Zack Exley over at Revolution in Jesusland has been offering some careful thought and excellent questions about Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw's new book Jesus for President. His questions are well worth reading in depth, but for the sake of this short response, I'll summarize his concern as this: If new monastics focus on the small and local, how are we ever going to achieve large-scale social and political change? If people with power make the rules, why would Christians of goodwill give up power? Why not organize for shared power so that no one gets left out?
If there is a new monastic movement in North America, then I'm convinced that we can only understand it in the context of America becoming the world's "last remaining superpower" following World War II. For many of us young evangelicals, the Moral Majority and its demise unveiled for us the deceptions of power. We walked away from politics as we knew it because we didn't like who it made us. But we believe there is a better way, and we've tried to learn that Way from Jesus.
As I understand it, new monasticism is trying to learn what it means to live by the power of the Spirit in a world of competing powers. This means, first of all, that we give ourselves to prayer, trusting that there's time to listen in a world of urgent needs. The most radical thing we can do in a world wrecked by injustice is to open our imaginations to prayer. If we want to transform the world, we have to begin with our own conversions. As Gandhi said, "We must be the change we seek."
If there's time to listen to God, then there's also time to listen to our neighbors. I agree wholeheartedly with Exley that Jesus was an organizer, building a movement in first-century Palestine. His organizing philosophy, so far as I can tell, was the same the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) employed in Mississippi during the early 1960s. It consisted of sitting on porches, listening to people, becoming the beloved community with them, and helping all people to know that God loved them. The real power of Jesus' tactic was that it transformed rich and poor alike, setting them free for life together in a new community. It made possible a community that no one could have imagined before.
When we read the gospels closely, Jesus is obviously concerned with timing. Though he does not lay out a grand strategy for social change, he is a master tactician who obviously knows when to wait in Bethany and when to march on Jerusalem. There is a time for the beloved community to take its message to Washington. But you have to get the timing right, Jesus seems to say. The public witness is always dependent on the existence of a new community that points to another way.
New monasticism is not against political organizing or, as Dr. King said in 1968, "taking the nonviolent movement international." In an age of increasing globalization, it is more important than ever that we witness Christ's way to nation-states, corporations, and international organizations. But our witness there will only be credible if we've taken the time to be converted ourselves and to build communities of justice and peace where it is easier to be good. We won't end global poverty until we learn to care for the poor in our communities. Our cries for world peace will fall on deaf ears until we learn to live peaceably as Christians.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today's Church (Baker).