Vice President Cheney’s Christmas card from 2003 contained the following quote from Benjamin Franklin:
“And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw have a lot to say about the American empire of our day in their book Jesus for President.
They call it “a project to provoke the Christian political imagination.” It’s about what to do when the empire you live in gets baptized . . . when the lines between faith and patriotism get blurred. It pushes the question, where does our ultimate hope lie . . . in kings and presidents, or in God? When it comes down to it, too whom do we pledge allegiance . . . to our country or to the Jesus we find in the scriptures? Referring to the Constantinian compromise as the “Fall of the Church,” Shane and Chris mount a compelling case that the followers of Jesus will most appropriately locate themselves on the margins and the fringes of empire, modeling a radical alternative lifestyle of allegiance to “another king” named Jesus. They echo the call of John in the book of Revelation to “come out of” the “great whore” of the global market and the kingdom of Caesar (apparently not all Bible passages come with a G rating).
Their emphasis is not on how to vote on November 4, but how to live on November 3 and 5. They want us, as followers of Jesus, to be able to say with a straight face and a clean conscience, “If you want to know what we believe, look at how we live.”
I love this book (how can you not when every page is a visual masterpiece) and the arguments are provocative as advertised. One cannot come away from this book without a renewed passion for following Jesus in radical ways in one’s own local family of faith. But I’m troubled by the lack of balance. (The following comments come with a grain of salt, since I haven’t finished the book yet.) Are the “fringes of empire” the only appropriate places for followers of Jesus to locate themselves? Is there a place for Christians as civil servants or legislators or presidential candidates? Because a government will never fully implement the reign of God this side of Jesus’ return, does that mean we should separate ourselves from it completely? Is it possible to pledge allegiance only to Jesus but to still seek influence in the halls of power?
These questions were floating through my mind going into the Envision conference. I had my ears tuned in to see how they would be addressed, since I knew the participants would have a wide range of views on the matter.
Shane talked about this stuff Sunday night, and panel including Shane, Lisa Sharon Harper, Bart Campolo, and Miroslav Volf returned to these issues Monday afternoon. I have some notes, but I seem not to have connected them all with a person who said them. I think it was Shane who at one point conceded that “if we see someone else [in politics] coming alongside the marginalized, we can go along with them.” Someone noted that Daniel, while in captivity in the Babylonian empire, became advisor to the king, while managing not to compromise himself (though he didn’t always have an easy time of it). Harper, while affirming our vocation to form communities embodying an alternative way of life, lamented that without political involvement, the volume of change that can occur (at least in the short term) is so much smaller. Someone added that “No candidate will deliver the kingdom of God, but they can contribute.” Bart Campolo, passionate and opinionated man that he is, insisted “YOU VOTE!” Volf argued that voting and participating in the political process is a way of stewarding that portion of your money that goes to pay taxes, and that even if you have little hope that political leaders will do real good, at least we can hope to prevent them from doing the kind of harm that they have in the past few years! He delineated the proper contributions that Christians can make to the political arena and the broader public square:
1) compelling embodiment
Also at the conference were others such as Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, who have been passionate advocates for political activism on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Sider didn’t even need to speak in order to make his point–I was told that he had to leave the conference early in order to meet with Barack Obama.
Together, the speakers clarified and confirmed my desire for a balanced view of our proper place as followers of Jesus in this American empire. My personal takeaway? Keep trying to live a balanced life of embodiment, vision, and critique, without idolizing political power or putting my ultimate hope in it.