Author, activist, traveler and speaker Shane Claiborne led a jam-packed audience of Emory University’s community through his beliefs about combining religion and politics to achieve a common good in a speech titled “Jesus for President.”
“We’ve got to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” Claiborne said in his thick Southern accent in Emory University’s Glenn Memorial on Tuesday evening. “I think it’s really time to talk about what God’s dream is of the world.”
Claiborne's speech — brought to the campus through Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and preceded by a traditional African drum troupe — continued as his trailing, slam-poetry-like style captivated the listeners with topics like peace-building, social justice and Christianity.
The dynamic speaker has written extensively with books like “Jesus for President,” “The Irresistible Revolution” and “Red Letter Revolution” and has spoken in nearly all U.S. states and a dozen countries. His work and ideological underpinnings have been highlighted on Fox News, CNN, National Public Radio and The Wall Street Journal.
While Claiborne displayed the epitome of casual with his dreadlocks, baggy white T-shirt and sporadic jokes that invoked rambunctious laughter, he nonetheless framed an authentic seriousness among the spectators.
Initially, Claiborne expressed to the audience the way ancient Romans treated Jesus — not Caesar — as lord and how that should apply to the U.S. today.
“We have a different king, a different savior and, you might even say, a different commander in chief,” Claiborne said.
Throughout his speech — that inched on the edge of a sermon — Claiborne explained the world’s social ills through a religious viewpoint, pointing out that “God may have a different dream than the American dream.”
“What does it look like in a world where five percent of the population uses nearly 40 percent of the world’s resources?” Claiborne said. “Boy, this is the reality.”
One of Claiborne’s most emphasized qualms was about America’s excessive militarism. Every second, $20,000 goes to U.S. militarism, he said. To elaborate the point, he showed a quick animation video featuring Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s that revealed the exorbitance of the military budget compared to other countries and to other U.S. expenditures.
In Claiborne’s eyes, policy — like military budgets — is a spiritual matter, rather than solely a bureaucratic matter.
“I am not interested in how we can be more Democratic or more Republican,” Claiborne said. “I am interested in how we can be more Christian.”
Claiborne’s lessons were conveyed through multiple stories that took the audience on a journey from Pennsylvania’s Amish community to Iraq’s unique Arab hospitality. One of his most important lessons from these stories linked
back to the need for Christians to push politicians to do better.
“I think one of the dangers in an election year is to think that politicians are going to solve all our problems,” Claiborne said. “It is so important to remember not to be the chaplain of politicians, but the conscious of politicians.”
After his hour-long address, audience members’ questions extended the conversation into themes like rights for women and homosexuals, violence and extreme Christianity.
“One of the Early Christians once said, ‘The church is a whore, but she’s my mother,’” Claiborne said in response to a question, “Be the change you want to see in the church.”
After the questions, Claiborne wrapped up the night by stressing the importance of continuing the conversation.
“I hope that the conversation tonight outlasts tonight,” Claiborne said, “Keep the movement going.”
Most of the attendees were clearly captivated by Claiborne’s words as many nodded and murmured in agreement.
For community member Carol Fulghum who is used to more academic Emory speeches, the fact that Claiborne spoke as a preacher was a surprise. Nonetheless, she described him as an articulate preacher with grand ideas.
“I really liked his point about the distinction between changing the world and damage control,” Fulghum said.
“There is a lot of damage control that we need to address versus trying to get bigger and stronger.”
Fulghum said she particularly enjoyed the animation as it was a unique method of conveying the facts.
“Politicians could use that,” she said. “I thought it was a very simple, yet powerful, way of making that point.”
Emory graduate Val MacIntyre also said that the speech was unexpected but she still agreed with many of his beliefs, particularly the notion that “the American flag doesn’t belong in the church.”
At the same time, MacIntyre was a little concerned with the fact that Claiborne did not focus on the idea that a civilized society requires compassion.
“I worry about how things are going in this country in that regard,” MacIntyre said. “We may not be the number one country very soon.”
Emory University United Methodist Campus Minister and Director Joseph McBrayer had read many of Claiborne’s books before the speech. He was especially surprised by the speaker’s Southern accent but commented that it was an interesting, unknown quirk.
McBrayer said that many of the audience questions expressed some of his own skepticisms about religion, like LGBT rights and interfaith societies, and he was satisfied with Claiborne’s answers. As a minister, he discusses many of Claiborne’s points in an evening biblical study group he leads called “Jesus and Politics.”
“For many Christians, he was well beyond the realm of normalcy,” McBrayer said, highlighting Claiborne’s moderate and progressive views. McBrayer added that he knew many fellow Christians who are more inclusive than Claiborne, especially when it comes to minorities. Overall, McBrayer was impressed with the speech.
“I really enjoyed how he was able to answer very complex questions with intentional and thoughtful conversation,” McBrayer said. “I am still processing a lot of it.”
Of all his points, Claiborne made certain that one idea was not lost; that Christians should not misplace power in the U.S.
“We found the light of the world,” Claiborne said. “ It’s not Barack Obama and it’s not Mitt Romney. It’s Jesus.”