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Monday, October 27, 2008

RevGalBookPals: Jesus for President

(Due to my over-enthusiasm, or inability to read a calendar, we accidentally started the BookPals discussion a whole week here it is again for further comments. Sorry! Songbird)

Maybe you're anxious for this election to be over (Let's just vote already!) Or maybe you're loving every minute of every campaign ad, debate, and editorial column.

But Shane Claiborne - founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia - notes in this beautifully crafted book that a different kind of campaign is possible. He and Chris Haw are the co-authors of our discussion book: Jesus for President.

Some of us who love the church long for the church to be different. We call ourselves "Loyal Radicals" in that we choose to stay in the institutional church while seeking to change it. And some long for our nation to be different - longing for a day when waterboarding is not possible and Hummers are not parked in our driveways.

And still others see that our nation will not be different until the church is different. We have confused Biblical faithfulness with American patriotism, and our churches have long lost the reality that Jesus' message is a radical shift from the consumerism and flag-waving messages that our congregations regularly hear - even from the pulpit.

Shane and Haw re-tell familiar Bible stories with a radical twist and ask questions that make us squirm. So . . . what do you think?

1. In the section called "When the Empire Got Baptized" the authors write:

"Flags on altars, images of the gods on money...Caesar is colonizing our imaginations. What happened to the slaughtered lamb, the Prince of Peace? There seems to be another gospel spreading across the empire... Two kingdoms are colliding. What is a Jesus-follower to do when the empire gets baptized?"

Is there an American flag in your sanctuary and, if so, what would happen if somebody moved it? Has there ever been a theological discussion about what it means for the flag to be a presence in your place of worship?

2. The Hebrew Bible conveys that, although God was Israel's ruler, they wanted a king like all the other nations. God gave The Ten Commandments and sent prophets to set people straight. But it wasn't working:

"The construction of the set-apart people into a living temple of blessing is going so-so. The solution: God puts skin on to show the world what love looks like. But here is the catch: The Prince of Peace is born as a refugee in the middle of genocide and is rescued from the trash bin of imperial executions to stand at the pinnacle of this peculiar people. A strange way to start a revolution..."

How do you hear your congregational brothers and sisters discussion the pros and cons of Obama and McCain? Is it about self-interest (a tax cut for me!) or are the candidates' policies/experiences/characteristics admired or rejected based on an understanding of what is "biblical"?

3. The fourth section of Jesus for President is called "A Peculiar Party", and it's a description the world's enormous problems according to the ancient biblical stories of the Jewish people. The Israelites were meant to be a people "set apart."

Are we in the church today, in any way, peculiar/set apart/different from our neighbors as followers of Jesus? How do we embody what we believe? Are we "political" in a way that conveys our faith in Jesus and our intentionality in following him?

Enjoy and discuss!


  1. 1. About the flag~Yes, there is. All three churches I've served as pastor or Interim Minister have had flags in the sanctuary, which was odd to me since the church I belonged to before and during seminary, as well as the church where I did my Field Education, did not. At Small Church, the U.S. and Christian flags hung on the wall at the opposite end of the sanctuary from the chancel, and really didn't seem to be objects of veneration. As an Interim, I'm in a short-term role which allows me to raise difficult questions, but thus far there have been so many to raise, the flag didn't rise to the top of the priority list. Or maybe I'm a wimp. I'll have to consider this.

    2. I'm currently serving a traditionally blue-collar (shoe factory town) church, where the people are amazingly open-minded. The parishioners who have talked about it with me are all for Obama on ideological grounds. Although the church has not completed the Open and Affirming process, this church of 99 members has a significant number of LGBT members and leaders (Church President, three Deacons including the Chair, my Bible Study co-leader), and people resonate with the inclusivity of Obama's campaign. It's a proud tradition in Maine to be a moderate Republican (witness our two Senators, though I would not necessarily classify them that way), so this is a move forward for many people who might not have considered a Democrat, much less an African-American, in the past.

    3. If we are set apart, it's in our quaintness, which is not what I think Jesus had in mind. But I'm convinced that the future of the particular church I'm serving is in that very set-apartness, offering something different to the people passing by in a highly commercialized area, just down the street from L.L.Bean.

    Jan, thanks for these questions!

  2. Re the flag issue: This created at least a mild controversy in our congregation; some of the veterans didn't understand why "our flag" was taken out of the sanctuary, even after the theological implications were explained to them. Our compromise was to put it in a corner in the narthex/fellowship hall...also home to a bulletin board honoring our church veterans and members currently serving in the Armed Forces; it's not a particularly jingoistic display, so frankly I don't feel that it's inappropriate -- rather than an exercise in bowing down to Caesar, to me it's more of an honoring of the past/current life experiences of our people. In any event, it's not a hill I care to die on, so to speak;-)...if this keeps people from militating to put patriotic displays in the sanctuary, then it works for me. (My partner, BTW, is a veteran...but has so far not wanted to be included in this veterans' display.)

    2. I have frankly not heard much political coffee-pot talk at our church, although one of our more active members has McCain-Palin signs all over his new SUV. (And we have Obama signs all over our lawn, next town over.;-)) But racism has reared its ugly head in our congregation in the past -- most notably when we sold our old church pews at a greatly reduced price to an inner-city congregation, and one old-time member was so incensed that he quit the church. And the church neighborhood is also home to a scary White Power cult/organization. But if you travel up and down the local roads you see pretty much an equal number of yard signs for both candidates.

    3. I don't think we use the "called out" or "set apart" verbiage all that much, but our pastor does draw frequent parallels to the values of the Reign of God versus those of the "powers and principalities."

    Great questions.

  3. Hi...I plan to join the discusison more later, time permitting.
    But, jsut had to share.
    During ,my internship year, I attended the funeral of a highly conservative theologian (initials are JL) in a tiny church south of that presbytery.
    There was a stone plaque on the wall (in sanctuary)honoring the "men and boys" of the church who died in the "war between the states." Fascinating.

  4. I hope to comment more on 2 and 3 later this afternoon, but in the meantime:
    1. flags...we have a flag but not in the sanctuary (anymore). It's in the "connecting link"--the glass-walled hallway that connects the old building and the "new" fellowship hall (built in the 60s). It's a main point of entry to the church building. The flag was moved there at some point during the last 10 years or so, I'm not sure whether by an interim or by the last pastor (the one I worked with) or, shockingly, near the end of the 31 year tenure of the previous pastor. In any case, it still comes up occasionally--one or two people sometimes ask/complain about not having the flag in the sanctuary. It's almost always the same one or two people, and interestingly they're all ex-Catholics. That isn't so unusual in and of itself, I suppose, since probably half my congregation are "recovering Catholics" but it seems mildly odd. I suspect there are others who want the flag in the sanctuary but don't mention it. When it does come up, usually I try to have a conversation about ultimate allegiance and symbolism. But sometimes I wuss out and say something like "that would be a really interesting conversation to have with the senior pastor and the worship committee" and then hope they'll go away. ;-)

    Side note: I really liked what this book had to say...but felt frustrated at times by the layout. I wasn't always sure if I should interrupt what I was reading to read the set-apart bits or what. And does anyone know whether printing this book was environmentally friendly? The sheer amount of colored ink seems un-green somehow, but I don't know for sure...anyone?

  5. I haven't finished the book, on my second try. Find it really tough, visually. Still trying.

    1) We have an American and a Church flag in the sanctuary, but I've never seen them moved from their places in stands at the sides of the nave. No conversation about it that I know. When I was an acolyte as a girl, we carried those flags in the procession...but we don't here. (We do have torches and a thurifer, maybe that's the tradeoff!)

    2) I have assiduously stayed away from this discussion at church. I already had one person from the church chew on me on Facebook because she disagreed with my stance and thought it shameful for me to take it, as a leader in the church...that was more than plenty. Yes, there are sometimes careful comments that make me know how people are going to vote...but we are really not going there. Thank God. With close friends, it's different of course.

    3) We are set apart in our commitment to regular worship. Several of the kids come to early service in soccer uniforms, etc., because their parents have said, "church is a priority and we are going every week." I know of one family that quit a team because it scheduled Sunday am games that kept their kids out of Sunday school.

    Politically - I tend to think that my faith informs my politics in a big way. My dissenting spouse reminds me of separation of church and state. I can't separate my feelings of what is right to do for people.

    thanks for this, JAn!

  6. I just want to get a start. I am not done with the book. I like it,but I find the layout sometimes hard to read, with my emerging eye problems.

    1. We do not have the flags in the sanctuary, actually outside in the narthex guarding the sanctuary door, the rationale being that the flags signify our "freedom to worship." There are some folks who don't buy that though, and don't like it, even though this decision precedes both of us pastors. My previous small town rural congregation had the flags right up there in the chancel, which I hated, but didn't do anything about. Just didn't think it was a battle I could win. They also had a memorial day service in one of the churches every year. When they said the pledge of allegiance in front of the flag and the cross, it made me a little uncomfortable. My WWII liberals in this church, when I told them this story, couldn't understand it at all.

    5. No, I don't think we are distinctive at all. I'm just a little depressed right now. A lot of my families come to church when it doesn't interfere with their kids' sports schedules.

    I will be back later in the day...

  7. I'm Australian and churches here rarely have flags - my husband and I were really shocked when we moved to the US and saw that the National flag was up the front of so many churches. The approach taken by our congregation was to just add more flags so that everyone was represented, but I don't know if that was a good move...!

  8. Diane,
    I have also foudn great difficulty coping with sports schedules and folks being tired from attending college games on sat....too tired to attend 11 service.
    My latest is a session memeber who has a daughter with cheerleading practice on sundays.
    Former pastor got flags moved, but still a strong desire for patriotic music on holdiays.
    Majority of my folks want to talk and are open minded, but we had a major blowout with one local candidate...lots of talk for and agansit him.
    Big thanks Jan, have notfinished book yet as I am really adhd and not sure what to read! Good ?s!!!

  9. As for us:
    We no longer have flags in the sanctuary but it's not because we are noble. (Someone took them to "be cleaned" and "lost" them. I honestly have no idea who did this. It's what I heard.

    Living this close to DC, few discuss politics openly. Both sides believe that "their guy" is more in line with sound Christian theology, but in truth, we probably all pick the candidate who serves us and ours best.

    We are set apart in that we offer computer training to people who are usually not found in nice brick churches: immigrants from Muslim countries who happen to be Muslim themselves. Several of these computer students have commented through the years how grateful they are that we are "really Christian." There is currently a homeless women who lives in our parking lot in her van with two dogs and she came to us because she assumed we would indeed be different from the people who oversee the shopping center parking lot, etc. We are and we aren't.

    Shane Claiborne teaches a way of living that is much more selfless than I have chosen. I often wonder: if my neighbors were asked to comment on whether or not I (at #2419) seem to be following Jesus, they would have some evidence that I do.

  10. Somehow I had it in my mind that the book discussion was next Monday :(.

    On flags, we have the flags in our church - one U.S. flag and the other the Episcopal flag, I think. I think they have been there FOREVER.

    However, we started a tradition because someone requested it and it has sort of stuck. When the Iraqi war began, we began singing the hymn that is to the tune of "My Country tis of Thee" after the Doxology. Now it is here and it is seeming to be there forever now. I really wish we weren't singing it. If we are going to sing it, I hope we are singing it for the right reasons, and not for thinking that God is taking sides.

  11. 1. Flag - NOPE. We meet in a movie theatre. It would just be one more thing to haul in and out.

    2. It isn't talked about. People just don't. And it's weird because it affects everyone. I don't bring it up because I'm such a "feminist" you know.

    3. Mennonites have spent a long time talking about "the third way" -- long before it got co-opted by Communtarianism...

    I enjoyed this book. There were lots of gotcha moments. I could have been one of the little girls in the opening photos. And I really feel, down to my toes, that the Church in the West has done a disservice to the message of the Cross by making it a socioeconomic icon.

    But wait. Let me tell you how I feel... ;)


  12. I had been at my assignment for less than six months when I tried to remove the flag -- didn't work the first time. The church was started by a priest who was former career military, and brought many ex-military people with him. But when we rearranged the sanctuary due to some other changes, the flag was quietly relegated to the vesting room, and it has been there for over a year, with no comments. I really had difficulty with the split personality of country allegiance and Christian love. Looks like the people have made their choice in love.

  13. Jen, sorry but I haven't been able to get a copy of this yet - but really want to read it - I read Shane's other book "irresistible revolution" and loved it - fresh style and a lot of hope too.

    As a non American I do find your nation's allegience to the flag rather interesting. That's not to say it's not elsewhere -but for example in the UK the Union Jack got very tarnished by its use by the National Front (an extreme right wing, racist/facist group) and as a result there is more waving of the English and Scottish etc flags than the British one nowadays.

    I feel extremely cynical at the moment but I am going to be honest enough to say what whichever candidate is elected in the USA I am afraid that it will be 'more of the same' (though I really hope I am wrong) ...

    As I said I haven't read the book but this "We have confused Biblical faithfulness with American patriotism, and our churches have long lost the reality that Jesus' message is a radical shift from the consumerism and flag-waving messages that our congregations regularly hear - even from the pulpit." resonates so much with me. And it doesn't apply only to the USA. Most Christians in the west have stopped hearing Jesus' message. And I long to go back to that.
    As a sort of response to #3...
    I am seeing the recent credit crunch as a wake up call. Love of money isn't biblical ... yet when non Christian nations look at the US, the UK, and other nominally Christian nations - they see mtv, shop programmes, provocative clothing, a disregard for the poor among us - and say they don't want a God like the one we worship. I can't say I blame them.

    Thanks for the discussion :) Just wish I'd read the book.

  14. Well, I don't have the book though I'm looking forward to reading it in the distant future, but I wanted to make a couple of flag comments. From whence I came, neither national flag nor Christian flag ever had been an option in the sanctuary, but intense political activism was. I've heard that immigrant German Lutherans during WWI were the first to place a US flag in their sanctuaries because they wanted themselves and everyone else to be clear they were Americans now.

    Although I don't recall the exact topic, quite a few years ago during a conversation about worship someone pointed out that with adequate scriptural and historical citations it likely would be very possible to prevent a flag being installed in the sanctuary, but removing the flag forever probably would not and could not happen.

    Again a few years ago, on the old (2nd installment, maybe?) online UCC forums someone started a thread about flags in sanctuaries. My immediate gut reaction was "what kind of theological idiot would even think to ask that?" but one of the replies opened my mind very wide. It essentially said, "Yes, we have an American flag in our church sanctuary. In our chancel the means of grace - font, table, ambo and cross - are on a raised platform; the flag is on the same level as the gathered assembly so the flag symbolically listens to and hears the prophetic word along with everyone else."

  15. I've gotten further in the book since last week, and I'm feeling defensive about my excitement over the current campaign. I don't mean that I feel the U.S. has a special destiny, but I do believe that we're on the verge of, even in the midst of, hopeful cultural shifts, and our election could be part of that. Interestingly, there's been lots of pseudo-Messianic talk about Obama, which he joked about at the Al Smith dinner. Just like a church anticipating a new pastor, we may be in danger of expecting a savior, and we know where that gets churches...

  16. Regarding Flags in the Sanctuary:

    I serve two congregations. Both of them have US and the Episcopal Church flags. One of the first things I did when I arrived was to see about moving them (I never asked for permission, just did it).

    At CC, the building is designed so that there really isn't any place to put the flags other than in the Sanctuary. And I didn't want to remove them completely, so they stayed.

    But in VC, the building has a different design, so both flags came out of the Sanctuary and are now placed in the choir.

    As a side note, the US flag at CC was a 48-star flag. I also corrected that.

  17. If it were entirely up to me - meaning I was the only one worshiping in our sanctuary ever - both church and state flags would be taken out. Naturally, others do tend to come to church here and I can't honestly come up with a good argument for taking either of them out. Those who really want them there notice them and draw comfort from them. Those who don't care don't notice they are there. We process the flags once or twice a year at most.

    I think I said on my blog that Democrats in this church have a secret handshake. It is overwhelmingly Republican but not overtly so. No one had a fit about the Obama sticker on my car. No one said anything about the McCain button someone wore yesterday. At my last parish, the man who wore his Republican tie and button to church one morning was spoken to by several of his friends about how inappropriate it is to bring politics into worship. My youth group asked me who I was voting for last week during a "stump the priest" session and I told them.

    We are not at all set apart. Those days are gone because we have chosen to abandon them. (Even when we were set apart, we weren't supposed to use that as a wall between us and everyone else.) We are, though, supposed to behave in a particular way and be prepared to defend our faith at a moment's notice. *I* think that's easier if I am a regular part of a worshiping community but I can't make anyone else come if they choose to do soccer or UT football instead of church. Yes, I join the ranks of the cynical on this point. I have one family who haven't been here but one Sunday since school started in August because this is soccer/crosscountry/marching band season. I don't know when kids have time to go to school let alone church, Sunday school and youth group.

  18. The flags...ah yes. Every church I have ever attended as well as the ones Ken or I have pastored, have had them on the platform. I never made an issue till this church. I just quietly moved them from the sanctuary to the entryway. I had an advantage in that I did it while we were remodeling and the sanctuary was empty...and the flags just never went back. I'm sure there were questions, but I never heard them. :-) :-) :-)

  19. Our flags, which were in bad condition -- which no one ever noticed -- got moved during a remodeling. New ones were purchased and placed in the fellowship hall, which made sense as that space is used for all sorts of events. But another dustup occurred, because of which a number of people didn't attend church for 10 years. The very Sunday after that pastor left, the sh-- hit the fan at a congregational meeting and some people marched the flags back up to the sanctuary, placing them behind the altar, askew, and right next to the cross. Well, the worship committee people decided not to fight it, but place them in a more pleasing manner, and away from the altar.

    I was neutral on this until seeing a film about the Nazi flags (yes, numerous) encircling the altar in a German church pre-WWII. Now I wish they were not in the front of our church.

  20. I'm glad you're doing this again. I have a mix of feelings about this election. Like Songbird said, I think we do have to remember the difference between a President and a Messiah. I do think we have some good possibilities for direction in our country, but I'm very nervous about some of the over-the-top rhetoric.

  21. Flags, check. We have quite a few families with military connections and lots of veterans. It would be a horrible emotional battle. I prefer a more "naked church" but this isn't my call and certainly not my battle. Our veterans day service in a few weeks should be interesting, and patriotic.

    Politics, hmmm. I think I've been felt out very subtly by some of the ladies at church. But I've not heard anything political at all. Even after Hubby touched on civic duty in a sermon a few weeks ago.

  22. AG folks tend to be overwhelmingly Republican, but I have remarkably little talk about the election, except for the fact that we want it OVER. Being a state of lots of "undecided" votes means we have even more political ads. The polls say Obama is ahead in Wisconsin, but the lawn signs would indicate a majority for McCain. What talk there has been has centered around concerns for "biblical" issues. This mostly means pro life versus pro choice issues, but I've been quietly interjecting comments (and prayers) about the poor, the marginalized, etc. I suspect that my church is split down the middle. That seems true for "evangelicals" at large, accordint to what I'm reading. It also means people are being very careful about what they say. This is not all bad!

  23. One of our parishoners -- an eccentric, very interesting fellow who was once studying for the RC priesthood and now lives "crunchily" out in the toolies -- is fond of sending weblinks to others in the congregation, including myself, on a regular basis...I've gotten, like, a half-dozen of them from him on one day -- Three Quarks Daily, John Spong (who is this man's hero), Daily Dharma, etc. Anyway,in the last few weeks he's been sending me some really vicious, borderline racist anti-Obama websites. I finally called him out on it -- e-mailed him and said, "Please stop sending me anti-Obama propaganda. Thanks." I haven't gotten any e-mails of any kind from him for two weeks now, and he and his wife have also been absent from church. I'm hoping they're just busy, but I wonder if I p****d him off. I don't care; it was inappropriate. I don't send him anti-McPalin stuff.

  24. lutheran chic

    glad you spoke up ... though I know it's not always easy to do.

    I still haven't read the book (hoping for it for Christmas -wouldn't have time to read before that anyway)

    but wanted to say that it's great that we have these book discussions here on Rev Gals ... I really do enjoy them :)

  25. oh and proclaiming softly

    I was neutral on this until seeing a film about the Nazi flags (yes, numerous) encircling the altar in a German church pre-WWII. Now I wish they were not in the front of our church.

    I bet this did shock :( yet we should remember that it was the flag of the ruling (elected) party. That always gives me pause for thought.


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