“Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful.” —Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President
All the Somali Bantus at our apartment complex were so excited about Obama during the 2008 presidential race. They would tell me excitedly: “Obama will let all African-Americans go to college for free! Obama is from Kenya! Obama is a Muslim, just like us!” I don’t know where they got their information, but it sounded a bit right-wing to me. No matter—they were thrilled to think that they might finally have an advocate somewhere in the American bureaucracy. The women all started wearing dresses made out of a fabric patterned with outlines of the African continent and huge images of Obama’s face. It was jarringly pink but an effective campaign tool. Even the adorable little babies were dressed like toddling billboards. When Obama was elected, the Somalis were ecstatic, dancing and celebrating. Those months leading up to the elections were the first and last time we ever talked about politics. After awhile, the dresses gradually disappeared and life just went on and never did seem to get any easier. No one went to college for free, and so no one went to college at all.
It wasn’t just the Somali community that was excited—some of the most fervent proselytizers I’ve ever met in my life were the Portland Democrats of 2008. The zeal, the “HOPE” mantras, the outstretched arms and the screaming—it was like being back at a Pentecostal worship service. I looked at these people, my friends and co-workers, with the same amount of pity and condescension that I am sure people give me for my own religious beliefs: “Oh honey.” Long sigh. “You really believe all that?”
I felt sad for them because I knew what was inevitable: President Obama (handsome devil that he is) is no messiah; he is the free leader of a deeply polarized and contentious nation, a people consumed with burning oil whilst holding anti-war rallies. It is a no-win situation.
It is no surprise to reveal that I was raised a conservative Republican, listening to Rush Limbaugh on long car trips, dreaming of the day when I would be old enough and smart enough to call in and dish on those awful liberals. But as I grew older, I started to realize how politicians and church leaders were starting to seem like bullies, drawing ever-smaller circles around the elect.
Everyone goes through the phase of life where they insist that they cannot be categorized. I get that. But even as I balk at labels (or use them to score an obscure column-writing gig) it is clear this Christian part of me is here to stay. My politics, on the other hand, veer wildly from bored to communist to conservative to apathetic. Never is the schism so apparent than these months leading up to a presidential election, especially now that the popular media has fixated on Christians being an actual “thing” that can make or break a candidate. I’m pretty over it. Old white dudes have been trying to tell everybody what to believe and say and vote for for so long, both inside and outside of Christianity. In their world, there is no place for others: idealistic young women, pacifist boys, addicts and depressives, war-torn refugees. There are only other (mostly) rich white men.
As so many of my tribe clamor and holler about morality and security, it becomes harder and harder to identify with them. The conversation becomes one about power, protecting and keeping it. Based on the way we are encouraged to vote now, there is no way that Jesus would ever get elected on a Republican ticket.
Back in the day, people thought Jesus had come as a political messiah. It was their fervent hope that he was there to overthrow the oppressive Roman government and usher in the glory of Israel once again. But to everyone’s horror, Jesus proved them dead wrong, going on and on about the importance of women and children and foreigners and how there was no room for riches and the religious in his kingdom. He was there to throw open the gates, to tell God’s Chosen People that it was time to share their salvation, their money, and their time. It was all very subversive, very upside down.
His platform, the number one thing he talked about, was the Kingdom of God. And although I read about this kingdom throughout my childhood, I never understood what in the blazes Jesus was talking about. Which makes sense, because in the Bible, the religious people never got it.
My husband, who is a big theology nerd, says that I can’t explain the kingdom of God in a couple of sentences, a paragraph, or a column. “It’s like taking a bouquet and pulling out three flowers” he says. “You’ll do it a disservice.” He is right, of course. But, here we go anyway.
For many years, Christians have read and absorbed “the Kingdom of God” as a purely spiritual concept: the rule and reign of Christ in the believer’s heart. This is actually pretty convenient theology: believe in Jesus, go to heaven. However, reading Jesus’ words it becomes apparent that the Kingdom is very much about the here and now, changing the world to reflect what God desires: that the oppressed would have justice, the poor would be fed, and that the stateless wanderers would be taken care of. When taken at face value, that “kingdom” Jesus was always talking about becomes very inconvenient indeed, primarily because we are supposed to be the ones bringing it.
Once this sinks in, you can’t just live with your eyes to the sky anymore. It becomes hard to sing about the love of Jesus with children starving to death and an economic system that benefits you but not your neighbor is unjust. A country that claims to love the poor and huddled masses but fiercely hoards her wealth and opportunities starts to look increasingly sinful. It does to me at least.
I consider this my conversion story. I was never one of those kids with a good testimony, a story full of intoxicating addictions, the appeal of the sinner-turned-saved. I was destined for the far murkier sands of the religious upright, inadvertently becoming someone who was so good that they didn’t need saving anymore. I won’t bore you with the details, but one day my husband and I woke up to the idea that our lives of endless consumerism were detrimental to real relationships and most certainly built on the backs of enormous suffering. We became restless sleepers, dissatisfied churchgoers, bored commercial-watchers. We prayed. We read books. We scolded people, about everything (and consequently, we stopped getting invited to parties). We whined to God and asked him what we were missing out on. And then our lives were ruined, as we slowly tried to live like our savior, to place his values before our own.
If I was smart, I would use this odd little platform and try and convert you with something nice (Jesus loves you!), a warm little truth that slips easily down the throat. And it is true, of course. He loves me so much that I damn near have stars in my eyes, and because of this I believe every thing he said. I believe the way God intended for the world to work is possible and that he wants to use me to bring it. But my fear is that this can be construed as a lovely we-are-the-world sort of picture, everyone bonded together in harmony and singing “Imagine.” When the reality is, if you want to live like Jesus is your president it means committing to a long hard life of self-denial. A life of little privacy and no independence, of homelessness and restlessness, no promises of the pursuit of happiness, but great big draughts of joy.
Four years ago, when filling out my ballot for president of the United States, I carefully penciled in the name “Jesus.” My husband did the same. Everybody was super annoyed at us. But this year, I will probably do it again. I’m young and rash and poor enough where this doesn’t seem to matter all that much. When it comes to voting for presidents, for lobbying for change, to making a difference!—there are some of us who are starting to look far outside of the political system. We take our cues from Jesus: who cares about strengthening our borders or cheaper oil or people “stealing” jobs? When God is your king it takes all the fun out of being patriotic, of having a small gospel, of tightening the boundaries of what makes us a citizen.
Once you start this pursuit, nothing will be the same. Jesus, (never known for his sugar-coating skills) said: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). He wants you, yes indeed. But there will be no going back. Jesus came to fling wide the gates of heaven itself, and to redeem our lives in the here and now.
So we are learning: the kingdom of God is for everyone.
And: it will cost you everything.