Monday, August 15, 2011


A few months ago I interviewed Shane Claiborne over the phone. This is a short excerpt of that conversation. The full interview will be published in an updated version of my book, [Subversive Interviews].

Keith: What were the experiences that God used in your life to open your eyes to the needs of others and what it means to follow Jesus into solidarity with the poor?

Shane: There’s certainly a ton of those kinds of experiences for me. But the one’s that most poignantly stirred things up in me have been personal relationships with folks that are hurting in different ways.

I’d have to say that being in India and seeing Mother Teresa and the sisters engaging the poor in Calcutta was very transformative for me also.

My time in Iraq was also quite significant. Being face-to-face with the collateral damage and seeing the myth of redemptive violence; witnessing some of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen in my life. That had an impact on me, as you might expect.

Being in Iraq during Advent and the week of Easter was powerful.

I think we have a hiccup in our theology or our politics when we encounter real people. Prior to any relationship it’s easy to cling to our ideology or to quote statistics or whatever. But I can remember one of my friends in college telling me he was gay and he said he felt like God had made a mistake when he made him and he just wanted to kill himself. Those experiences really mark us, I think. Because they are real human relationships and to me those are the kinds of things that have created the DNA of what love looks like and what justice looks like to me.

Keith: You’ve hit on something I’ve experienced as well. I think that when these issues become not just talking points or clever arguments but they suddenly have a name and a face and you’re forced to engage with actual human beings who are your friends and they’re struggling with poverty or drugs or their sexual identity, it’s a whole different story. When the people you love and care about are caught in addiction or trapped in poverty, or whatever, it’s not so easy to quote statistics or give easy answers. I mean, it’s one thing to win an argument about these issues on a blog but it’s something else when you’re friend is looking at you with tears in her eyes and she’s asking you for help.

Shane: Right.

Keith: When I spoke to Jim Wallis we touched on something I wanted to ask you about if you don’t mind.

Shane: Sure. Go ahead.

Keith: Sometimes I think Christians in America confuse politics with social justice and they have very little understanding of the Biblical mandate we have as Christians to care for the least and the lost and to follow Jesus into these uncomfortable places, regardless of political affiliation. Do you agree that we politicize social justice? If so, why and how can we break out of that?

Shane: I think it was Cornell West who said that justice is what loves look like in public. I think that’s true in a lot of ways. The language that I use for social justice is the phrase “restorative justice” because I think it gets at the heart of what Biblical Justice is really about. It’s not just getting what we deserve but it’s about restoring what’s been broken and creating space for reconciliation and forgiveness. It’s really the idea of “Shalom” and how righteousness and justice are the same word in the Hebrew. This means it’s about making wrong things right again and repairing what has been broken in the community we live in.

I think it’s ok to be involved with legislation as long as we don’t think that love can be legislated, or that it needs to be legislated. But good laws are not a bad thing either. We just have to remember that good laws can’t change a bad heart.

So, restorative justice is a work of God and the work of the Church.

Keith: It seems that this is what has been working itself out in your community there in Philadelphia. Sometimes the solution may be found in a courtroom, or before a city council, but other times the solution is found in someone’s living room as you pray with them.

Shane: Yeah. That’s like a prayer we have painted on one of our buildings here that says “Come Holy Spirit and repair all that is broken in our homes and in our street and in our world.” I think that’s really beautiful because it recognizes is a personal God who is about the restoration of all things and His Kingdom coming on Earth. I think we need to see justice as encompassing inclusion and immigration and the death penalty and poverty and war and abortion and all these are issues of humanity. We’re called to care about those things. We have to marry all those things together and not allow them to be divorced in our minds. These are all inseparable concerns.

In the recovery community they say “We cannot fully recover until we help the society that made us sick recover.” So, I think that we need an integration of healing for individuals and for our world that has grown very sick.

Keith: You mentioned recently that your community is like an onion. I know that doesn’t that mean you smell bad and you make people cry. So, can you explain that concept and unpack it more for me?

Shane: Really what we’re trying to do is to grow people into an integrated and holistic Christian life. It’s about what we believe but it’s also about how we live. So, the onion was, for years, the way we did spiritual formation essentially. In the monastic order it takes years to grow into that rule of life. So, I think we’re correcting one of the shortcomings of Evangelical Christianity which has been so driven to do evangelism that it’s forgotten discipleship.

Keith: Yes, you’re right.

Shane: So, rather than making members on a Sunday service we’re really talking about what it means to make disciples instead of merely believers. It says we’re called into the world to make disciples and I think that’s where our Christianity today has become really shallow. Our faith has become a set of doctrines on paper and not about our whole life and how we integrate what we believe. I think Christians in the past have been able to say, “If you want to know what I believe then watch how I live.” So, we’re trying to get back to that.

We also recognize that people are on different kinds of journeys and there are different layers within our community so it’s not like you’re either in or out. As we see with Jesus there were many different people at many different places. There are some people who think they’re in but they’re on their way out. (Laughs) Because they’re choosing patterns that are really contrary to what Jesus is about.

NOTE:The rest of this interview will appear in the updated version of my book [Subversive Interviews]. Available soon.


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