Q&A: Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is a Christian activist who leads The Simple Way community in Philadelphia. He has just released his new book, Executing Grace. Editor Jamie Cutteridge spoke to Shane about justice, Donald Trump, gun violence, young people and Jesus

JC: What are you up to at the moment? What’s motivating and inspiring you?

SC: We’ve started praying in front of gun shops and trying to hear from the victims of gun violence. We made a plough out of melted guns - that’s pretty sweet - turning swords into ploughs and guns into tools. I’ve been doing a lot of work recently around the death penalty and restorative justice. I know that’s not a big deal [in the UK], but in the States, it’s a huge deal. It opens up a lot of questions about how we understand why Jesus died and was executed. I’ve worked closely with murder victim’s families that are against the death penalty. I’ve interviewed people who were responsible for overseeing executions and heard what it did to them.

JC: Does a push towards restorative justice and being anti-guns ostracise you from traditional evangelical culture?

SC: Not really… I think what’s in question is what we mean by the word ‘evangelical’. What’s happened is a lot of evangelicalism has lost track of what we’re known to be passionate about: winning people to Jesus. The more you read the words of Jesus, you find yourselves baffled by what evangelicals have become known for. It’s a confusing word. The good thing is that there’s a younger generation who just love Jesus and want to change the world. With the death penalty for example, something like 80 per cent of millennial evangelicals are against it because they just can’t reconcile it with Jesus’ teaching.

One of the things I think that’s interesting is the ethic and passion of younger Christians in general – Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Pentecostal. They say, ‘every person is made in the image of God’. That shapes the way we think about abortion but it also shapes the way we think about the death penalty, refugees, war and gun violence.

JC: Do you think Donald Trump’s success among what we’d traditionally call the ‘evangelical’ vote is going to be a watershed moment for the evangelical church in the States?

SC: When David Duke, the former head of the KKK, endorsed Trump, it must make us question whether Christians should be aligned with the same candidate that the KKK has endorsed! But, the backdrop for this is that we have a racial justice awakening happening in our country: Black Lives Matter, truth telling about police violence and racial injustice in the criminal system. That’s the backdrop. So I think the support of Donald Trump is evidence of some reactionary elements to that. White Supremacy rises up a lot of times in reaction to that – it happened in the Civil Rights movement and times like that. We’ve got folks waking up to Black Lives Matter and folks are starting to tell the truth about some of our racial history. I think it’s a really exciting moment because there’s a kind of public lament and a public truth telling. You can’t have reconciliation until you have truth and we really haven’t told the truth about a lot of our history. I think this could be the beginning of some really incredible moments for us.

We’re not losing young people because we’re making the gospel too hard, but because we’re making it too easy

JC: How do we bring Jesus into those more radical conversations?

SC: Jesus is already there. We need to meet Jesus there. I’ve been to Ferguson [the scene of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent unrest] a couple of times and what’s been impressive is that the Church is right in the middle of it. We need to come alongside them and amplify those voices that folks are not hearing enough of. There are some great books coming out right now. Drew Hart, a young black theologian has written a book called Trouble I’ve seen. Christina Cleveland has written Disunity in Christ about the racial divisions in the Church. There’s so much out there and some of it we just need to pay more attention to.

JC: Young people are really invested in movements, harnessing energy and moving things forward. What does that tell us about the way that the Church needs to engage with young people?

SC: There are a lot of young pastors involved in these moments. The immigration and refugee situation is a really poignant one where we don’t have to go to them; they’re coming to us. So let’s open our homes and our churches. Dr King said, ‘The Church isn’t meant to be the chaplain of the state, it’s meant to be the conscience of the state.’

So let’s be a prophetic witness right now – we don’t need politicians to tell us how to treat refugees, we read the Bible and it tells us to welcome foreigners like they are our own flesh and blood because we too were once foreigners. This is a moment when our gospel has everything to say to this world. As we think of the huge ethical issues – the deep inequalities between the rich and the poor – the Bible says, ‘The mighty are cast from their thrones, the lowly are lifted, the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent away empty.’ We’ve got to figure out ways that we can think about what that practically means for us. What does the jubilee of the Hebrew scripture look like today? What does it mean to love our enemies in a world with ISIS?

I heard someone say that too many Christians are so heavenly-minded they’re not any earthly good. We end up using our faith as a ticket into heaven and ignore the world around us. That’s part of why we’re losing young people – they see the Church as irrelevant: it’s just talking about life after death. They want to talk about life before death. They want to talk about refugees, the environment and things like that. I’m really excited though, because more and more I see the Church engaging with this stuff.

I believe we’re losing young people, not because we’re making the gospel too hard but because we’re making it too easy. We’re not allowing it to speak to the current times – such a time as this.

JC: With all the pressure on young people to conform, how do we engage young people in a life that is so counter cultural?

SC: The word ‘evangelical’ pre-dated Jesus. The ‘proclaimer of good news’ – the ‘gospel’ – even things like ‘saviour’ – these words were political words that were associated with Caesar. There was already a saviour and his name was Caesar. There was already a gospel and it was the Roman gospel. When Jesus and the early Christians were using these words, they were fully aware that they were ripped out of the imperial lexicon and being spun on their head. Every time the early Christians were saying, ‘Jesus is Lord’, they were saying, ‘Caesar is not’. They had a different allegiance and a different identity. That’s beautiful for young folks and for all of us today, because we’ve lost a lot of faith in the systems and structures. That’s exactly where the early Church was. They were building a new society they called the kingdom of God – where God’s dream comes on Earth. That’s a really exciting thing for us to be able to think about. One of our prayers every day in Philadelphia is that God’s dream will come on our block, on our neighbourhood, on our city.

We’ve got to keep falling in love with Jesus every day. That changes us. That changes the world

What does that look like? I’m pretty sure it’s not one kid dying every day from gun violence or someone dying in the heat because they can’t get into a country. How do we create that world together? It’s an invitation to be a part of that divine conspiracy with God – to heal the things that are broken in the world.

JC: What are some of the things you’ve found that help you create that alternative kingdom or lifestyle?

SC: One of them is the fact that we’re called to be in community with each other. What we’re talking about is building a new culture where we value things differently. There’s that wonderful verse in Romans that says, ‘Let’s not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind.’ It’s an invitation to have a new imagination. We have new values because we’ve reoriented our lives around Christ. So when Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow, it changes the way we interact with possessions. Jesus says love your enemy and it makes us think twice about killing them. In order to do that I think we have to have community because the dominant patterns of the world are really compelling. There’s lots of others gospels that are out there – the gospel of Donald Trump, the gospel of The Kardashians – all of these things are preaching a different message to the gospel of Jesus.

When you’re a teenager you always hear that peer pressure is a negative thing, but in community it can also be a really positive thing where we create a gravity towards Jesus and towards the values of the gospel so that it’s not weird to sell what you have and give it to the poor. It’s not weird to share a lawnmower with five neighbours or to not have a car and ride a bike. I think that we have to have a group of people who are doing that together. It’s what the sociologists called a ‘plausibility structure’. The liturgy of the Church does that too. As we remember the story we’re part of, we’re remembering saints and heroes of the Church. Instead of having our identity formed by our national identify, we say that we’re part of new story. We’re part of this community of Christ that means we live differently to the world.

A lot of times I nod to the Amish – I don’t think everyone should become Amish but they do understand what it means to be a counter cultural. They think really differently about violence and possessions. I think the Church has a lot to learn from that. We’re forming people into a community that is different and that’s in the world but not of the world. It’s not conforming to all the patterns. It’s about discipleship and formation. What we’ve done is focus on the things we believe as Christians. Those things are important but Christianity is not just a set of beliefs. The early Church was called ‘The Way’ because it’s a way of living in the world. I think we’ve got to discover that again. What do our beliefs mean for the way that we live? What does it mean about how I own stuff or think about violence?

Mother Teresa said that we often find that the more we have the less we are. The more we have, the more we have to hide behind. In many of the richest countries in the world we also have some of the highest rates of suicide and loneliness. You can have good health care and still not have someone holding your hand when you die. You can have affordable housing but still not have a home. You can still feel lonely because there’s no one in there with you. I think that’s where the Church really does our work. As good as our laws are, no laws can heal a human heart and teach us forgiveness at the power of grace. I think those are all things that we need.

JC: If you could say one thing to young people in the UK what would it be?

SC: Fall in love with Jesus again. We’ve got to keep falling in love with Jesus every day. That changes us. That changes the world. When we lose track of Jesus at the heart of our lives and our faith, we end up doing all sorts of other wacky stuff. We become known for the very things that Jesus spoke against. We also need to trust in the biblical promise that love casts out fear. Fear is driving a lot of the ugly things that are happening. When fear drives us it doesn’t have a lot of room for love. When we create policies out of fear, we create really hateful, harmful policies. We’ve got to see the centrality of love again. What does love look right now with the refugee crisis? What does love look like when it comes to racial killing? The scripture says God is love and that if we love one another, God is there, with us.

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