Radical Christian activist Shane Claiborne has been a hero of mine since his 2006 book Irresistible Revolution rocked me out of my pew. Through his work with Mother Teresa, his formation of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, and his life of constant political action, this is a man who consistently challenges those around him to live how Jesus lived. In conjunction with Pensacola's United Ministries' 30th anniversary celebration featuring Claiborne, I prepped for this interview as I do most others. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that when truth starts spewing, you get out of its way and let it flow. Here's the transcript.
Talk a little bit about your upbringing. How much of your childhood was spent involved with the church?
(Laughs profusely) I grew up in the Bible Belt so in East Tennessee so church was the water we lived in. We were a fusion of Baptist and Methodist and went to church all the rime. My experience wasn’t like everybody’s. I really felt loved and cared for and had a genuine encounter with Christ in middle school and have been figuring it out ever since.
At what point did you realize the major difference between what you might call normal modern Christianity and your brand of “radical” Christianity. Was there ever a light bulb moment for you?
There have been so many. I remember one pastor saying, “If we find ourselves climbing the ladder of success, we better be careful because in on the way up, we might see Jesus on the way down.” I was very conditioned by the world we live in - to grow up, get a job, make as much money as possible, and go snowboarding every chance you got. That was my little narcissistic worldview for a long time.
Then I came up to Philly with The Simple Way and all that shifted. I had the suspicion that the world was bigger than the little world I grew up in. I’ve always wanted to spend time with people who’ve seen the world through different lenses than I have. That’s part of why I went to India. To try and expand my world. Someone once said that our world changes when what we see out the window changes. That definitely happened to me.
You mention the standard 9-5 there in that response. What advice would you have for those seeking to get out of that grind and to live a radically different life?
Part of what radicalized me is Jesus. I often meet these Christians that claim their life was such a mess and then they met Jesus and it all came together. My life was together until I met Jesus. Then everything went haywire.
I read the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus saying “Sow what you have and give it to the poor. Love your enemies.” I look at things like the beatitudes where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek”, and that peacemakers are the children of God. It’s the antithesis of things we’ve come to adore in America.
As you unpack that, you see so many other contradictions.
Coming out of the Bible belt, I had the Confederate flag on everything we had. We were the Maryville Rebels. I grew up with country music claiming, “This house is protected by God and a gun and if you want to come uninvited, you’ll meet ‘em both, son”. I grew up with that fusion of God and country. But then you look at the Bible belt and they’re the same ones who held on to slavery the longest. They’re the same states who are still holding on to the death penalty. That’s why I did this book called Executing Grace. Lynchings were happening 100 years ago in the same places where executions are happening today.
I came up to Philly searching for a Christianity that looked more like how Jesus truly lived. There was no one who was more radical than Jesus. It blows away so much of the chaff, all the stuff we hear from popular televangelists and what we hear from a lot of white evangelicals. You bounce them off Jesus and it just doesn’t pass the sniff test.
How is it that the same people that led me to Jesus have led us to Donald Trump? A tree is known by its fruit. The things he says are very much directly against what Jesus taught - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and goodness. I really clung to Jesus.
The solution to that is to sing a better song. Be that kind of Christianity that is known for love again.
The word radical comes from the same word meaning root. It gets to the root of what loving your neighbor is all about. I don’t think of radical as being wild and extreme. I think of it as very grounded and rooted in what we’re here for.
We always grow up with peer pressure being viewed as a bad thing, and it can be, but I think it can also be a really good thing. What community has been about for me is surrounding myself with people who look like the person I want to be. If we want to be more generous, we hang out with generous people. If we want to be more courageous, we hang out with courageous people. In large part, that’s what I’ve done for the last few decades is hang out with people who are more radical than me. They rub off on me. And if you hang out with cynical and self-righteous people, you become like them.
The community I’ve been building is with people who remind me of Jesus. They challenge me every day to be more radical than I am.
You were talking about the contradictions between how Jesus acted and how Christians often act in modern American society. What are the root causes of that separation?
That’s a great question. It’s a big question.
We’ve separated belief and practices. Historic Christianity holds that together in what we call Orthodoxy. That’s where we get right doctrine, right thinking, and right ideas, and right practice is where we get right living. Those are historically held together, but we’ve separated those. We’ve turned Christianity into a system of beliefs, even in our language.
A lot of Evangelicals talk about “believers”. You know, is your mom a believer? Are you a believer? You look at Jesus and he’s not just talking about believing. He’s talking about forming disciples, and that involves an entirely new way of living and a new orientation of how we think about possessions, violence, and a host of other things. Fundamentally, we have a crisis of spiritual formation and of discipleship building. Doctrines and ideas are important, but they don’t always demand a lot of us. The Bible says we can have faith to move mountains and speak in tongues and do all sorts of miracles, but if we don’t have love, it’s still empty.
When we focus on belief alone, we end up with a very shallow view of Christianity. Even more than that, we end up believing certain things that can often translate into a self righteousness that Jesus abhorred. He called the Pharisees a brood of vipers and the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of Heaven in front of you. We wonder why people are so mad, but these are the people who thought they had the corner on the market.
They had the right beliefs, but they didn’t have the right actions. Jesus is a great corrective to that. You don’t just see words on paper. You see love with flesh on. We see what God is like in a way that is really demonstrated to us. That’s why I keep pointing people back to Jesus. I challenge white evangelicals, “What if everyone in America had taken Jesus more seriously than their political party or their favorite candidate. I think we would have seen a very different outcome.
We’re focusing more on what we believe than how we live and love.
The Barnard Research study showed that when people were asked what they thought of when they heard “Christian”, the responses were anti-gay and judgmental and hypocritical. We’ve become known more for what we’re against than what we are for, more for who we’ve excluded than who we’ve embraced. And most importantly, the number one thing people aren’t associating with “Christian” is love. That’s the root of it all.
That comes through a lot in your work and your writing - a life of action versus simply saying things.
Exactly. We need some models for that. That’s why I’m always quoting people and always pointing to folks like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi and so many of the saints, both big “S” and little “s”. Martin Luther King. Desmond Tutu. Their lives still embody all the core beliefs, but you can also see what those beliefs look like. Christianity at its best is if you want to know what I believe, watch how I live.