Activist Shane Claiborne challenges Christians to expand view of what constitutes 'pro-life' issues
Shane Claiborne thinks it’s time for a “fresh conversation” about the value of life.
In an interview with The Christian Post, the activist and author lamented what he sees as a glaring issue in many Christian circles: Concern for life seems to often begin and end with the issue of abortion.
But he wants Christians to expand their view of what constitutes a “pro-life” issue, namely, gun violence, poverty, the death penalty, Christian anti-Semitism and more — all topics he addresses in his new book, Rethinking Life: Embracing the Sacredness of Every Person.
“Jesus talks a lot about not just going up when we die, but bringing the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven and engaging with the injustices and the pain of this world,” he said.
“I saw on some of these issues, Christians not only were silent but were actually a part of the problem, were obstacles when it came to things that I think can save lives, gun violence or the death penalty and militarism and war, some of these other issues.”
“I think particularly at the time that we're living in where we've had one mass shooting after another, the murder of Tyre Nichols and escalating war in Ukraine, executions in three different states last month — it's a really right time for a fresh conversation about the value of life.”
Below is a lightly edited transcript of CP’s interview with Claiborne, where he addresses his views on the current state of being “pro-life,” his positions on hot-button issues like gun control and the death penalty and why he believes Christianity should transcend partisan politics.
CP: In your book, you talk about your own journey of getting to where you are now and how you are “mutt,” theologically. Share your journey of how you came to the conclusions that you share in this book.
Claiborne: I've found God in lots of different spaces, especially within the Church world. I grew up Methodist, got Pentecostal and got rebaptized, and leaned into the Catholic tradition, worked with Mother Teresa. All of that really shaped and formed me.
Everywhere I went, there were also a few bones I felt like I needed to spit out, but there was so much that was shaping me. You can see that in me and in my writing; even in our life here in Philly, there's still a charismatic side of that, there's a liturgical side of that, there's a little bit of all of that in there.
But when it comes to some of these bigger social issues, a lot of my spiritual life was really divorced from that, because it was much more concerned about going to Heaven when we die. And while I think that's important, I also think that Jesus talks a lot about not just going up when we die, but bringing the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven, and engaging the injustices and the pain of this world.
That’s the holy work of God, too, is challenging the things that are crushing people's lives.
I wrote Executing Grace several years ago to address the issue of the death penalty and gun violence, and I found the language of a consistent ethic of life or a comprehensive ethic of life to be really helpful for me, and to think outside of the silos or the isolated issues of, "this is the most important issue," and just to build a broader framework of, "every person is made in the image God."
CP: What is your observation about the current state of being pro-life?
Claiborne: The Church has been impacted by the culture wars between the Left and the Right, and some of these conversations get framed where the minority voices on the far Left or far Right really hold progress hostage from seeing some real changes. I think that's true on almost every issue.
I do talk about abortion in the book and the fact that a lot of us would like to see a reduction in the number of abortions that happen. One of the biggest things that are listed as a reason for having an abortion is financial stability and the ability of families able to raise a new child. What would help with that? Things like having access to childcare and affordable healthcare. Some of those that would say they are “for life” have blocked some of those policies.
There are a lot of folks that talk about common-sense gun laws. Even though I'm not a gun owner, I believe other folks have the right to own guns, but I think that there should, even as the writers of the Second Amendment said, be some reasonable restrictions and regulations around that; the limit that a gun can shoot without reloading, the number of handguns one person can purchase in a year.
And I think we can have a better conversation on abortion too. Because a lot of times people act like there are just people randomly in the last trimester of their pregnancy that decided to abort a kid for no reason. And I've yet to find that person. I know people that have had abortions late in their pregnancy, and for everyone that I've talked to, it's because either their child, or the mother's life was at stake, and it was a wrenching decision. So there's not always compassion and even reality.
CP: Some pastors have courted controversy by saying that there are biblical reasons to vote Democrat and biblical reasons to vote Republican. Do you think either party upholds a more biblical worldview than the other in the policies that they present?
Claiborne: I believe that Christians should transcend partisan politics. Our fidelity is not to the donkey of the Democrats or the elephant to the GOP, but to the Lamb of God. The irony is that I think that some of the teachings of Jesus are much more radical than what I hear on the Left or the Right: The idea of loving our enemies. What does that mean?
Our military spending is unprecedented, but that's not a partisan thing. Obama raised Bush's budget, Trump raised Obama's budget, Biden raised Trump's budget, so we just keep spending. We have weapons that have the capacity of 50,000 Hiroshima bombs. And we're the only country that's ever dropped those kinds of nuclear weapons on civilians, and we did it twice in one week. So, what does it mean to champion life on all fronts?
On the issue of immigration, I think it's so clear in Scripture and from Jesus' teaching, Matthew 25, “when you welcome to the stranger, you welcome me.” As the New Testament says, we welcome the foreigner, we might be entertaining angels unawares.
The Old Testament says we are to welcome the foreigner as if they were our own flesh and blood. So this is a constant thread in Scripture, and yet we've got some really terrible policies on immigration. This is not partisan. A lot of this is not about Left or Right, but it's about right and wrong. What does it look like to be a Christian? It looks like welcoming the stranger. That's not a Republican or Democrat thing, that's a Jesus thing.
CP: You write that being close to some of these issues changed your perspective. Talk about your time spent with some of these intentional communities and what you learned from them.
Claiborne: We're very good at having opinions about people we don't know. We’re very good at having sound bites and bumper stickers and T-shirts. And yet, those really don't come with much responsibility. But what does love require of us when it comes to abortion? What does love require of us when it comes to gun violence when that's the number one cause of death of American children? What does love look like on the death penalty? How do we love the victims of horrific, evil, violent crimes, without mirroring that violence through capital punishment and calling it justice?
Proximity is where all of this started, I grew up with guns and hunting, and yet, living in North Philadelphia, and now seeing gun violence all over our country, the toll that it's taking on human life, that became personal. It became personal when a 19-year-old was killed on my front steps. It also became personal as I got to know heroes of mine like Sharon Risher, whose family was killed in Emanuel AME church during their Wednesday night prayer meeting.
She's convinced that killing is the problem, not the solution. It's why she's concerned about gun violence, but it's also why she's concerned about the death penalty, and police brutality and violence. All of these issues intersect, and they're very connected, especially for those of us that operate under the understanding that every person is equally created in the image of God, and their life is equally sacred.
CP: You're very critical of the death penalty in your book. What do you think is a good alternative to the death penalty that would effectively reduce crime?
I argued for the death penalty for a lot of my life and very passionately in high school; I had all the verses I thought defended it. And a couple of things happened. I got to know folks on death row, and I also got to know murder victims and family members that really feel like the violence is the problem, not the solution. It's not going to heal the wounds to kill the person who may have killed their loved one.
So what do the alternatives look like? I think most of the world has figured this out. When I was born, most of the world was using the death penalty. Forty-seven years later, most of the world has abolished the death penalty or is not actively executing people. And there's only a handful of countries that are, the United States is always in the top 10 executing countries in the world. It's not a list that we should be proud of.
I think that we can keep society safe from people that are eminently dangerous, but the death penalty takes away that chance. I think that someone can change, and I've seen it from people that I've visited on death row, sometimes over a course of 10 or 20 years. They're a different person. Some of them it's because of what Jesus has done in their life. I believe that's why Jesus interrupted an execution in the Gospels, and said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And my goodness, if that doesn't make it clear, that none of us are above reproach, that none of us are beyond redemption, either. I think that are really two powerful truths at the heart of the Gospel.
We can do better than mirroring the harm, and that's exactly what the death penalty does. We don't rape people who rape to show them that rape is wrong. And yet in the most extreme case of murder, we still do hold to that logic, that we are going to kill to try to show that killing is wrong. And I actually think it does something to us as a society, when we continue to hold on to that logic that is such a contradiction to the Gospel of Jesus.
CP: What do you make of the push for medically assisted suicide in countries like Canada, where some people are choosing to end their lives because of issues like depression or anxiety?
Claiborne: The question I would always be asking is, “What does love require of us? And what is God's most perfect will?” If those are the framing questions, we might not all make the exact same decisions in the same context, but we've got some guiding principles. I tend to believe on every single issue, we should try to advocate for their life and for their dignity, and to extend that life, to make that life viable, which is why I write about Down syndrome and some of the other issues where we've seen life a little bit more expendable.
I have a lot of friends who do hospice care. And in one sense, that's what work that I did in India was in the home for the destitute and dying, and I held people's hands as they died. That was Mother Teresa's passion; no one should die without someone holding their hand. And when you go into the morgue, it says, “I'm on my way to Heaven.” And when you leave it, it says, “Thanks for helping me get here.” We're helping people transition from this world to the next and we get to whisper God's love to them, massage their muscles, and make that the least scary, and the holiest experience that it can be.
I think that’s the work that I think is before us. The love that we’re talking about is not just a sentimental, anemic love, but it's a daring, costly kind of love that can keep us up at night. That's the love I see in Jesus. It’s a love that’s willing to die, but not willing to kill.
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org