For the past couple of years I have been following the Emergent (or Emerging) Church. Without a big book-buying budget I have been fortunate that many of their most vocal leaders are also committed bloggers.
A conversation with a friend (and the timely receipt of an gift certificate) were what it took to buy Shane Claiborne’s Jesus for President. While Claiborne would probably reject the label of “emergent” his theology and thought processes are quite similar to those of Emergent leaders like Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones. Claiborne perhaps represents the “radical left” of the Emergent movement.
There is one thing that all who talk about Shane Claiborne–his detractors as well as his admirers–agree on: he makes a very sincere and noble effort to practice what he preaches. Many of the projects of his The Simple Way community are outstanding and a genuine contribution to society and honor to the name of Christ.
In discussing this book I would like to take a look at what is right about it, and then get down to some of it’s more serious flaws.
What is Right
The author (or authors, I should mention that Jesus for President was co-authored by Chris Haw) are very concerned that American Christianity has become too greatly identified with American nationalism.
They are correct.
The fact that I was born in America takes a back seat (like, back-of-the-bus seat) to the fact that I am a citizen of Heaven (Phil. 3:20). If we are to be the church Christ wants us to be, then we need to stop acting like American citizens (or Brazilian citizens, or whatever) and start acting like citizens of Heaven.
Another excellent point that Claiborn hammers on throughout the book is the failure of the church to imitate Christ in ministering to those who are the most marginalized of our societies. Once again, his analysis is spot on, to the shame of many who call themselves Christians.
What is Wrong
In order to make his points, Shane Claiborne relies on some very shoddy theology. It is no surprise, then, that the conclusions he comes to are often wrong-headed and unbalanced.
First, the theology. Starting with creation and the fall, Claiborn weaves a narrative (good emergent word) of God calling his people to live separately from “empire”. The empires (be they Egypt, Rome or America–especially America) are corrupt, oppressive, and violent. God did not want his people to have anything to do with any of them.
Of course it must be agreed that God did not work through the great empires. He called his people Israel out of Ur, then out of Egypt. The Church was founded apart from Rome. This is true.
But to make that THE story of the Bible cheapens the message of Scripture. Redemption from sin is the overarching message, the common thread that unifies the Bible–not resistence to empire.
The great paradox of this book is that, while decrying the materialism of modern Christianity (and there is much to decry), Claiborne is guilty of reducing the Gospel to a materialistic “quality of life” issue.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in his treatment of Hell. On page 290, at the beginning of a section called “The Gates of Hell” he states: “There is a lot of bad theology out there.” Then, as if to illustrate that point, he treats us to four pages of REALLY bad theology. He confuses Christ’s references to gehenna with his reference to hades, completely ignores other parts of Scripture which talk about God’s judgment, and then sums it up with this doozy:

Hell is not just something that comes after death, but something that many are living in this very moment: 1.2 billion people groan for a drop of water each day; more than thirty thousand kids starve to death each day; and thirty-eight million folks are dying of AIDS. It seems ludicrous to think of preaching to them about Hell when we would do better sitting at the well asking them for a little water.

I in no way want to belittle the suffering of billions of people around the globe. I see it every day on the streets here in Brazil. But the fact remains, when Christ spoke of Hell (translated from Gehenna) he was referring to a place where the eternal judgment of God was poured out on evildoers. If people think the problems they are going through now are bad (and they are), wait until they have to face the eternal wrath of a holy God!
Another problem with Claiborne’s theology is that it is very colored by his leftist (although he most certainly would reject that label) ideology. So that even though he hates everything about the Empire, he is still thinks it is a good idea for the government to redistribute the wealth via welfare programs. He vociferously protests against the carnage of war (he REALLY HATES the Iraq war), yet when it comes to the abortion industry that daily slaughters thousands of babies for profit the best he can do is insinuate that you cannot be anti-abortion if you do not adopt. In fact, he refers to pro-lifers as “those who would like to see abortion grow rarer and become non-existent”, presumably excluding himself from that number. (page 235) His pacifist views cause him to ignore whole swaths of Scripture that must be addressed in order to consistently preach total non-violence. And his treatment of the homosexual question is limited to a sarcastic letter (pages 50-51) and the talking point about divorce destroying marriage, not homosexuals who want to get married. There is no hope offered for those who are in that lifestyle…just a fatalistic acceptance.
There are many other things that could be said, both pro and con, about Jesus for President. Time and space do not allow.
Let me say this in conclusion: You do yourself a great disservice if you use Claiborne’s bad theology as an excuse to ignore the very good points he makes. You do the Church a great disservice if you allow the good points he makes to excuse his bad theology.