Book Review: Jesus for President (Part 2)
How do we live as the people of God in the American Empire?

A few months ago, while visiting a church out of state, I had a moment of crisis. Just before the sermon, the pastor stood to give the announcements. After wrapping up, he invited a young man in military uniform to stand. The young officer had grown up in this church and had just returned from his first tour in Iraq. The pastor thanked the congregation for their prayers for the soldier and his family. The congregation responded with enthusiastic applause. So far so good.

But then the pastor reminded the church of the dangerous and noble work America's soldiers were doing in Iraq. He said they were protecting our American freedoms and that we should be grateful for their sacrifice. The congregation stood to their feet and began clapping?and clapping?and clapping. I have never experienced a more enthusiastic and prolonged standing ovation on a Sunday morning in my life.

What would you have done? I sat.

After the service I admitted to my wife that I was uncertain what the right response was in that situation. The tenor of the pastor's remarks and the zeal of the congregation's response did not seem to reflect Christ's call to love our enemies. I wondered how a brother or sister in the Iraqi church, which has come under increasing persecution, would have felt about this Sunday morning display of patriotism. At the same time, I felt like a total jerk for sitting while the rest of the congregation demonstrated their gratitude to the military. This experience and the questions it raised came to mind several times while I read Jesus for President.

In chapters one and two, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw summarize the Biblical narrative. (I covered their perspective in my first post.) In chapter three they begin exploring the implications of this narrative for those of us living in the world's most powerful country. They describe America as an empire parallel to the Roman context the first Christians endured. They also believe Constantinianism was generally bad for the church, and that the book of Revelation is less about eschatology than living faithfully within a diabolical empire. Whether or not you agree with these assumptions, Claiborne and Haw make a compelling case that the church in America has become much to cozy with the state - a point that my Sunday morning experience seems to validate.

According to the authors, the great challenge facing the American church today is how to live faithfully as the distinct people of God within an empire that will preserve its interests at any cost. To press this point they quote often from the early Church Fathers who existed within the Roman Empire.

April 02, 2008