Shane Claiborne, Christian speaker and author

Shane Claiborne is a nice guy, which is something of a relief. He has practically been given minor prophet status in some circles and, with a reputation for seriously practising what he preaches in terms caring for the poor, he could potentially be… well, annoying. You know the type: all justice, no joy; all the love in the world for the poor and downtrodden, but very little sympathy for friends who order Coke instead of fair trade organic soya-soda at the bar. Meeting that sort of person can be a pofaced, painfully serious affair that leaves one feeling drained and useless. Not so with Claiborne. He laughs an inordinate amount. More than anyone (including Christian comics) I have ever interviewed. And mostly at himself.

Telling me the story of how he came to have the carbon emissions from his travel offset by his community, he mocks his own piousness by pointing out that he’s allowing others to shoulder his burdens. When talking about the Christians who cherrypick their theology so they ignore the poor while focusing on ‘hot-button’ issues, he caricatures his own ‘fundamentalism’ when it comes to justice and jubilee. He laughs about it. On the website for the movement he co-founded, The Simple Way, the FAQ section includes the question: ‘Are you guys a cult?’ and the answer given includes the line: ‘there are lots of communities that still sacrifice animals,’ followed by assurances that this is a joke. The serious answer that follows talks about ‘forming an alternative culture, where it is easier to be good and where the fruits of the Spirit are cultivated,’ while embracing orthodoxy to the point of emphasising the bodily resurrection of Christ. If The Simple Way is a cult, it focuses very little on its famous founder.

Perhaps it’s that difference, along with practising simplicity and a non-consumer lifestyle, which makes Claiborne appeal to non-Christians. He continually gets letters from the unchurched who are moved by his focus on both theology and discipleship: a commitment to what he sees as the biblical imperatives of non-violence, solidarity with the poor and a commitment to justice.

His refusal to give up talking about Jesus and the Bible has alienated some secular leftists, but most of the angry letters he gets are from middle class Christians, alarmed by his attitude to consumer capitalism or his willingness to be part of public protests. From throwing money defaced with words such as ‘love’ away on Wall Street, to helping nuns pour blood on battleships, or handing out food to the homeless in a park (an illegal act in his city, Philadelphia), Claiborne’s Christianity is not for the squeamish, but it has inspired many outside of the Church to take another look at the faith. So what about his message for Christians? Is Shane Claiborne one of a kind – a radical follower doing things not all of us could, or is there something in him which could challenge all of us?

Is it a sin to be rich?

One of the best answers I heard to that question was from Rick Warren. He said it’s not always a sin to be rich – sometimes you write a book and it sells a million copies – but it’s always a sin to die rich. The real issue is, as John Wesley said, it’s not how much we give away, but how much we have left. So he capped his income at what would be the equivalent to a few hundred pounds or something, and gave the rest away. I think there are beautiful models for that.

I’m a big fan of not being driven by guilt. I think guilt’s a terrible motivator. But it’s a good indicator sometimes. Are we really loving our neighbour as ourself? We need to be set free to do that in a way God wants us to. One of my favourite lines from Mother Teresa is when this guy came up to her all starry-eyed and said, ‘You’re such a saint, I couldn’t do what you do for a million dollars,’ and she said, ‘Well, me neither.’ We’re being called by Jesus to live to the fullest, and many of us settle for something short of that. Many of us settle for the American dream or the European dream over God’s dream.

For many ordinary middle class Christians, the lifestyle you advocate will seem terrifyingly challenging. Can one ease oneself into true simplicity, or does one have to make a clean break and give up everything?

I think that the scriptures are onto something when they say we’re to work out our salvation with ‘fear and trembling’. This is something that we’re working at, listening to God and taking baby steps in. We have to celebrate those baby steps towards a more faithful and radical discipleship. For some people that baby step might be bringing a homeless person to dinner, for others it might just be stopping to talk to a homeless person because they’ve never done that. Every step is a step towards who Jesus is and who we want to be, and we should celebrate that journey.

That’s where community is so important, because community is about surrounding ourselves with people who look like the person we want to become. They continue to challenge us to risk more. We see in them an integrity that challenges our own contradictions.

An example of that for me was when I showed up to speak at a conference, which was talking about creation care and nonviolence. My friend showed up to do his workshop and he looked terrible, red in the face, like he had a fever. I said to him, ‘Are you sick?’ And he said, ‘No, man! I just rode my bike a thousand miles to teach my workshop here!’ [Laughs] It just shamed me as I stepped off my plane. Some people would say that I live a really radical life and I would say, ‘Well, you don’t know my friend. He rides his bike to teach workshops.’

In scripture, I think we do see people make radical lifestyle shifts. Jesus never compromises the cost of discipleship. Especially with the rich young ruler – he allows this man to walk away because he’s not willing to give up what he needs to in order to follow Christ. The scripture says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. So Jesus was inviting him into more than the life he had.

Interestingly, that seems to be the only scripture you’re always guaranteed to hear preached with the caveat of: ‘Well, that doesn’t apply to everybody.’ Why do you think that in churches where we claim to believe the truth of the Bible we’ve got away with ignoring parts of it for so long?

It’s a great question! One of my favourite lines is from Rich Mullins, the singer. He stood up at Wheaton [Christian university in the US] and said: ‘You guys are all into that born again thing, and that’s exciting and it’s true. Yes, Jesus said to this guy named Nicodemus that he had to be born again to enter the kingdom. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too.’

Rich had a great line for this question you ask: ‘I guess that’s why God invented highlighters. So that we can highlight the bits we like and ignore the other ones.’ [Laughs]

I think that one of the most dangerous things in the Church has been not just fundamentalism but selective fundamentalism, where we choose those things that God ‘really meant’. I mean, when it comes to Jubilee, I’m a fundamentalist, baby. Let’s take that literally. Let’s redistribute land and let the earth rest and release debt. Wall Street should learn some stuff about Jubilee.

What’s so exciting is that there is a generation in the Church right now, saying: ‘What if Jesus did mean the stuff he said?’ People are seeing how relevant and how wise and how true the words and teaching of Jesus are.

I think what’s exciting is that the peculiar folks that have taken many of God’s commands around economics really seriously – like the Mennonites and the Amish – are experiencing huge revival right now. People are going: ‘That makes a lot of sense.’ The irony is that people used to call folks like them irrelevant, saying they were ‘so out of touch with culture’, but the Amish are not going to be hit too hard by the recession. In fact, their way of living is an incredible critique of so-called progress. If we’re going to really continue to live sustainably on this planet, their way of life has much to teach us.

In an individualist society like ours, it’s almost a sacrifice to choose to make our community our physical neighbours, rather than opting for an online interest group. Is there a necessity or something desirable about geographical closeness when it comes to community?

Absolutely. And I would say that one of the great dangers is that in choosing an online community, we only have virtual friends and virtual communication without the depth of relationships that marks Jesus, the early Church and Christians throughout history.

Jesus didn’t just set up a system or an organisation or a commonwealth, he was constantly being interrupted by people pulling on his shirt or running out of wine at their wedding.

I think we have to be in touch with the needs around us, and allow our lives to flex because of those needs and relationships. One of the dangers of the current movement towards social justice is that sometimes it’s easier to love the ‘invisible children’ in Uganda than it is to love the people right next to us.

Mother Teresa had a great line when she said: ‘It’s very fashionable to talk about the poor, but it’s not as fashionable to talk to the poor.’ That’s the very nature of the incarnation: that Jesus moved into the neighbourhood, the neighbourhood from which folks said nothing good could come.

Just as important as making poverty history is making poverty personal.

Fans and followers of The Simple Way would say that what you are doing is coming close to being the ‘Church of Acts’ that is spoken about in many churches, but seen in very few. Is that what you’re aiming for?

The spirit of the early Church in Acts is very much our goal. That doesn’t mean that it’s all going to have the same form, just as we don’t ride donkeys through North Philadelphia. But what happened in the early Church, as you know, was that they began to share everything in common and it says, ‘There were no needy persons among them.’ That’s definitely our goal: to redefine our economics in terms of love for God and love for our global neighbour.

I think what’s beautiful is that sharing all things in common is not a prescription for community, but it’s a description of what happened as the Holy Spirit fell on them. They fell in love with God and with each another. They recognised that one person’s suffering is all our suffering. That if one person is cold while others of us have two winter coats, then we’ve stolen one. That economy and the love that drove that economy I think is very much our goal.

Why are good people, Christians, who are sincerely moved by the suffering they see on TV, still reluctant and full of excuses when it comes to significantly changing their lives to make a difference?

It’s not just that rich folks don’t care about the poor, but that rich folks don’t know the poor. In Matthew 25, the final judgement, where we’re all before God, according to Jesus the questions we will be asked are not doctrinal questions. It’s not: ‘Virgin birth: agree, disagree or strongly disagree?’ The question we’re asked is: ‘When I was in prison, did you visit me?’ ‘When I was a stranger, did you welcome me?’ and ‘When I was hungry, did you feed me?’

Every one of those is a deeply relational act. It’s going into the prison, it’s going into the world to find those who are hungry. It’s not, ‘When I was naked you gave money to the Salvation Army, and they clothed me.’ I think Jesus is calling us to relationship with those who are suffering. That’s a much harder call.

Everything in our world teaches us to isolate ourselves from poverty and pain and neighbourhoods where there’s high crime and people who don’t look like us. But the very pattern of the gospel is a call to move closer to those things.

You say you could have lived your whole life in Tennessee [where Claiborne grew up], thinking: ‘When did I see you hungry?’ What changed things for you?

What really changed things for me was that I did something dangerous. I picked up the Bible and read it. I began to see.

I am grateful that I had a sincere conversion experience and gave my life to Jesus, and I understood that there’s a God that loves me. But every summer I would go to a Christian festival and get born again, again. We’d come to the altar singing ‘Just as I Am’ and leave just as we were and keep living just as we always had. Then I read scripture and the scripture says that even the demons believe and they shudder, and the scripture says that we can have faith to move mountains and speak in the tongues of men and angels, but if we don’t have love then it’s still empty.

Really, the true test of our faith is how it works itself out in love, and love for our neighbour. The kingdom of God that Jesus talked about wasn’t just something that we hope for when we die, but something that we’re to live and bring on earth as in heaven.

Britain, like America, is involved in a war overseas. Many Christians are involved in the war effort, but is it possible for a person to love their enemies while trying to kill them?

There’s a debate throughout Church history around this. I would say, begin with the cross of Jesus. If we want to know what perfect love looks like when it stares evil in the face, we look at the cross. Jesus says: ‘Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.’ That, as Corinthians says, does not make any sense to thewisdom of the world.

Even Peter, as Jesus is telling him he’s going to die, says: ‘What are you talking about? The Messiah doesn’t die!’ Peter, of course, picks up the sword, cuts off one of the servant’s ears and Jesus’ response is brilliant. He rebukes Peter. He says: ‘If you pick up the sword you will die by it,’ and then he says: ‘Enough of this.’ He picks up the ear and heals the wounded persecutor, only to be taken into their custody. The early Christians said that when Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed every Christian. You certainly don’t see Christians picking up a sword again for hundreds of years.

The idea that we’ve got to protect the innocent is without a doubt the most compelling argument for violence. But the interesting thing is that Bonhoeffer [the theologian who tried and failed to kill Adolf Hitler] never said that what he was doing was noble or holy. He basically said, ‘I’m getting ready to sin, so don’t try to bless what I’m doing, but I don’t know what else to do and I’m willing to face God with this on my hands.’ That’s really different from what we hear about Christians blessing bombs and wars, saying: ‘This is God’s mission.’ That’s the place where it becomes dangerous.

Christians should be the hardest people in the world to convince that violence is ever necessary, not the people leading the war drums and calling for the death penalty. Of all people, we have been shown grace while we were yet sinners. We see a God that loves evil-doers so much that he died for us. How much more grace should we have for those who, like Paul, were terrorists.

We do have to take violence very seriously; we have to take evil very seriously. But we have to interrupt it, we have to get in the way of it, we have to get in the way as Jesus did.

If you could read the dozens of letters I get from soldiers, over and over they feel this collision in who they are as Christians and as military service people. It is so heartbreaking to hear, because part of what they’ve been sold is this idea that serving our country is serving God.

One of the kids said, ‘We are dying and killing for abstract nouns like freedom and democracy, and yet it doesn’t feel like Jesus, and I don’t see the world getting any better.’

I just returned from a trip to Iraq. We were going back to visit a little town where some folks had saved our lives after we had a car wreck on our way out [the last time we were there]. We had a stamp from the ambassador, an invitation from the mayor, and the US troops stopped us at the border. They met us in tanks and Humvees. The commander comes up and he says, ‘You can’t come into this country. We don’t allow civilians in, and you won’t make it 100 yards before they try to kill you. This is one of the most dangerous places in the world, and you don’t come to Iraq without guns.’

We said, ‘In all respect, we appreciate your concern for our lives, but our security does not come from guns. In fact, we think they’re making us much less safe. Our security comes from God. And from a trust that because of our non-violence and our hearts for reconciliation and friendships with the Iraqi people, we’re going to be ok.’

Eventually they let us in. I said to the US commander, ‘We’ll see you in a few days,’ and he, this English-speaking commander,said, ‘Insh’Allah’ (If God’s willing) [Laughs].

We were welcomed by that town. We were the first unarmed civilians to go there since the war started. We were able to listen, we were able to cry, we were able to hear them. I think that’s the kind of work that we, especially as Christians, should be trying to do.

The Simple Way supports single celibates as well as families in community. Why is this important?

I think we have a lot to learn about the gift of singleness to the Church and for the sake of the gospel. Jesus talks about it in Matthew. Paul talks about it. You look at folks like Mother Teresa and you don’t think, ‘Oh, man, if she had only met her husband.’ Part of what allowed her to be the sort of witness that she was, was her singleness and her single-minded devotion to God. One of my mentors is a monk, and he says, ‘We have to realise that in our society we’re obsessed with sex, but our deepest longing is not for sex but for love. We can live without sex, but we can’t live without love.’ We have to figure out how to create communities where people can love and be loved, and then I think that other questions around sexuality get a bit easier.

I’ve dated a few people over the last decade, and the question that I’m always asking is: ‘Are we more, together, than we are on our own for God?’ I think what I have certainly learned from the monastic renewals in the Church is that ‘mono’ means single, it’s the single-minded pursuit of God, as the pearl we leave everything for; it’s the love that we say ‘no’ to all other lovers for. The real question is: ‘How can I pursue God with the most single-mindedness and the least distractions?’ That’s what I’ll continue to ask.


Shane Claiborne is a best-selling author and activist. He is one of the founders of The Simple Way, a ‘new monastic’ Christian community in Philadelphia, USA, that promotes radical faith in Christ and radical engagement with the global poor through principles of peacemaking, communal living and hospitality in ‘the abandoned places of empire’. Tony Campolo finds him inspiring, he has worked with both the wealthy mega-church at Willow Creek and alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and has travelled to Iraq several times as part of unarmed peacemaker teams. His books, Jesus For President, The Irresistible Revolution, and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers, are gentle yet challenging introductions to a way of life that much of the Western Church has forgotten, but which, he argues, has always been central to our faith.