Book Review: Jesus for President (section 1)

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : March 12, 2008

Tonight, at the Bethel Christarchy gathering, we explored the ideas and implications of section 1 of Jesus for President–the recently released collaborative effort of Shane Claiborne, Chris Haw, Holly Sharp and Ryan Sharp.

Before I share my experience of engaging this section with Bethel students, let me give you some background from the Introduction and Section 1 (and be sure to read my first part of this review here before continuing).

The rationale for this book is clearly proclaimed at the outset:

This book is a project in renewing the imagination of the church in the United States…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…(17)

In order to foster this renewal in imagination, the book injects the American Christian imagination with a big dose of the sorts of ideas extolled by the likes of John Howard Yoder. The authors state from the outset that they “don’t presume to blaze new trails of scholarship,” but to “attempt to distill the work of scholars and ordinary saints into an accessible read (while having a little fun along the way).” (21) I believe that they are, for the most part, successful in their goal.

Section One (Before There Were Kings and Presidents) offers a sort of Christian anarcho-pacifist overview of the story of Ancient Israel. Claiborne and Haw don’t address the questions of theodicy that could be raised by such an approach. Instead, they playfully work through the story, beginning with the words “Once upon a time there were no kings or presidents. Only God was king…” (25).

What follows is the story of a people set-apart who struggle against Empire. “Civilization” begins with fratricide, we learn…and that impulse to coerce and control continues as humanity gathers to build a tower to the heavens. God lovingly scatters them throughout the earth until God sets a people apart. These people get enslaved by the Egyptian Empire and are liberated by God. Unfortunately, they acquired a taste for Empire and asked God to give them a king. Good and bad kings reign, and God calls a string of prophets to challenge the kings and call the people to faithfulness. These strange prophets help keep the people of God on the right path, but most of the time, they fall off that path anyways. They fail to follow the gracious Laws given to them by God–laws that “were intended to create a new culture free of the unhealthy patterns and branding of empire.” (55)

The authors highlight the “Sabbath Laws” (especially Jubilee) as the sorts of laws that existed to bless the people and keep them free from “cycles of oppression.” Every 7th day is a day of rest (which is a spiritual practice with huge economic implications). Every 7th year, the land rests and debts are forgiven (setting many debt-slaves free). Every 7×7 years the land is reapportioned (which the authors creatively call “a regular scheduled revolution”).

Israel failed to live the Jubilee. And they continually turned their backs on God. But God never turned his back on them. God was about to usher in an entirely different sort of Empire, and bring Jubilee.

* * *

The discussion that followed was fairly mellow. So many of the troubling aspects of the Hebrew scriptures were brushed past in this brief section. The flood is described as “divine chemotherapy.” The Tower of Babel is seen as a gracious act, rather than an act of judgment or condemnation. By summarizing the story of ancient Israel through an anti-imperial lens, I think that some of the strange, violent wonder of the Hebrew scriptures got stifled.

However, it was largely helpful. Once the shortcomings are recognized, it is easy to see how framing things in this light can open up new ways of understanding the story of the people of God. And it certainly helps lay the ground for the coming Kingdom of God.

Knowing what was coming in the next section, we started talking a bit about the kingship of Christ in light of this section. We asked ourselves “what would it mean if we seriously believed Jesus Christ was our sovereign King in every area of life–religious, political, etc.” The students understood that it would call everything into question, but didn’t really explore the practical implications…but there will be plenty of time for that later.

for further reading . . .

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One Response to “Book Review: Jesus for President (section 1)”

  1. Michael Cline on March 12th, 2008 11:16 am

    Once again, I missed the gathering. :( Sorry.

    I like the narrative approach you outline here, although I agree that it really bypasses some issues that are naturally raised by inquiring minds. If the authors don’t want to go down those roads, that’s their prerogative I suppose, but if I handed that first section to most of the Christians I see on a sunday morning, they would have a hard time accepting any of it just because it seems to overlook theodicy and the like. I’m not saying they should throw it all out just because of that, but many wouldn’t have the imagination to plug away through the rest of the book–which sounds like the authors point in the first place. Can’t wait to hear the rest…

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