Monday, September 3, 2007

Revolutionary living

I just finished reading Shane Claiborne's book The Irresistible Revolution. Wow. I highly recommend it, although I have to warn you that the book will challenge you. It might make you mad, if you are a little conservative. But I'd love to hear what you think.

Claiborne is a controversial figure in Christian circles, mostly because he has decided to follow Jesus to the inner city, where he and a group of friends live among the poor, in fact are poor themselves, and to actually fight for justice. (
This book is partly a memoir, with stories of how Claiborne went to Calcutta to spend time working with Mother Teresa, and his trip to Iraq as a “peacemaker.” Claiborne has been arrested numerous times for protesting various forms of injustice, including local laws targeting the homeless that made it illegal to feed people, or to sleep outside.
But the book is more than a memoir, it is a challenge to the church and to every Christian to live their faith in a radical way. To live as if Jesus words about when we clothe the naked and feed the hungry, we’re doing it to him, were literally true.
What I'm trying to figure out is how to live out my faith when I live in a comfortable suburb. God's using Shane's book, as well as my reading of Justice in the Burbs by Will and Lisa Samson, to challenge me. My neighbors need God's love--so how do I really show that to them? I'm insulated from the poor, so Claiborne's words really made me think:
“We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”

My monthly visits to a women's shelter have enabled me to get to know the poor a little, but I would say that it's only a start. I don't really know them.

This book will rock you, because Claiborne claims that while he’s a radical, he’s an ordinary radical, and following Jesus is a radical calling.
The point of the book is to call Christians to actually live out their faith. figuring out what that means for you will require prayer, but then action. He writes:
“If you ask most people what Christians believe, they can tell you, ‘Christians believe that Jesus is God’s son and that Jesus rose from the dead.’ But if you ask the average person how Christians live, they are struck silent. We have not shown the world another way of doing life. Christians pretty much live like everybody else; they just sprinkle a little Jesus in along the way. And doctrine is not very attractive, even if it’s true. Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.”
I challenge each of you to read this book and take just one small step toward living your faith. And to offer suggestions to all of us about how to live justly no matter where we live.


Dianne said...

I have come to same conclusion as Claiborne, that my Christianity is not much more than average comfortable living with talk of Jesus sprinkled in. I don't see that Jesus was either average or comfortable.

That said, I had an unnerving experience last night with a friend who used to be in inner city ministry - she got a somewhat demanding phone call from someone asking for money, which would no doubt be used for drugs. It just opened up a good discussion about what we really can do, and the scary side of getting involved in people's lives (of course she did not give him $).

Anyways, thanks for the heads up on this book.

Keri Wyatt Kent said...

thanks for your comment. I have a friend who heads up an inner city ministry, and she knows people who have taken in the homeless, only to be robbed. But she has also seen Jesus change lives. God does not promise us it will be easy. Sometimes getting involved is messy.
sometimes even small things, tho, are important to consider. Like where the things we buy are made. I was walking thru my favorite discount store that begins with T today, and I'm looking at these cute tank tops and stuff. they say "made in Indonesia/china/ or Guatemala" and I have read enough to know that those countries don't have labor unions (to put it delicately) and I wondered--who made these clothes? If I buy them, does it help that person, or hurt them?
I'm telling you, thinking about this stuff messes with you.

Dianne said...

The more I read and learn about spiritual formation, the more I see that "being" leads to "doing" instead of the other way around, as I had been taught. You're right, it messes with you. Everything has been turned inside out for me over the past year. I know the obvious next step God's been working on me about is getting involved locally with a literacy program, I'm just dragging my feet.

Keep talking! People need to hear what you're saying.

Anonymous said...

An rewiew

"This is a difficult book to review. I found myself occasionally writing a hearty "Amen!" in the margin only to find the next dozen pages full of utter nonsense and dangerous error.

On the positive side, one has to be impressed with Shane Claiborne's commitment to live out a radical Christianity as opposed to a watered down version that is more indebted to pop-culture than to Christ and the Bible. He occasionally has keen insights regarding western Christianity such as his criticisms of our infatuation with all things big and flashy, or the ease with which we pacify our consciences with symbolic acts that distance us from truly needy people.

But the book suffers from numerous flaws that make it impossible to endorse. To begin with, it changes the mission of the church from that given by Christ in the Great Commission. Claiborne dreams of "creating another world," a "safer more sustainable world" (pp. 25, 221) that suspiciously bears more resemblance to the Democratic party platform than it does the Bible. For all of his complaints about the church succumbing to culture, he seems to be oblivious to the fact that his dream bears striking resemblance to the utopian visions of the cultural left in the west (with the exception of abortion). He repeatedly states that this vision was the vision of the early church with no references or citations from the early fathers to justify his claim and conveniently ignores the fact that the Apostles of the New Testament era engaged in no social activism of the sort he routinely endorses. Jesus clearly warned us against the notion that the world is a perfectible place: at least apart from his return to establish the Kingdom. He warns against false messiahs who would claim to be able to save a deteriorating world (Matt. 24:4-14). In short, the mission of the church is not to redeem society, end poverty, save the environment or prevent wars. Rather, its mission is to proclaim the gospel of salvation from sin through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:18-20). The depth of his confusion here is evident when he describes true conversion in terms of environmentally conscious activity such as running vehicles on veggie oil and laundry machines powered by stationary bikes (p.149). This is a gospel the Apostles somehow missed!

Second, he advocates actions that are directly disobedient to Scripture. For example, in chapter 2 he tells the story of a bunch of homeless people who illegally take over an abandoned church (St. Edwards) in Philadelphia. When the church threatens to kick them out, he and a bunch of students identify with the homeless people and resist the authorities. Never does he ask the question of whether the need of the homeless people justifies the usurping of a building that does not belong to them. In the light of passages such as I Peter 2:13-21 the answer from a biblical standpoint should be clear. But Claiborne's actions and advice regarding these people runs counter to the New Testament. Certainly, the Catholic church acted poorly in the situation, but so did Claiborne and the people he supported. One sin does not justify another. True biblical faith involves acting with integrity and submission to God's sovereign will even in the midst of injustice. Claiborne and his friends then compound the error by assuming that these poor thieves constituted the true church simply because they are poor people who need shelter. They share communion with them rather than evangelizing them and leading them to the obedience that comes by faith (Rom 1:5). Rather than exposing their sin and leading them to the cross for grace and strength to change their ways, they confer hero status on them. But who cares if it is biblical? It makes for a good story.

This raises a third major problem: a naïve view of the poor and of human nature in general. In Claiborne's world there is no indication that the poor are sinners just like the rich - and that both are in need of redemption. They apparently enter the world as blank slates, corrupted only by the culture - a philosophy closer to that of Rousseau than the Bible. He routinely assumes that if the rich simply gave away their wealth to the poor everyone would live happily ever after. The poor are naively assumed to be wise, pure and righteous when in fact, the Bible assumes the opposite. It warns us not only against the danger of showing partiality toward the rich but toward the poor as well (Ex. 23:2-6; Lev. 19:15).

A fourth serious problem is a very sloppy use of Scripture. It starts on the first page of the introduction. In speaking about the issue of human suffering, Claiborne tells us that "Jesus says that if the Christians remain silent, then the rocks will cry out... or the rock stars." (pp. 17-18) He is alluding to Luke 19:40 - but the silence that Jesus condemns there is not a failure to speak against human suffering but a failure to acknowledge Christ's Lordship. Not too many rock stars are willing to break that silence yet! That kind of subtle twisting of Scripture occurs throughout the book. On another occasion he confidently informs us that "one could argue that small portions of the Israelite offering (no more than 10 percent) was given to the Levitical priesthood (Neh. 12:47)." The rest according to Claiborne was redistributed to the poor. But the very passage he cites in Nehemiah says just the opposite! The entire tithe went to maintaining the Levitical priesthood. In fact, the tithe was a tax that was not even progressive. Poor and rich alike paid the same percentage rate! The parable of the Sheep and the Goats is likewise twisted repeatedly. Based on the parable Claiborne assures us that we will be judged on the basis of "how we cared for the poor" (pp. 102,158) when in fact, the parable speaks not of the world's poor but, as Jesus puts it, "the least of these brothers of mine." (Matt 25:40) The point of the parable is that our estimate of Christ will be known by how we treated His disciples, in whom His presence truly resides - not the poor of the world. In Claiborne's Bible, the story of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany (p. 160, John 12:1-7) teaches us not about the priority of worshiping Christ over charitable giving as I had always thought, but the proximity of the poor, the story of the rich young ruler (p. 174, Mark 10:17-27) is no longer about one man's misplaced priorities (money over God) but "about the nature of the Kingdom of God, whose economy is diametrically opposed to that of the world," (p. 160) and the generosity of the early church becomes economic redistribution!

Not only does he use Scripture carelessly, he also raises up other sources of truth on a par with Scripture. Thus at one point he urges us to listen to the voice of God where we least expect it: in a baby refugee, in crack addicts, in displaced children, etc. (p. 22) On another occasion he informs us that he "learned more about God from the tears of homeless mothers than any systematic theology...." (p. 51) What exactly he learned, he never tells us. In formulating another dream to live by he utilized 3 basic sources: "the early church and to the Scriptures and to the poor." (p.119) Here the Scripture is sandwiched between the early church and the poor and of the 3, the last seems to hold the most sway over his thinking! This is evident in the story of the homeless people's seizure of St. Edwards. In Claiborne's account, the poor people inform the authorities that God had spoken to them and He has given them permission to stay (p. 59). Never once is the teaching of the Bible consulted and for good reason - if they had, they would have heard a different voice from God.

Fifth, he casually dismisses the importance of theological truth. At one point he informs us that "religious doctrines just aren't very compelling, even if they're true" (p. 28) opting instead for stories. This is not the Christianity of the Apostles who warned about those who would lead people away from "sound doctrine" by means of "myths" (II Timothy 4:3-4). But unlike those Apostles, Claiborne is "not trying to spread a doctrine or theology (p. 348). Of course, whether he realizes it or not, he does have a theology - it is just not well thought out. We get a glimpse of that theology by the theological company that he keeps including Malcolm X (a Moslem civil rights leader who championed violent methods, p. 37) Che Gueverra (a marxist thug, p. 295), John Dominic Crossan (A liberal theologian who denies the bodily resurrection of Christ, p. 240), Michael Moore (A radical left wing activist, p. 301), Steve Chalke (who calls the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement divine child abuse! p. 350), and the World Council of Churches (renowned for supporting liberal theology and Marxist causes, p. 222), to name just a few.

Finally, Claiborne often makes polarizing statements and exaggerations that ultimately make him look ridiculous. For example, he casually equates corporate greed or American consumerism with terrorism! (p.123 - does he really think that Donald Trump is the moral equivalent of Osama bin Laden?), the criminal justice system with slavery! (p. 152 - does he really mean to compare convicted felons with innocent slaves?), charitable giving with returning stolen goods! (p. 164 - if they are really stolen goods why not throw me in jail too?) He misrepresents his opponents especially on issues of pacifism and capital punishment setting up straw men that are easily destroyed. He repeatedly dismisses the "myth of redemptive violence." It is indeed a myth because I have never heard anyone suggest a redemptive violence theory. After casually dismissing his opponents with this ridiculous mischaracterization, he never really interacts with serious thinkers who find pacifism both unbiblical and naïve. Nor does he ever explain why so much violence was used and justified in the Bible (Ps 144:1). That would take real effort and theological argument and take away from the feel good stories by which people's emotions are so easily manipulated.

I'm sure Claiborne is really nice guy. But his ideas are mostly shallow, foolish and unbiblical. Admire his zeal for God but also realize that, like the Israelites of Paul's day it is a zeal that is not based on knowledge - and that kind of zeal is a dangerous thing."

Keri Wyatt Kent said...

Wow, anonymous, thanks for your thoughts. I wondered if I should approve your comment just because it was so long, I was afraid people wouldn't read it. But I think you raise some interesting questions, and I think it will start some great dialog.
I'll just pick one of your many points and address that one. Other readers, feel free to tell us whether you agree or disagree with this or other points.
You say:

he "conveniently ignores the fact that the Apostles of the New Testament era engaged in no social activism of the sort he routinely endorses."

Well, I have to disagree. Acts 2:42-45 says that the early apostles and followers of Jesus "had all things in common" and shared their resources so that no one had need. Read the text. This is exactly what Claiborne is endorsing, not only in his book, but with his lifestyle.
Jesus and his disciples, we often forget, were poor. Jesus was born to a poor couple. (evidenced by Luke 2:24, where Jesus' parents take him to present him to the Lord. They offer a sacrifice of two doves or pigeons, according to the law. if you look up that law, Lev. 12:8, it says the sacrifice is supposed to be a lamb, except if the mother "cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons." Mary could apparently not afford a lamb. She was poor.) Jesus himself was homeless during much of his ministry years (see Matt. 8:20). His disciples had been fishermen, a trade that supplied perhaps the basics of a simple life, but not wealth. They "left everything" (including their jobs and income) to follow him. they were poor. So they probably didn't spend a lot of time talking about how they should relate to the poor--they were the poor! they depended on the the support of others--actually, a group of women. (see Luke 8: 1-3)

Also, you say:
Thus at one point he urges us to listen to the voice of God where we least expect it: in a baby refugee,...
Just FYI, a "baby refuge" is a reference to Jesus, who had to flee Herod from Bethlehem into Egypt, where he and his family were refugees for the first couple of years of Jesus' life.

I'll post more thoughts later, but I'd like to hear from others of you who have read the book.

Paul Luikart said...

Hey, Keri. Just wanted to get back to you quick, but first, I've heard a lot about Shane Claiborne. His book sounds awesome. I gotta check it out. Not sure if you are familiar with the Catholic Worker movement...very similar, it sounds like, to what Claiborne is talking about in his book. Living simply among the poor in a Christ-like way. Anyway, to answer your question, yes, Breakthrough could definitely use some of those items you mentioned...sheets, cleaning supplies, etc. We usually give a 'move-in' kit to the men and women who move into housing, which includes those types of things. So, thanks!

Keri Wyatt Kent said...

Shane's book is definitely worth reading. His community works with the Catholic Worker movement in Philly, and he seems to have drawn a lot of his inspiration from that movement's past work. he talks a lot about it in the book.
great, I will bring some stuff (can you use dishes?) down when I am there on Saturday.