading… Jesus for President

Jesus for President is the second book by Shane Claiborne. Irresistible Revolution laid out Shane’s personal journey; this second book, written with Chris Haw, attempts something more systematic: looking at Politics for Ordinary Radicals. The book tackles the question of whether or not America is a Christian nation and what government and politics look like from the perspective of the kingdom of God.

While I found a lot to like in Irresistible Revolution, with Jesus for President I was mostly frustrated. The problem I had with Irresistible Revolution is much more explicit in this second book: the argument that government is not for Christians. Rather than review this book fully, I want to tackle this question in-depth.

Claiborne and Haw argue that earthly government represents the ways of this world. Power – in any form – cannot be a good thing, it is necessarily bad because it corrupts. They say about Old Testament Kings of Israel, “[I]t’s not that they were inherently evil. People just aren’t meant to have that much power. It tempts us beyond what we can bear.” Political power and governments are also understood to be empire – infiltrating and controlling our economic, cultural and spiritual lives and imagination.

The people of God are called to have no leader, no government, no power above them besides God, to recognize no community, no nation, other than the kingdom of God.

Claiborne and Haw rightly point out that the idea of a Christian nation is not possible, and that civil religion is simply idolatry of the state.

Here’s a quote from the book that epitomizes their argument: “It’s extraordinary that when the Devil said all political power in the world belongs to him and he can give it to whomever he wishes, Jesus didn’t dispute the claim; he just flat out refused the offer. He knew well the bitter fruits of this world’s power. He saw governmental power not as a coveted position to run after but rather as the Devil’s playground.”

I think that Claiborne and Haw do a good job of tackling the myth of Christian America, and looking at life under empire and the many ways in which we capitulate rather than resist the empire’s influence. However, I find this argument that government and power are inherently bad and have nothing to do with the kingdom of God limited and, ultimately, limiting.

In the first place, I think this view creates a false dichotomy. Jesus for President suggests that because conflating religious faith and nation is wrong, therefore engagement in the state is wrong. In other words, if putting our faith in our political system and hoping to elect representatives who are “Christ-like” are wrong, then the only alternative is to turn our backs on politics and government completely.

However, why should this be the only way? Can’t we get involved in politics and government from a clear-eyed perspective of their limitations and their social role, and view this as one way – but far from the only way – of pursuing our Christian responsibility in society? What about public justice, can’t there be a respectful pursuit of the common good between people of all faiths that relies on a healthy dialogue about our deepest values – including Christian values?

Second, I know that this is not an uncommon view – it is particularly strong in the Anabaptist tradition for good historical reasons. However, I think there are several good reasons for not giving up on government. To me, rejecting government is a rejection of the creatureliness of government. Creature might seem like a strange word to use when talking about government, but I mean in the sense of being part of God’s creation. (And I thank Jonathan Chaplin for this point. Check out “Faith in the State: The Peril and Promise of Christian Politics,” his inaugural ICS Address).

Government is not seen as something created by God, and therefore good. Government is seen as something that is wholly evil. It cannot help corrupting people who engage in it, because government is inherently bad. But this suggests two things. First, that there is something inhuman about government – despite the fact that government is composed of people! And secondly, that government lies outside the realm of redemption. It is beyond God’s reach, and must remain corrupted and evil. Hardly an overwhelming statement of belief in God’s sovereignty!

But recapturing a sense of government as a creature reminds us that government – like all of creation – falls under the power and authority of God. It also suggests that government has a vocation, a God-given calling or role to fulfill. Thus, governments are not all powerful. There are limits on what governments should do, just as there are things that governments should do. The ways in which governments fill this role are equally important. This, then, lets us distinguish between good government and bad government, and lets us encourage government in its vocation to do public justice. (And thanks to John Hiemstra for helping me think through this point).

Without this notion of a good role for government, the options are extremely limited. Although their primary concern is empire, Claiborne and Haw are unable to deal with systemic injustice and wrongs, because the only option is personal and (local) community acts of resistance. We can’t change political, economic and military structures ourselves. We have to hope that our individual acts of resistance will convince the powers that be to make change. Justice no longer seems possible; all we can do is charity, and hope that someone else will bring justice.

As John Hiemstra noted in our conversation, if you don’t believe in government, you can be prophetic and speak against what governments are doing. But as soon as you ask them to do something else, you are acknowledging that government has a legitimate role to play.

Third, Jesus for President suggests that the Israelites – and we today – desired a king because they suffered from a failure of imagination. However, I’m not sure who is guilty of a failure of imagination. Claiborne and Haw argue that Christian beliefs are essentially political, given that they must have an impact on the world around us. (Political in the sense of politics as deciding how we will live together.) But the moment politics are formalized through the institutions of government, suddenly they are bad and necessarily lead to grasping after power. There is no difference at all between kingdoms and empire.

Perhaps this is more understandable in the US, with its history of civil religion and its easy-to-target identity as empire. But looking outside of their borders might offer some alternatives – and even looking deeper within their own history might offer some alternatives.

Fourth, I want to challenge this notion of power always being bad and always corrupting. When I was at Sojourners’ Pentecost 2008 last year, Rev. Virginia Lohmann Bauman challenged us to think about power very differently. Christians have often had a very narrow understanding of power, whereby having power or using power are bad. Rev. Lohmann Bauman argued that having power (ie. the power to vote, the power to lobby for change and to be heard) and refusing to use it is as much a sin as abusing power by using it for harmful practices.

If policies oppress the poor, exploit the marginalized, create wars, harm the environment and perpetuate injustice and we have not voted to stop them or advocated against them, do we share responsibility? If Christians are elected to public office and help to create and implement policies that provide income security, promote social inclusion, create peace and protect the environment, are they sinning by doing so? Power, like money, is not by itself evil. What we do with it and how we feel towards it are more important.

So this is my long critique of the idea that government is anti-Christian. I will follow this blog post up some time soon with a post on government from a public justice perspective.

Chandra Pasma is CPJ's former Public Justice Policy Analyst.


Submitted by Harry.. on

Submitted by John Hiemstra on
Good one!

Submitted by Karen on
You're right on, Chandra. I wonder how they would respond to your critique - it would be interesting to get a dialogue going on this. It would be great to see you and the authors in a (constructive) debate!

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