“We can call anything Christian, but the real question is, Does it look like Jesus?” poses Shane Claiborne.
Claiborne lives in a neighborhood where shootings and homelessness aren’t foreign. His life is far from comfortable but he’s committed to following the life Jesus led – not just helping the poor and suffering but being in the midst of it and making their pain as well as their joy his.
In his latest book, Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical, he converses with John M. Perkins (Let Justice Roll Down) about what it means to be a leader and a follower. Claiborne recently spoke with The Christian Post about the book and his life as a “monastic.”
CP: I’m curious, is it still illegal to distribute food to the homeless downtown?
Claiborne: That’s a good question that I’m not sure the answer to. I think what happens is a lot of those laws are on the books but they’re just not enforced anymore. There’s a lot of anti-homeless legislation in Philadelphia like you can’t sit on the sidewalk, you can’t ask for money, you can’t play music on the street. A lot of the laws that we were fighting got really watered down to where they either became not enforced or the things we didn’t like about them we tried to get changed.
CP: How long have you adopted this life of living among the poor, the suffering? Do you feel that is absolutely necessary to live the kind of lifestyle you do as a follower of Christ?
Order Online: Follow Me to Freedom: Leading as an Ordinary Radical
Claiborne: I’ve been living in Kensington for 12 years I guess now. First of all, it’s also a neighborhood that I’m really proud to be from. In Philadelphia folks call Kensington “The badlands.” But I always say you have to be really careful if you call a place that because that’s exactly what they called Nazareth. They said nothing good can come out of there. I believe the very nature of the incarnation is that God moves into the neighborhood and the neighborhood where they said nothing good could come. So I believe that it is a part of the countercultural call of the Gospel to move closer to suffering rather than away from it. It’s kind of the character of God and especially the God revealed in Jesus. We see Jesus entering into suffering, he’s born a refugee in the middle of Herod’s genocide and he knew pain and suffering and oppression well in Galilee and in Nazareth.
So I think that’s part of what we see Jesus calling us to in stories like the rich man and Lazarus that we are not to live in gated communities or gated neighborhoods but we are to tear down the gate that we have built between ourselves and others out of fear or out of whatever has caused us to build those. We have to get outside the gates or else we find that as the rich man did the gates that we’ve built not only separate us from our neighbor but they also separate us from God.
CP: Would you say in order to fulfill the calling to be “the least of these” that Christians should be taking up a lifestyle similar to yours?
Claiborne: I think we’re called to follow Jesus. I don’t want folks to follow me. I think that are role model is Jesus and in Jesus’ life and in his teachings it’s just unmistakable that we are to care for those who are hurting. Matthew 25, when we are separated on the final judgment day as Jesus tells it we’re asked some questions by God and those questions are incidentally not, it’s not a doctrinal test. It’s not “virgin birth: agree or disagree?” But the questions like “When I was in prison did you visit me? When I was hungry did you feed me? When I was a stranger did you welcome me?” Certainly the way that our faith has to work itself out is in concrete action that affects the most broken and vulnerable people on the planet.
CP: Do you call yourself a monastic?
Claiborne: Not necessarily. People call us that but monasticism I think it has throughout history marked renewals within the church – repairing what’s broken in the church. The monastic commitment is a single-minded pursuit of God and so I love that. But monastic doesn’t mean that to everyone. Sometimes it means someone who’s run off to lock themselves in a convent and that’s not the kind of monasticism that we hope to embody. The kind of monasticism that pursues God with all of our heart and says no to all of the things in the culture that would cause us to compromise that commitment to God.
CP: You and John cite a lot verses on suffering and denying oneself that Christians tend to avoid. If all believers or Christian leaders alone took up those verses and lived it out, how do you think Christianity in America would differ from how it is today?
Claiborne: There’s so much in our culture that teaches us to move away from suffering and to move away from people who don’t look like us and to move out of neighborhoods where there’s high crime and things like that. And yet the heart of the Gospel is that that God hears the suffering, enters into the suffering. Hebrew Scriptures are filled with this. One of the first stories we have is God hears the cry and the pain of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and rescues them out of their slavery and over and over you hear this theme in Scripture that God is close to the poor and hears the cry of the oppressed. We don’t need to be doing this out of guilt or duty but out of this is what we’re made for. Mother Theresa had a great line when this journalist said “I couldn’t do what you do for a million dollars. You’re such a saint.” And she said “I wouldn’t do it for a million dollars either.” What you begin to discover is that we’re made to live for something bigger than ourselves and I think that’s what we’re about and what we’re discovering. Isaiah says so brilliantly, when we spend our lives on behalf of the suffering, our healing comes and our light begins to shine as well. So it’s not only life-giving to others but it’s life-giving to us. I think in a lot of wealthy countries we pursue other dreams – the American dream or the Wall Street dream or the Canadian dream. We settle short of the kind of life that God wants for us. We see those patterns leave us incredibly empty. In some of the wealthiest countries in the world you have some of the highest rates of depression, loneliness and suicide. We’re really talking about Jesus saying I really came to give you life to the fullest and not settling for anything short of that.
CP: John said in the book, “we have over-evangelized the world too lightly. We’ve gotten a lot of people to have supposedly asked Jesus into their hearts, but they’re not living with any gratitude. They’ve got Jesus working for them instead of them doing His work in the world.” What do you feel is the biggest thing Christians today have gotten wrong when it comes to following Christ?
Claiborne: I think we’ve become infatuated with evangelism to the point that we have an imbalanced focus on discipleship and formation. So what we end up with is a church of believers but very few disciples or followers. And you can worship Jesus without following him. If you look at studies like Willow Creek put out a study “Reveal,” what they found was they were really good at drawing a crowd but people’s lives weren’t really being transformed. So people believe something but even the demons believe we can have faith to move mountains but if we don’t have love it’s nothing, Scripture says. So what we’re really talking about I think is recognizing that in the evangelical church our evangelism has been a mile long but our discipleship has been an inch deep. We’ve got to really rethink what it means to have lives that are transformed and to have people that because of Christ they’re a new creation and they no longer live on the patterns of our culture. Romans says that we are to be transformed by the renewing of the mind and not to conform to the patterns of our world. So those patterns of racism, consumption, militarism, all the things that don’t look like Jesus, we’ve got to be cultivating people who think with a different imagination than the world around us.
CP: What would you do to make discipleship a mile deep?
Claiborne: What monasticism does is put together our belief and our practices so to begin to articulate what are some of the practices of Christianity, what are the ways that it looks? We can learn that by looking at the early church, by looking at Jesus and we can see that the early church shared all their money. They were busting through the barriers of class and race. So we have to relearn our identity, that our identity no longer centrally lies in America but it’s much deeper than that. That we are first Christians and that means we’re a part of a global family and that affects the way that we think about international conflicts, immigration. We’ve articulated some of those on our website. We have a list of some of those practices. We wrote a book called the 12 Marks of New Monasticism. John does that too. We articulate things that are at the core of our Christian practice, things like reconciliation and redistribution and locating our lives near to those who are suffering, hospitality and commitment to nonviolence. We see all those in Jesus. I think it’s important to say that nonconformity doesn’t mean uniformity but when you look at two tax collectors in Scripture, Matthew sells everything and Zacchaeus sells half of everything and paid people back four times what he owed them. So even though there isn’t one anecdote for how you have to live there is a transformed life that affects our economics, our vision for how we look at other people.
CP: You talk about the suspicion this generation has with leaders because there are so many bad leaders. Why do you think it’s come to this?
Claiborne: We’ve seen a lot of really ugly things from leaders both from political and church leaders. We’ve seen folks embezzle money and commit adultery and point fingers at other folks and then end up doing those same things themselves. I think you start to lose a sense of trust in leadership. And yet like John and I say, the answer to bad leadership isn’t no leadership but good leadership. I think good leadership as John embodies is that our credibility and integrity has to come from deep within who we are. You can have a lot of ideologies and very little to show from it. I know a lot of conservatives and liberals who have great arguments but … you can have all the right answers and still be mean or still have very little to show. I think John’s gospel is his life. Folks like Mother Theresa, we try to allow our lives to preach the message along with our words. I think that’s really where a lot of leadership has fallen short as it’s been built around really strategic goals and books people have read but Jesus’ leadership is … very relationally-based out of love. He’s always living in the middle of interruption and surprises and yet his integrity was his character of who he was and is and that’s in the end why I’ve chosen Jesus too. It’s not because I was scared to death of hell or I wanted crowns in heaven. But it’s because Jesus is so good and so beautiful and I want to be like him.
CP: You mentioned you didn’t come to Christ because you were scared of hell but because you found Christ to be good, love, peace. Can you tell me how exactly you came to Christ?
Claiborne: I grew up in the South, in Tennessee. I was immersed in the church in the Bible Belt. A lot of times I joke that every summer we would go to a Christian festival and get born again again and I’m really genuinely thankful that I had a time that I discovered that there’s a God that loves me. There kind of came a moment of sort of a second conversion where I said okay I’m a believer but am I really a disciple. And that’s when I began to ask questions on how my faith intersects with the world that we live in and that’s what led me up to Philadelphia and Calcutta and Iraq. My journey has been figuring out … we have to see our faith not as an excuse to get into heaven and ignore the world around us but really a way of engaging the world that we live in. The Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about was not just something that we go up to when we die but something we bring on earth. So that’s the question that we’ve been asking for the last ten years.
CP: Could you tell me about the “protestifying” you talk about? Is there too little of that and too much protesting from Christians?
Claiborne: It does break my heart that too often Christians have been known for what we are against and not what we are for and by what we hate and not who we love. I think it’s our responsibility not just to tear down but to build up something more beautiful than what the world offers. The best critique of what’s wrong is the practice of something better. Our best prophetic critique of what’s happening in the world is the witness of our God and of our community trying to create something more beautiful.
For instance, we had a vigil at a local gun shop in Philadelphia that has notoriously sold guns that have ended up being used for violent crimes in the streets. It’s among the worst gun shops in the country. So we had a vigil outside of it. But it wasn’t just to protest, trying to shut the place the down. What we were inviting the owner to do was to sign a code of responsibility that’s drafted by the national Mayors Association and if he signs that, he hasn’t yet, we’ll go to his gun shop and we’ll have a huge celebration that he has taken advantage of the opportunity to try to lead with integrity and take a step towards responsibility in that. I think we have to create momentum that says we can do better than what we currently have and it moves us towards steps of restoration and redemption rather than just write people off as bad.
CP: You say in the book some follow people because they feel loved not necessarily because those leaders hold truth. Is that what’s been happening in the Christian community today and that’s why we’re seeing many drift away so easily?
Claiborne: I think there’s a lot of things happening right now within the church that should raise flags for us. I think that part of what we’ve done is we thought in order to stay relevant to a new generation we’ve got to have more drums and drama and high-tech entertainment. The truth is if we lose a generation in the church it won’t be because we didn’t entertain them but because we didn’t dare them and challenge them to really take Jesus seriously in light of the world we live in. Paul talks about speaking truth in love. There’s a whole lot of talk of love without truth in it and there’s a whole lot of people speaking truth that doesn’t have any love or gentleness or compassion in it. So I think that’s one of the prayers I pray, that I speak truth in love.
CP: When I view this generation I see them as one willing to give up everything and live a sacrificial life. Is that what you see?
Claiborne: Yes, without a doubt. Within the church, if we don’t create opportunities for that then young people are going to go other places to do something meaningful in the world like to the Peace Corps, Teach for America and some of those are great programs but the point being that young people are aware that the world they’ve been handed is very fragile and they want to do something meaningful with their gifts to change the world. I think that’s exactly what God is about – is about taking our gifts and intersecting them with the needs of the world that we live in and that we have a God that doesn’t want to change the world without us. That’s the invitation. But if we don’t get on board with God’s invitation as a church then young people are going to go to other places and they’re going to give their money to other places if all they see from their money given to the churches is going to build buildings and pay staff then they’re going to give it someone that’s more responsible.
CP: Why are you so committed to following African American leaders in particular?
Claiborne: Because they’re really really wise. Like John Perkins, their wisdom comes out of their life and experience that’s different from us. Given the history and the legacy of racism and slavery in this country I think it is both my opportunity and my responsibility to listen and to learn from the other side of history and the people who have suffered from some of my ancestors and also from the continued legacy that racism has left and the scar that it has left on this country.
CP: You’re leading the simple way in Philadelphia, you’ve been to Iraq and you met mother Theresa. What kind of projects are you working on these days or have lined up?
Claiborne: We’re writing a book called Common Prayer that is a book of daily prayer. We’re hoping that it will be a resource that will help a church pray together across Christian traditions. So we try to highlight ways that different parts of the church pray together. We also use the lectionary in the church calendar alongside the world history calendar so you wake up in April and then you read this is the day that the genocide in Rwanda started so we remember those dates. We remember the dates that Martin Luther King was killed, Mandela was released from prison. It’s also got songs from all the different traditions – we have African spirituals, and Mennonite gathering songs and old hymns. Those are all in the prayer book. I think it’ll be an important offering to the church. It comes out next year.