Jesus for President Report

As I reported to ya’ll a while back, our Eastern Carolina District of MCUSA brought Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw to town in July for a Jesus for President campaign stop. Laura Graber Nickel from our church in Chapel Hill, N.C., wrote a news piece on the event that ran in The Mennonite this past week (look here). But the editors took out a lot of good stuff. So, with Laura’s permission, below is her full report on the event. Enjoy.

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On a July evening in Raleigh, NC, every one of 500 seats in the First Baptist Church auditorium was occupied. The 200 people without a chair leaned against the walls and sat on the floor. Next door at Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, another crowd gathered to cheer their candidate for president. But back in the church auditorium, through storytelling, song and worship, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw described an alternative political perspective: Jesus for President.

The pair is promoting their co-authored book, Jesus for President, nearing the end of a month-long nationwide tour that has attracted crowds of 500 to 1000 people at every stop. In Jesus for President, Claiborne and Haw ask Christians to think differently about their political and religious allegiance, re-evaluate the church’s role in the arena of American power and politics and examine the way they live their faith day to day. “We’re saying that we see in Jesus not a presentation of ideas,” said Claiborne, “but an invitation to join a movement that embodies the good news with the way that we live in this world.” Their message includes a strong emphasis on peace and puts a high value on communities of believers who reject the world’s ways and live their lives according to Jesus’ teachings; both familiar themes to Mennonites.

“The Jesus story he’s telling is the same story that we’re familiar with,” said Dennis Boos, member of Raleigh Mennonite Church, at the mid-way intermission break. He and his wife, Kathy, are reading and discussing Jesus for President with their small group from church. They described Claiborne and Haw’s focus on the Sermon on the Mount and concern for the poor as two important ways Jesus for President resonated with their Mennonite beliefs.

Claiborne and Haw, who describe their beliefs as a mix of Catholic and Protestant with a Mennonite flavor, acknowledge that much of what they write in Jesus for President has direct connections to Mennonite people and Anabaptist ideas. “Some people have called our book ‘John Howard Yoder illustrated,’ said Haw. “That’s a great compliment, because Yoder’s definitely in the mix of how we’ve interpreted Jesus.”

In the last section of their book, a collection of stories illustrating how people are living Jesus’ example, they tell the story of a farming community in Belize that was visited by a thief who stole all their money. In response, the community did two things – printed their own money, which decreased the threat of theft by those outside the community, and, once the thief was released from prison, built him a house. The farmers from Belize are a community of conservative Mennonites.

So although the principles described in Jesus for President are well-known to Mennonites, according to Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, we could always use a reminder. “Sometimes we need outsiders to remind us of the best parts of our tradition,” he said. “Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw don’t claim to offer anything new about Jesus and politics. They simply piece together the best of what Mennonites have to offer and show how our political theology and political worship resonates with Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day and Gandhi and Oscar Romero, and the list goes on … we are forgetful people and need all the help we can get to remember how Mennonites of the past tend to cultivate a healthy suspicion when it comes to the promises of governments.”

The Jesus for President tour came to Raleigh by invitation from the Eastern Carolina District of the Virginia Mennonite Conference, with partial sponsorship from the North Carolina Council of Churches. It was Duane Beck, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church, who first thought of inviting Claiborne and Haw to add Raleigh to their tour. He envisioned the event as a way for like-minded people with Anabaptist ideas or tendencies to come together in an area of the country where Mennonites were few. “When I came down here [to North Carolina], I assumed there were well over a thousand Anabaptists here, and we didn’t know them and they weren’t all Mennonites and some of them didn’t know they were Anabaptists,” Beck said. “… and my dream was to see if there was a way to network these people together.” The Jesus for President event was one such way. It attracted about 700 people, from Pentecostals to Episcopalians, with a few Mennonites sprinkled throughout.

“To me the audience was the most significant part of the evening,” said Nathan Charles, who attends the Mennonite fellowships in both Durham and Chapel Hill. He recognized people in the crowd from many community groups ranging from local Mennonite churches to a local intentional Christian community. “It made me really happy to feel like all these fragmented pieces that seem so disconnected are part of a larger community, if only for one night,” he said.

“Regardless of what denomination they may be, there’s some Anabaptist stuff that resonates with them,” said Jeff Mountz, a member of Raleigh Mennonite Church, describing the crowd that gathered to hear Claiborne and Haw. He is an example of the type of person local pastors envisioned reaching through the Jesus for President event. Mountz was drawn to the Mennonite faith several years ago when he realized it embodied his Anabaptist values more than the church where he was worshiping at that time. To facilitate communication after the event, four area Mennonite pastors collaborated to set up a website with discussion forums, information about local Mennonite churches and upcoming events. The site, www.anabaptistexchange.com, was projected on a screen in front of the audience before the Jesus for President event began.

The question remains as to whether or not attending a one-night event will make a difference in how people live their lives. “The jury is still out,” said Villegas. “My suspicion is that people don’t need more information, we need to surround ourselves with a community on a weekly basis. We need accountability. We need to surround ourselves with imaginative and creative people who help us live the daily grind of following Jesus.”

Making connections with communities of believers striving to truly live their faith is exactly what Claiborne and Haw are trying to do. “I think what folks are looking for are authenticity and integrity, things that you can really wrap your hands around, as an expression of our faith,” said Claiborne. He described their tour bus, a converted school bus which runs on vegetable oil, as a small “experiment” in faithful daily living. “That’s something that folks can see,” he said, “That we’re trying to practice an alternative way of living that is rooted in what we believe.”

Comments (14)

  1. jeff

    This unabridged version is much better ;-)

    Reply
  2. somasoul

    I think it’s funny that Claiborne and Haw’s book is about how governments have never empowered the people the God but there are people using this idea to further their own political agendas.

    Reply
  3. Jason

    somasoul, could you say more about what you perceive to be their political agendas?

    Reply
  4. somasoul

    I don’t think Chris and Shane have an agenda. I think some people are using this type of work to advocate some new form of state run government.

    Anabaptists have a strong tradition of operating outside of traditional state based governments. But there is a strong movement within the mennonite church to begin leaning more and more to the left. They believe in compassion and mercy and equality (whatever those things are) and they believe that left politics will grant them those things in some measure. But they are wrong. Just as the evangelicals have been so wrong to place their faith on the empty promises of the Republican party.

    They will offer us these things. They will grant few. Our forefathers knew this and stayed out of the meddlesome business of the state. I see the Obama bumper stickers at church. I am not blind. (I saw the Bush bumper stickers at my old Baptist haunt)

    The state has never been an ally for our faith. They have either exploited the Rabbi’s teachings, fed us to the lions, or given our faith a bad name.

    Jesus’ government is no state run entity, that much I know. When you listen to Bush (or Obama or any other politco) you’d swear Jesus’ second coming is at hand with the pull of a lever.

    You’d think we’d learn.

    Reply
  5. Melissa Green

    Here’s my critique of the review: The focus of Jesus For President is *gasp* Jesus. The writer of this review has some how turned it into, “Aren’t Mennonites Wonderful?” That’s been my biggest problem with the Mennonite Church for the last fifteen years is that every time I go to one – there’s no sermon or gospel message. The whole thing is about, “We’re great because we’re Mennos. We’re better than everyone because we’re Mennos.” And ususally they’ve dug up someone who converted to being Mennonite from some other denomination leading the cheering squad. Now, eventhough Shane Claiborne is NOT a Mennonite, they’re trying to coopt him and his book and take the focus off Jesus and put it on Mennonites. It appears to me that Mennonites no longer believe that they’re saved through faith in Jesus Christ but by being Mennonite, and that is nothing short of idolotry.

    Reply
  6. Paul

    I think Somasoul nails it on the head here.

    And as for Melissa, she just pointed something out to me that I never thought of, but now that I’ve read it, it makes an awful lot of sense.

    The thing is, there’s an awful lot for Mennonites to be proud of. Their willingness to go and do social justice and not just vote for the right guy or read the right website is what attracted me in the first place. Or, as I put it to my pastor, I was glad that I finally found a church that got it right in my eyes…”relatively conservative theology and relatively liberal politics.”

    But, that said, yeah, there does seem to be a mennonite cult of personality. Which is bound to happen in what is essentially a VERY small denomination. Maybe that’s something that we as mennonites need to work on. A lot.

    Reply
  7. somasoul

    “Now, eventhough Shane Claiborne is NOT a Mennonite, they’re trying to coopt him and his book and take the focus off Jesus and put it on Mennonites.”

    HEY LOOK, WE KNOW ABOUT THESE IDEAS!

    “It appears to me that Mennonites no longer believe that they’re saved through faith in Jesus Christ but by being Mennonite, and that is nothing short of idolotry.”

    Or perhaps they believe that the things that make them mennonite (non-violence, peace, equality) come before their actual religion! I was accused last year of not being a Christian because I didn’t support the US military. But sometimes I get accused of not having Christian beliefs because I’m not a Republican or a feminist or I don’t want to bash in Fred Phelps’ head.

    Now, with the Jesus for president anti-empire emergent movement on the rise, again, we are co-opting ideas based on the culture of the day and the fad of the week.

    I believe in the Bible, what could more conservative? I believe that putting political or cultural isms in front of Jesus simply creates stumbling blocks for people, what could be more liberal and forward thinking?

    No wonder everyone is confused by me.

    Reply
  8. Newguy

    Okay just a couple of observations.

    “…advocate some new form of state run government”

    So what other kind of government can there be? That statement makes absolutely no sense.

    And also:

    “…Or perhaps they believe that the things that make them mennonite (non-violence, peace, equality) come before their actual religion!…”

    So trying to practice what Jesus preached is somehow wrong? That’s not coming before our actual religion it is PART OF that religion.

    I’m one of those people from another faith tradition who became a Mennonite — not BECAUSE of the cool name, but because they seem to me to come closest to practicing Christianity as it was originally intended.

    Like any group of people, Mennonites are far from perfect, but as a whole, they seem to me to be much better at practicing what they believe than the Christian population at large.

    I think it’s a healthy thing for Anabaptists on an Anabaptist web site to point out what’s right about their corner of the Christian world. As long as it stays within the realm of positive reinforcement and doesn’t cross the line into pride. (A fine line I know).

    But as human beings we need that kind of encouragement.

    Reply
  9. Adam

    I’m confused by you not because of your ideology, but because of the way in which you attempt to communicate it. Your posts are frequently ambiguous and unclear. If you have something worth communicating and if you are interested in being understood, it would be worth the extra effort to consider the appearance and tone of your writing. Rants do not tend to be effective means of communication; whether you intend it or not, many of your posts come across as rants.

    Reply
  10. Paul

    seemed pretty clear to me. Not that you’ll read this. I’ll probably just get moderated again…

    Reply
  11. TimN

    Paul, you’re not being moderated. When users post for the first time, their comments are held until an admin can verify they aren’t spam. I was on vacation so I didn’t get around to checking the comment approval queue for a couple days. Sorry about that.

    Adam, please name the person you’re responding to. Even if it looks like your comment is right after the comment you’re responding to, there are sometimes first time comments that are pending approval in between.

    Melissa, I think you’ve got a point there. I was embarrassed by the speakers at San Jose 2007, the bi-annual Mennonite convention. There was one new Mennonite whose message basically boiled down to: “Gee, Mennonites are so great, they brought my family food when we had a crisis.” It would be nice to hear in a conversation, but doesn’t make sense as a keynote address at a major convention.

    That said, I think the future of the Anabaptist movement is non-Mennonites drawn to Anabaptism. Whether they are part of the Mennonite denomination or not is irrelevant. And what is that movement about? From what I can tell it boils down to trying to live based on what Jesus actually said and did. Whether you call that Mennonite or Brethren or Amish or New Monasticism or Emergent shouldn’t matter.

    Reply
  12. Melissa Green

    Yeah, but when I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, I went to Catholic school – eventhough I wasn’t. So, when the public schools in the city I lived in were substandard and unsafe – the Catholic Church educated us. When my family didn’t have enough food to eat, the Catholic Church fed us. When my little brother died, and my family didn’t have enough money to pay for the funeral – the Catholic Church did. And here’s a very important thing – WE WEREN’T CATHOLIC.

    Mennonites have no special lock on social responsibility in the name of Jesus. Drive past any Salvation Army on any given day of the week – and they’re feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, etc. All in Jesus’ name. I once asked my boss if anyone kept record of how many people who were helped by the Salvation Army later joined, and he said, “Where do you think we get our membership from?” The Salvation Army doesn’t practice water baptism at all – they lay hands and pray for the holy spirit, so NOT Anabaptist.

    But, it isn’t about Catholic (not Anabaptist by any stretch of anybody’s imagination), Mennonite, Anabaptist, Salvation Army – it’s about Jesus and trying to actually do what he commanded us to do.

    Reply
  13. Mark

    How does one become Mennonite? Where does one learn ALL ABOUT the faith? Or denomination or whatever ya call it. It just seems like what I am reading is exactly where I find myself with my own faith.

    Thank you very much.

    Reply
  14. TimN

    Mark,

    Nice to hear your reading things you identify with. What are some of the connections you see with where you find yourself?

    A general on-line resource is the Who are the Mennonites? page on Third Way cafe site. If you want to visit a Mennonite church in your area, you can use the Mennonite church online directory.

    If you have more specific questions, feel free to ask them here and I’m sure folks will take a crack at answering them.

    Reply

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