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.
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.”