Jesus for President, a Book Review for Atheists; Part 1, What is Shane Claiborne?

Shane Claiborne has been fearlessly, creatively and lovingly preaching a gospel of resistance from inside of mainstream Christianity. People are listening.
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Shane Claiborne has an exciting new book out called Jesus for President, this one co-authored with co-conspirator Chris Haw. It's a beautifully designed, reframing of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation -- sort of an activist introduction to a thing called Narrative Theology, which is all the rage among Christian Revolutionaries.

Last year, Shane gave me my single best piece evidence for convincing skeptics that something absolutely incredible is going on inside the church. First, I show them this picture (Shane, the speaker, is one of those specs down on stage). Some kind of right-wing Christian rally, right? It's looks like they're all on their feet reading something together off those screens. How fascist.

Then I play the audio. All those people -- mostly white, Republican, Southern, born-again Christians -- were on their feet reciting a "Litany of Resistance". It was the end of a long sermon/lecture by Shane at at the Catalyst Conference in Georgia last year. The litany lasted about ten minutes (you can watch the whole thing here). Here's one very short clip from it:

click the play button above to listen

With governments that kill...

...we will not comply.

With the theology of empire...

...we will not comply.

With the business of militarism...

...we will not comply.

With the hoarding of riches

...we will not comply.

With the dissemination of fear

...we will not comply.

But today we pledge our allegiance to the kingdom of God...

...we pledge allegiance.

To the peace that is not like Rome's...

...we pledge allegiance.

To the Gospel of enemy love

...we pledge allegiance.

To the poor and the broken...

...we pledge allegiance....

Usually the reaction I get is something like: "Huh... [long pause] How did that happen?"

In this case, it happened because Shane has been fearlessly, creatively and lovingly preaching that gospel of resistance from inside of mainstream Christianity. He doesn't stand on the outside criticizing and condemning. As a result, people listen. Almost all the speakers at that three-day conference preached on social justice issues, but usually they remained just inside of the audience's comfort zone. Shane crossed that line and kept on going, and going, and going. But he has a magical ability to keep people with him as he goes. After his talk, I heard kids clustered in the hallways grappling together with all the ideas he had introduced. It was an incredible thing.

But the truth is that same thing is happening all the time, all over the country, every day -- at big Christian conferences, in living room Bible studies, in Bible college classrooms, in little churches and in mega churches. (Check out my blog Revolution in Jesusland to dig deeper.) Shane has become one of the most famous and effective voices in this continuation and transformation of the church. But this was all happening long before Shane uneasily consented to glamour shots at Christian mega-publisher Zondervan.

Claiborne's first and best-selling book, Irresistible Revolution, tells the story of his own journey from church youth group jock to radical follower of "the God of the oppressed." It begins with trembling first outings to the midnight streets of Philadelphia with his Bible college buddies. (They asked "What Would Jesus Do?" and, after studying the Bible, concluded: Hang out with homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes.) He takes detours to work with Mother Teresa and intern at a "seeker sensitive" mega church in Chicago. Eventually, he returns to Philadelphia to co-found a Christian commune that humbly attempts to live in solidarity with and support of the poor and oppressed of a broken neighborhood.

Shane's story comes out of an organic and spontaneous movement. When I was telling activist theologian Brian Walsh about all the different places I was seeing this movement sprout up, he said, "So it's a movement of the spirit." That means something that God is making happen all over the place at the same time -- and that sure is what it feels like.

Irresistible Revolution is still making its way deeper and deeper into the heart of mainstream Christianity. I have seen it discussed in several Bible study groups and Sunday school classes -- even in conservative and rural churches. Some say it changed the course of their life. Others say it "challenged" them to think differently about God. Reading the book communally has spurred some churches to reach "outside of the four walls" to get involved more deeply in their community.

And then there are the young Christians who were already living out stories very similar to Shane's. They're usually thrilled to realize that they are in fact part of a large movement. But they're also made uneasy by the possibility that their own radical choices are just part of a passing fad to be commoditized by the very "Christian Industrial Complex" that Shane rants against the first chapter of the book. In Irresistible Revolution, Shane gives voice to a generation of young Christians who aspire to live wildly and dangerously selfless lives. But one of the ethics of that life is that you don't go seeking credit. Shane himself wrestles with the contradiction in an author's note at the beginning of the book. Sensing he is about to become one, he argues the last thing the world needs is another Christian subculture superstar.

In that respect, Jesus for President is the perfect companion to Irresistible Revolution. Having unexpectedly captured the attention of mainstream Christianity, Shane and Chris don't water down their politics or theology one bit. Instead, they deepen and broaden their radicalism. In Irresistible Revolution, it still sounded romantic when Shane said, "Jesus didn't fix my life, he wrecked it." It seems to be possible for some to read that book and conclude the Gospel is just about helping others. In Jesus for President, Shane and Chris unambiguously take aim at capitalism and empire; and they are much more explicit that Jesus calls upon his followers to actively resist systems and structures of oppression in ways that will ultimately put you in danger.

Since Irresistible Revolution, Shane has been speaking at tons of Christian conferences and mega churches. The more sharply he delivers his message, the more invitations he seems to get. I imagine he probably gets scolded by his hosts from time to time, but there are many in the audience electrified by what they hear. Christians recognize him as a prophet. And even the crankiest of conservative preachers knows that a prophet's job is to say things people don't want to hear. In that way, a certain kind of radicalism is built into Christianity. And Shane is taking it about as far as it goes.

OK, so that's an introduction to the Shane Claiborne phenomenon. In part two of this review I'll focus on Jesus for President itself.

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