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Reformer Interview: Shane Claiborne

Photo by: Tim Landis

In Nations Journal Vol. 3 we had the privilege of talking to Shane Claiborne, an activist and author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. He is a founder of the New Monasticism movement and an intentional community in Philadelphia. Though his lifestyle is far from ordinary, Shane offers compelling and practical advice for everyone looking to align their lives with the Gospel. We couldn’t include his full interview in the print journal, so we’re sharing excerpts below. Read on to hear his perspective on downward mobility and the power of community!

How do you define downward mobility?

It seems to me that there are dual movements happening in this thing that Jesus calls the kingdom of God. You hear that when Jesus talks about the last becoming first, the first are also becoming last. God seems to be celebrating those who have been forgotten and humbling those who are proud-hearted. I think for people of so-called privilege—and I consider myself privileged as a white male who got to go to college and lives in a home with running water and things like that—the call is to move near to suffering and to live in proximity to pain; to reorient my life so that suffering is not something I am trying to avoid or move away from. For people who were born in struggle, I think God is freeing them from oppression. God is amplifying their voice. God is raising up those that have been stepped on and pushed down.

Jesus has a whole lot to say to those in positions of privilege. And it’s not just about how the poor need us. It’s about how God wants to free our hearts from the obsession of ourselves and the fear of, or the façade that we are taking care of ourselves. For instance, the rich young ruler comes up to Jesus and Jesus says, “You need to sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” I think this was also for the sake of the rich man’s salvation.

One of the things with the downward mobility that resonates with people is what happens in Jesus is God leaves all of the comforts of heaven and joins the suffering here on earth and suffers with us. From the moment He’s born He’s a refugee in a manger, with no place to lay his head. I think that story all the way up to the cross where He is publicly humility and executed, in the form of capital punishment at the time, then buried in a borrowed tomb from a friend—all of those things are about Jesus suffering with us. And that’s a beautiful thing.

How is exercising our imaginations a spiritual practice?

I could start with the idea that we need to take our deepest passions and connect them with the world’s deepest pains. Many of my friends have done that. My friend Bryan Stevenson is one of the best lawyers in this country. He graduated with honors from Harvard. As an African American he could pretty much go anywhere he wanted. He had plenty of job opportunities and great salary offers, but he went to Alabama in Montgomery and began to defend folks who were on death row pro bono. And defend especially people of color that were wrongfully convicted and unfairly tried. Time Magazine named him one of the hundred most influential people. They’re doing this interview with him and they said, “Why would you be this kind of lawyer?” And Bryan said, “Why would I not be this kind of lawyer?” It makes total sense in light of Jesus.

I’ve got another friend who’s a massage therapist and she said she just got tired and maybe a little bored and she said, “I don’t want to just be giving massages to wealthy folks. I love them I love my clients, but I started to think, as a Christian how can I do this differently?” She got to know women in the red light district who are walking up and down the avenue all day selling their bodies. And she said, “These women have no massage therapist and their feet get blistered and calloused and tired.” So she became their massage therapist. She opened her clinic up to them, washes their feet, and massages their feet, and whispers to them how much God loves them.

And I think of my friends who are robotics engineers and are brilliant. They heard about kids in Afghanistan who are getting paid to disarm landmines. It’s such dangerous work—their fingers and hands were getting blown off, and they said, “We’re going to design robots that can dismantle landmines.” Now these kids don’t have to be endangered or lose their lives.

When you’re [young] everybody’s asking you, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” And I think a better question is, “Who are you going to be when you grow up?

What spiritual formation practices do you recommend for those wanting to align their lives with the Gospel?

The first thing I would say is community: that is absolutely critical. Folks love talking about community, but what does it really look like? Community is about surrounding ourselves with people who look like the kind of person we want to be. It’s very true that we become like those whom we surround ourselves with. So Christian community is obviously about circling our lives around Jesus, but other people also help us move closer towards Jesus. If you want to be more generous you hang out with more generous people. We become like those that we love, including Jesus.

The second thing is we need some resources that can create holy habits for us because some of what we’re talking about is exercising our soul. You don’t get more in shape physically by watching marathons or reading books about working out. You’ve got to actually start exercising. And at first it’s hard work, but you really need some structure and order to that and so I think we need some of these really traditional spiritual disciplines like fasting. Going without food sometimes helps exercise muscles of compassion in us, helps us identify with those who go hungry often, not by choice. And it helps us understand God’s hunger for justice when we give up things that we have easy access to.

Also even just like remembering these wonderful heroes and “sheroes” of the faith throughout history— these men and women who have lived radiant lives for God’s love. And those aren’t people we learn about in history class necessarily, unless you go to a Mennonite school or something, [laughs]. We’re discovering new heroes; we’re learning new songs. I think all of that is part of this formation work. Or else I think what we end up with is we end up with a very shallow spirituality that’s kind of a mile long and an inch deep you know. And it’s about believing a set of things on paper but it doesn’t translate into transforming the world. So that’s where I think these resources are real helpful.  And we need some good elders. I’ve been mentored by eighty year-olds that are wild. I’ve gone to jail with them for holy mischief!

You call yourself a Red Letter Christian. Can you explain this term?

[It refers to] the old Bibles that have the words of Jesus highlighted in red. Red Letter Christianity really about keeping Jesus at the center of our Christianity. And that may sound like a no brainer but the fact is Gandhi was asked about Christianity and he said, “Oh I love Jesus. I just wish the Christians took him more seriously. So often the Christians look very unlike their Christ.”

We want Christianity to look like Jesus again and for us to be known for the way we love again. Red Letter Christianity is also about how we look at Scripture, because scriptures sometimes are used to compete against each other. We see Jesus as the referee. Jesus is the lens that we are to bounce all of Scripture through. I think, as my brother Bruxy Cavey so wonderfully says, “We believe in the inerrant, infallible, authoritative word of God; his name is Jesus.” We don’t just have Scripture; we have the Word become flesh in Jesus. If we want to know what God is like we look to Jesus.

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  • Megan Sexton

    Megan Sexton spends most of her time writing, playing music in her band The Brave Kind, and slinging beers at Topa Topa Brewing Company in Ventura, Ca. She hopes to tell stories that speak of the good, hard, hopeful, and true things of being human. In the process of learning how to be a real person herself, she believes a taco, a good book, and a plunge into the nearest body of water can bring refreshment to even the weariest of souls.
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