News Profile: Jesus For President

Christians In Full Rebellion

Jim Scarantino
6 min read
Jesus for President
Monks Chris Haw (left) and Shane Claiborne urge Christians to rebel against the imperial state. (Jim Scarantino)
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You wouldn’t peg Chris Haw and Shane Claiborne as monks. Haw carries himself like a rock climber. Claiborne sports dreadlocks and quotes St. Francis and Gandhi with a hillbilly twang.

Yet Haw and Claiborne are indeed monks. These adherents of what is called New Monasticism live simply among the poor and forgotten at the “political fringes of empire.” Haw moved to the inner city of Camden, N.J. Claiborne lives across the Delaware River in the depressed Kensington section of Philadelphia.

Haw and Claiborne further distinguish themselves from stereotypical monks with their political activism. They stopped in Albuquerque on Tuesday, July 15, as part of a 20-city “
Jesus for President” tour. More than 400 people attended the lecture-worship-revival-musical offering at the City on a Hill church in the old Lobo Theater.

The message: America is Imperial Rome—“the beast,” corrupt, brutal, ungodly. As they built toward the climax of their presentation, statements of defiance of Rome by second- and third-century Christians were projected onto the stage. Today’s Christians are called to face the American empire as early Christians faced Rome. That means refusing to worship the state and its rulers, refusing to kill, living to serve the poor, and living apart from the gluttony and selfishness of the imperial economy.

The tour drew more than 1,000 people at a Catholic sanctuary in San Francisco. More than 1,000 people also turned out at a Methodist church in Dallas. The Jesus for President campaign staff travels in a vegetable oil-burning bus. On this stop, staff members were guests of Casa Shalom, an “intentional community” of Christians, who four months ago surrendered middle-class lives to move into a low-income neighborhood near Virginia and Trumbull in southeast Albuquerque.

“People are hanging off the rafters,” at their engagements, says Haw. “We’ve been overwhelmed. Sometimes half the crowd stays to share how they are living their lives simply, with love and against empire.”

Provoking the Christian Political Imagination

Jesus for President (Zondervan, 2008) is the title of Haw and Claiborne’s best-selling book. It is a manifesto for “the peculiar people” who will not bow to any president or king of this world. Jesus for President , according to the website, is about “a different kind of campaign,” “a different kind of party” and “a different commander in chief.”

“We want to provoke the Christian political imagination,” says Haw. “It’s not about seeing a Christian become the leader of the American empire. Jesus dropped the option for such a thing as Christian emperor. A true Christian president would begin melting down our guns and closing our military bases.”

Nor is their campaign about trying to influence the next election. Claiborne demurs when asked if he’s registered to vote. Haw is registered, but adds, “voting sometimes is just damage control.”

“The question is not
Are we political?” explains Claiborne. “But How are we political? Change doesn’t happen just one day every four years. We are not waiting for politicians to change the world. Gandhi, who studied Jesus, put it this way: ‘Be the change you want to be in the world.’ The way we live our lives is our politics.”

Claiborne’s work with the poor draws upon the example of Mother Teresa, with whom he worked in Calcutta. He was with the Christian Peacekeepers in Iraq and survived the American bombing of Baghdad. Haw’s group in Camden reclaims abandoned buildings and turns empty lots into community gardens.

Haw has taught at Eastern University outside Philadelphia, an institution headed by Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical who is serving on the Democratic National Convention’s platform committee. Haw is working on a graduate degree in theology from Villanova University.

Jesus for President is Claiborne’s second book. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Zondervan, 2006) brought him national attention. Claiborne is on an indefinite leave of absence from the Princeton Theological Seminary.

Rejecting the Gods of Empire

“We are seeing more and more that the church has fallen in love with the state, and that this love affair is killing the church’s imagination,” write Haw and Claiborne in their book’s introduction. “The powerful benefits and temptations of running the world’s largest superpower have bent the church’s identity … . Too often the patriotic values of pride and strength triumph over the spiritual values of humility, gentleness and sacrificial love.”

Through an overtly political filter, their live performance provides a quick tour of Hebrew scripture and the New Testament. Haw and Claiborne share the stage with The Psalters, a unique two-man band. The drummer is a human grizzly who growls and shouts in a scratchy bass voice Tom Waits would covet. The front man plays banjo, a ram’s horn, an accordion, a balalaika and fiddle. He sings like an Irish tenor, then like a Delta blues man, then like an Iraqi woman wailing against the sounds of American bombs exploding in Baghdad—sounds recorded by Claiborne’s fellow peacekeepers.

Are they preaching to a choir of radical Christians, or is theirs a message for a broader audience? What do they say to atheists and people who distrust Christianity?

“First,” says Claiborne, “I want to say I’m sorry—sorry for the things many of us have done in the name of God, things that are a contradiction of Jesus’ teachings. As Gandhi said: ‘I love this Jesus. I wish Christians would be more like him.’ The beautiful thing for me is that Jesus has survived all the things we have done to him. Maybe that’s proof this thing is a lot bigger than us.”

Haw nods in agreement
. “Early Christians were considered atheists because they had lost faith in the gods of empire,” he adds. “I guess that gives us a lot in common with people who think of themselves as atheists. We, too, have lost faith in the gods of empire.”

Do they worry about retaliation from the religious right, people like James Dobson and Pat Robertson, who have married religion to nationalism?

“The religious right,” Claiborne says with a kind smile, “hasn’t reproduced itself in the next generation.”
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