by Catherine Guiles
Nov 03, 2008

MARION, Ind. – Shane Claiborne doesn’t have much use for politicians – or their slogans.

“Christians have never waited on politicians to change the world,” Claiborne told students at Indiana Wesleyan University during chapel services Oct. 13. “We’ve found the light of the world, and it burns much brighter than McCain or Obama.”

The Christian author and activist was particularly critical of political phrases that espouse what he considers bad theology.

“Country First,” used by Republican Sen. John McCain, is wrong for Christians, Claiborne said. “We are kingdom people,” so the message should be “‘God first’!”

Likewise, he said, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s 2007 statement that “this country is still the last best hope on earth” amounts to idolatry.

Claiborne, 33, came to Indiana Wesleyan after the evangelical college assigned his book “The Irresistible Revolution” to first-year students as required summer reading.

Claiborne and Chris Haw co-wrote “Jesus for President,” which examines the relationship between the church and the ruling powers throughout history. They went on a two-month, nationwide “Jesus for President” tour this summer urging Christians to realize where their ultimate allegiance lies and live accordingly.

“We didn’t even think about the proximity between the election and his arrival on campus,” said Brad Garner, assistant dean for teaching and learning at Indiana Wesleyan. “Our position [on politics] is, your choice is your choice, but you need to participate in the process.”

In “The Irresistible Revolution,” Claiborne challenges rich Americans to get to know the poor and work on their behalf and recalls his experiences leading up to helping start an intentional Christian community in an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood.

He volunteered with Mother Teresa in Calcutta while a student at Eastern University, a more liberal Baptist evangelical school, and visited Iraq with a pacifist group before the start of the U.S.-led war in 2003.

At Indiana Wesleyan, Claiborne, dressed simply in a white T-shirt and baggy gray pants with his dirty-blond hair in dreadlocks under a brown bandanna, reiterated the messages of his books. The Tennessee native challenged students to not go along with popular trends in Christianity, such as the prosperity gospel and other beliefs that he called self-centered.

Instead, he said, Christians should be identifiable the way Jesus said he would be recognized as the Messiah, in Luke 7:22: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”

“Bad theology gets people killed,” Claiborne said in response to a student’s question during a talk-back session. “The litmus test for everything has to be, ‘Does it look like Jesus?’”

This is the second year Indiana Wesleyan has assigned a book to incoming freshmen, Garner said, and it uses two main criteria: how well the book connects students with their faith and whether the author connects as a speaker.

Student reaction to Claiborne “far exceeded anything we would anticipate,” he said. “Not all of the students liked [the book]. That’s the kind of difference of opinion we want to foster.”

Claiborne has not always been welcome at Christian campuses.

Cedarville University, a Baptist institution in Ohio, rescinded its invitation for Claiborne to give a lecture in February over concerns that his doctrinal beliefs conflicted with those of the college. Claiborne is friends with many people in the emerging church movement, which emphasizes narrative and conversation – at the expense of orthodoxy, according to critics. At Indiana Wesleyan, though, he said he doesn’t identify himself as emergent.

In spite of the controversy, Garner said his college had “no reservations” about having Claiborne speak at chapel services.

“As a campus, we’re beginning to realize we need to systematically engage with people” and have conversations, Garner said. “Whether [students are] going to have them here or somewhere else, they’re going to have them.”

Less than an hour from Indiana Wesleyan, Anderson University, affiliated with the Church of God, hosted Claiborne in 2006 for its Spiritual Emphasis Week including chapel services. The opinions of students there were mixed.

“I was dissatisfied with his words at the time and am still not a fan,” senior Carl Stagner, 21, said. “His claims about not aligning himself with one party are absurd when most of his beliefs coincide with that of the Democratic National Committee. So whether or not he wants to be a Democrat, his ideas make him one.”

Stagner, a Republican from Phoenix, Ariz., added that Claiborne’s ideas are “similar to a fad.”

“Young Christians are attracted to his words because they are radical and rebellious,” he said.

Junior Michael Kellermeyer, president of Anderson’s College Democrats, said, “I like a lot of his ideas” but not Claiborne’s attitude toward politics.

“I’ve heard people say they’re going to vote for Jesus,” said Kellermeyer, 21, from Berne, Ind. But in his opinion, “the ‘Jesus for President’ thing is counterproductive.”

At Claiborne’s alma mater outside Philadelphia, political science Professor Kathryn Lee said she thought he and some current students were turned off by partisan politics.

“Shane’s book flows out of an Anabaptist view of politics” that sees “the church as an alternative community,” Lee said. “I’m not sure you would come to the end of ‘Jesus for President’ and think, ‘I should run for political office.’”

Eastern has many community service groups concerned with domestic and international problems, Lee said, but participation in political clubs is small.

“I get a little frustrated with that,” she said. “If we only work with nonprofits and think that’s where God’s transformative power [is],” then the political realm may suffer.

Still, two Indiana Wesleyan students said they appreciated Claiborne’s message, even if it was controversial.

“His attitude [in chapel] was so phenomenally Christlike,” junior Steve Nichols said. “That really impressed me.”

Nichols, a Republican from Terre Haute, Ind., backed Ron Paul in the primary and may vote for him in the general election, even though the Texas congressman isn’t on the ballot anymore.

“Big government and centralized government aren’t doing much good,” Nichols said. “Trying to force Christians into big government doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of good.”

Freshman Abbey Green, 18, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., said she thought “The Irresistible Revolution” was “really controversial.”

“He was pulling us farther than everyone would agree with,” Green said. But “he wasn’t pushing us to do the same thing, just making us question and look into what Christ would have us do.”

Green hasn’t decided who to vote for – or if she’ll vote. She said she agrees with Republicans on some issues and Democrats on others.

Besides opposing abortion, “I’m interested in candidates thinking not only about the U.S.,” Green said. “We help other countries in order to help ourselves, but not in service or selflessness.”

Students at Indiana Wesleyan are pretty evenly split between the two major parties “because we have our hope in Jesus,” she said. “Like Shane was saying, we shouldn’t put our hope in a candidate at all.”


Catherine Guiles/Medill

From left, author Shane Claiborne and Brad Garner, assistant dean for teaching and learning at Indiana Wesleyan University, are seen at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Ind.

©2001 – 2013 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University.  A publication of the Medill School.