Donate to RNS

Plotting goodness together: An interview with Shane Claiborne

Activist and author Shane Claiborne talks about church, politics, and "red letter" Christianity.

Shane Claiborne is a leading advocate for a growing expression of faith called
Shane Claiborne is a leading advocate for a growing expression of faith called "red letter Christianity" - Image courtesy of Thomas Nelson

Shane Claiborne is a leading advocate for a growing expression of faith called “red letter” Christianity – Image courtesy of Thomas Nelson

Shane Claiborne doesn’t write books that tell you how to live. He writes books that he’s living.

At 38 years-old, Claiborne has become a leading figure in the New Monasticism movement. He is co-founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, PA and someone who believes Christians should engage the power structures of our day just as Jesus did. Claiborne always has a fresh twist on contemporary life that challenges everyone to rethink their walk with God. He’s the author of several books including The Irresistible Revolution, Jesus for President and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers. Here he talks about church, politics, and co-writing Red Letter Revolution with Tony Campolo.

JM: Why was it important to have a multi-generational point of view in your book Red Letter Revolution?

SC: Tony Campolo and I both speak a lot, and we began to notice that there were some crowds of old folks that desperately needed some youthful energy, and there were other crowds of young folks that desperately needed some aged wisdom. There is a certain power when old and young come together—we can do more together than we can on our own.

When we were starting our community a bunch of older Benedictine nuns said to us, “If you have any questions or want to pick our brains, please do—we’ve been doing community for about 1,500 years together so we’ve learned a few things.” In fact, one of my closest friends and mentors is an 80-year-old nun who’s as wild as they come. We’ve gone to jail together many times for protesting bad laws. (It’s always a good idea to have a nun next to you when you get arrested!) Whenever folks say radical Christianity is “a phase” of youth, I tell them they need to meet our 80-year-old nun or my friend Tony Campolo . . . they’ve been in the “phase” of radical faith for 50 or so years now.

So it was a gift to write this book with an old man with no hair, but who has dreams as I do. There’s something beautiful about that Scripture that says, “Your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). We need each other. There is power when the old and young dream together. The dreams get anchored in aged wisdom not some utopian fantasy. Every 70-year-old needs a young person in their lives to mentor, and every 20-year-old needs a senior.

JM: What role does the Church have in meeting needs—locally and globally?

SC: Love has no limits. Compassion has no party. It is the responsibility of every human being and every institution to end poverty and to interrupt injustice. I do believe that the Church is God’s primary instrument for ushering in the Kingdom (God’s dream) on earth as it is in heaven, but God is not limited to use only the Church, or only Christians for that matter. In the Bible, God uses brothel owners, pagan kings, murderers and mercenaries as instruments of good; at one point God even speaks to a guy named Balaam through his donkey. So God can use anything, and anyone—even a king or a president, even a tax collector or a businessman, a priest or a prostitute, a Republican or a Democrat. It is the church’s responsibility, the government’s responsibility, and the personal responsibility of every one of us to love. As brother Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

In the end, we need good laws, but no law can change a human heart—only God can do that. It is the church’s job, as Dr. King says, to be the conscience of the state, not the chaplain of the state.

JM: What role should the government play?

SC: I engage with local politics because it affects people I love. I engage in national politics because it affects people I love. But I don’t think politicians are going to change the world. In fact, the Gospel shows us change comes from the bottom rather than the top, from an old rugged cross rather than a gold royal throne.

Governments can do lots of things, but there are a lot of things they cannot do. A government can provide good housing, but folks can have a house without having a home. We can keep people breathing with good health care, but they still may not really be alive. The work of community, love, reconciliation and restoration is the work we cannot leave up to politicians. This is the work we are all called to do.

JM: What mistakes do party lines make when incorporating faith into politics? What mistakes do individuals make?

SC: One thing we say in our book is that mixing faith and politics can be like mixing ice cream and horse manure—it may not mess up the manure, but it sure will mess up the ice cream. One of the great dangers in political engagement is misplaced hope.

The question for me is not are we political, but how are we political? We need to be politically engaged, but peculiar in how we engage. Jesus and the early Christians had a marvelous political imagination. They turned all the presumptions and ideas of power and blessing upside down.

When we put too much hope in a candidate or a party we set ourselves up for disappointment. When I see a poster with Obama’s image with the word “hope” under it, something in me cringes—our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, the old hymn goes, all other ground is sinking sand. On the other hand, there are some Christians who totally disengage from politics and set their minds on heaven so much that their faith is so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good. Karl Barth said it well: “We have to read the Bible in one hand… and the newspaper in the other.” Our faith should not cause us to escape this world but to engage it.

The early Christians felt a deep collision with the empire in which they lived, and with politics as usual. They carelessly crossed party lines and built subversive friendships. And we should do that too. To be nonpartisan doesn’t mean we’re nonpolitical. We should refuse to get sucked into political camps and insist on pulling the best out of all of them. That’s what Jesus did—challenge the worst of each camp and pull out the best of each. That’s why we see Essenes, Zealots, Herodians, Pharisees and Sadducees all following Jesus and even joining his movement. But they had to become new creations. They had to let go of some things. Jesus challenged the tax-collecting system of Rome and the sword of the Zealots. Just because we are non-partisan does not mean we are non-political. We must do as Jesus did and call the best out of all the camps, and challenge the worst of each.

JM: What challenge/advice would you give to someone who’s fed up with American Christianity and is drawn toward “red-letter” Christianity?

SC: Discontentment is a gift. It’s the stuff that changes the world. But we have to use our discontentment to engage rather than disengage—our hope has to be more powerful than our cynicism. And rather than finding the devil “out there,” we battle the devil within us. The revolution starts inside each of us.

The best critique of what is wrong is the practice of something better. So let’s stop complaining about the church we’ve experienced and work on becoming the church we dream of.  Let’s keep refusing to accept the world as it is and insisting on building the world we dream of. Don’t let the haters have the last word. There are folks who burn the Koran and hold signs saying, “God hates fags” and all sorts of sick things—and they often hijack the headlines with hatred. We know that is not what Christ was like. Jesus has survived the embarrassing things Christians have done in his name. So let’s get back to a Christianity that looks like Jesus again. After all, he said that they will know we are Christians—not by our bumper stickers and T-shirts—but by our love.

Some will say it is idealistic. We say it is idealistic to think we can continue to live the way we live—with 5% of the world using half the world’s resources, with $20,000 a second being spent on war. I say let’s be idealists. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not yet see” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is believing despite the evidence and watching the evidence change. Faith is not accepting the world as it is but insisting on building the world God wants. Faith is being idealistic, because we have made an idol out of the status quo. Faith is believing in the impossible because we have a God who is master of impossible.