What if Jesus Meant What He Said? An Interview with Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is an author and the visionary leader of The Simple Way, a faith community in inner city Philadelphia that has helped birth and connect radical faith communities around the world. His adventures have taken him from the streets of Calcutta where he worked with Mother Teresa, to the suburbs of Chicago where he served with Willow Creek. His latest book which he co-wrote with Tony Campolo is called Red Letter Revolution.

KW: How does your new book Red Letter Revolution seek to resolve the conflict between Christian’s lives and Jesus’ words?

SC: The subtitle of the book captures things well: “What if Jesus Really Meant the Stuff He Said?” Tony and I simply dare our readers to re-read the Gospels, those words in red in many of our Bibles, and ask ourselves, what if Jesus meant that? Sell what you have and give it to the poor. Love your enemies. Do not worry about tomorrow but live like the lilies and the sparrows. You do start to say, if I were to do that my life would be ruined. Maybe that’s the point—lose your life if you want to find it. There are three sections of the book—one on theology, one on lifestyle, and one on worldview. But one thing that’s really important is that we aren’t pretending to have it all figured out…we aren’t pretending to be perfect. And that is one of the points in the book—people are not looking for Christians who are perfect. They’re looking for Christians who are honest. And part of the problem is we haven’t been honest about our struggles, hypocrisies and contradictions. The question isn’t whether or not Christians are hypocrites. The question is do we have room for another hypocrite in our church? And how might my own hypocrisies become a little less tomorrow than they are today?

KW: The book is written as a dialogue with you and your friend Tony Campolo. How does the conversational nature of the book shape the message you bring about justice and evangelical Christianity?

SC: The rabbis of old used to insist that we don’t learn through monologue, but through dialogue. Sometimes a student would ask, “What’s 2 plus 2?” and the rabbi would answer with a question, “What’s 16 divided by 4?” just to keep the conversation going. So the book is a rich, intergenerational conversation about what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus. Tony and I are not the same and we don’t agree on anything. I have more hair, and better style.  And we don’t agree on everything—one of the things we suggest is that a lost art of Christians is being able to disagree well.  And just as important as being right is being nice.

KW: What do you think is the single greatest justice issue missed by the majority of the church in America?

SC: It’s impossible to say gun violence is more important than immigration or either of those are more important than abortion or the death penalty. Any issue of human suffering matters infinitely to God. Having said that, I think one of the most urgent needs among Christians is a consistent ethic of life. Alot of folks who say they are pro-life are really just against abortion. To be pro-life from the womb to the tomb shapes the way that we think on all of these issues. And Jesus came to give life. He is life. His resurrection is an interruption of death and a triumph over suffering.

In a world riddled with war and violence, where gun violence kills 10,000 people a year in the US, where the death penalty kills dozens a year to try and show that killing is wrong, and where military spending is over 20,000 a second, where we have the capacity of 100,000 hiroshimas in our arsenal… it is time for a movement of Christians to consistently get in the way of death, and interrupt the patterns of violence with the love we see on the cross as it stares evil in the face.

The culture wars of our parents have left us polarized by party platforms and paralyzed between imperfect options—neither Republicans nor Democrats have a very consistent ethic of life. But perhaps we are on the cusp of a new movement—that is passionate about life—from the cradle to the grave.

Convinced that every human life is breathed upon by God and stamped with God’s image, we are ready for a movement of Christians who insist on protecting life in all its dazzling forms. This consistent ethic of life permeates and impacts every social issue—from abortion to militarism, from poverty to immigration, from capital punishment to gun control. I hope that we can decrease and eliminate abortion, embrace the immigrant and orphan, end the death penalty in the US, see poor people cared for, militaries turn their weapons into farm tools and life cultivated.

KW: As you travel and speak with different groups what questions do you find you get asked most often and what does this indicate to you about the nature of conversation about justice?

SC: I got a letter that said, “I find myself very lonely—with unbelieving activists on one side and inactive believers on the other.” I think alot of Christians who are engaging issues of justice can begin to feel lonely. Sometimes it can even feel like we have more in common with folks who are not Christian than we do with some of the folks who do identify as Christian. When Christians have often become known more for what they are against than what they are for, and for who they have excluded rather than who they have embraced it can be disheartening. But the answer to bad theology is not no theology—the answer to bad theology is good theology. The best critique of bad Christianity is good Christianity.

We cannot let the haters hijack the headlines—with stories of burning the Koran, holding signs that say God hates fags, and all that ugly stuff. We have to sing a better song. We have to create stories that make the headlines for love, for peace, for justice.  I think we are in the midst of a beautiful renewal in the Church, and the Justice Conference is a clear manifestation of that—there are thousands of us, maybe even millions—who want a Christianity that looks like Jesus again. We want to be known, as Jesus said we would be known—by our love. We are not willing to just use our faith as a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the world we live in. We are not willing to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Our faith fuels us to engage the world we live in—to bring heaven to earth.

After all it’s not just about going to heaven when we die, but about bringing heaven to earth as we live. Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

KW: Who are the people who have had the greatest influence on the development of your life and ministry?

SC: There are so many.  Some are dead—St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Rich Mullins, Martin Luther King. And there are others who are still around—like John Perkins, he’s been like a grandfather to us. I keep finding new heroes, like Maireed McGuire who won the Nobel Peace Prize—I went to Kabul with her this year.  There are tons of folks who have influenced me whose names folks would not recognize—some of them live on my block or on the streets. One is our 80-year old wild nun in Philly, Sr. Margaret. I’ve gone to jail with her a dozen times for protesting injustice (if you get arrested, I think it’s good to have a nun by your side).  Oh, and of course good ol’ Tony Campolo. He’s been like a spiritual dad to me.

KW: Who are three emerging leaders most Christians might not know but should be aware of?

SC: There are so many I don’t even know where to start. Actually I do—go to our website www.redletterchristians.org and you’ll find dozens and dozens of incredible leaders, speakers, and writers. Tony and I have interviews on the site with some incredible folks—from death penalty lawyers to folks that grew up as Compassion Int’l sponsored kids and are now changing the world. You’ll find all sorts of folks who are making sure that we don’t divorce Jesus from Justice. And part of what we do is remind each other that we are not crazy. Or if we are crazy, at least we are not alone. As Peter Maurin once said, “If I am crazy it’s because I refuse to be crazy the way that the world has gone crazy.”

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Categories: Features,Justice & Culture

Theology and Culture