Anyone reading this should know that I am a big fan of Shane Claiborne. I would count him among my living heroes in the faith. I have read two of his books, have listened to him speak live and watched certain videos of him on the web. I greatly appreciate his gentle and meek spirit and the grace with which he tackles the issues to which he speaks. I would love to spend time with him and learn from him how better to follow our Lord Jesus in loving and living with the poor and the downcast. I highly recommend his books, The Irresistible Revolution: Living As an Ordinary Radical and Jesus For President: Politics For Ordinary Radicals. I enjoyed both of them immensely and learned much from them.
That said, I’m afraid that I have to take issue with him on certain grounds. I truly believe that he and other young leaders of the new direction that much of evangelical Christianity is going in this era are making some serious mistakes. Unlike many of them, Claiborne demonstrates, not only an infectious love and devotion toward the Savior, but also a real love for the Scriptures.
I have long planned to write a post to explain how Shane Claiborne is a hero to me, and then follow it with a post about concerns I have with some of what I see him doing. But I haven’t had the chance. So I am just going to take another approach.
Recently, I ran across an open letter to unbelievers that Esquire magazine asked Claiborne to write for them. It was published in November, 2009. I have copied it in below. But I have my own interaction with it, section by section. Note that the original material (the magazine’s intro and his open letter) is in the gray block-quote boxes. My responses are in regular text.
WHAT IF JESUS MEANT ALL THAT STUFF?
This radical Christian’s ministry for the poor, The Simple Way, has gotten him in some trouble with his fellow Evangelicals. We asked him to address those who don’t believe.
By Shane Claiborne, The Simple Way
To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.
Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.
So far, Brother Shane, I can certainly appreciate what you are doing here. I can even echo the apology.
The other night I headed into downtown Philly for a stroll with some friends from out of town. We walked down to Penn’s Landing along the river, where there are street performers, artists, musicians. We passed a great magician who did some pretty sweet tricks like pour change out of his iPhone, and then there was a preacher. He wasn’t quite as captivating as the magician. He stood on a box, yelling into a microphone, and beside him was a coffin with a fake dead body inside. He talked about how we are all going to die and go to hell if we don’t know Jesus.
Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. All I could do was think to myself, I want to jump up on a box beside him and yell at the top of my lungs, “God is not a monster.” Maybe next time I will.
Assuming that the street preacher really was a Christian (I have no idea, of course), I would hope he finds a different style soon, but not because he is wrong. The fact is that 21st century America is not really the time or place for that approach. Otherwise, it might be quite appropriate.
The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.
My favorite words in this paragraph are “over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating.” I could not agree more! Oddly, though, for a great many reflective non-Christians, a theological panty-waist Christianity has little more appeal than an over-bearing, obnoxious one. Most intelligent people not only respect religious people for holding strong opinions, they actually want them to. The last thing—or at least one of the last things—they want to see from Christians is a whimpy inability to stand for what they believe to be true.
At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, “I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.” A recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. So what we have here is a bit of an image crisis, and much of that reputation is well deserved. That’s the ugly stuff. And that’s why I begin by saying that I’m sorry.
It is sad that the #1 perception of American Christians is that we are “anti-gay.” But why is it sad? Because we really are pro-gay? As I see it, there are two reasons that this is a sad thing. First, it fosters an unnecessary, and hopefully untrue, notion that we are anti-person, that we hate people. Second—and actually worse—whatever we think of homosexual people, or however we are perceived as thinking of them, it ought not be the first thing that comes to people’s minds when Christians are mentioned.
Now for the good news.
I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter. (If there is anything I have learned from liberals and conservatives, it’s that you can have great answers and still be mean… and that just as important as being right is being nice.)
It is totally true that “you can have great answers and still be mean.” This is a huge problem. Yet it is also true that you can be nice and still be wrong. In fact, you can be very loving and still be leading people astray. I would say that this is just as big a problem in our culture as the former one.
The Bible that I read says that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it… it was because “God so loved the world.” That is the God I know, and I long for others to know. I did not choose to devote my life to Jesus because I was scared to death of hell or because I wanted crowns in heaven… but because he is good.
The Bible does, indeed, say that God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it. That’s what Jesus says in John 3:17. But in the next verse, He says, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” In the last verse of the chapter, Jesus finishes this teaching with these words: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” To use your words, Brother Shane, what if Jesus meant all that stuff?
For those of you who are on a sincere spiritual journey, I hope that you do not reject Christ because of Christians. We have always been a messed-up bunch, and somehow God has survived the embarrassing things we do in His name. At the core of our “Gospel” is the message that Jesus came “not [for] the healthy… but the sick.” And if you choose Jesus, may it not be simply because of a fear of hell or hope for mansions in heaven.
Great stuff here! I agree! I hope that people choose to follow Jesus because He is good and not “simply” because of either fear of or hope for things to come in the next life, as it were. However, a healthy fear of hell and a faithful excitement about heaven are both quite appropriate.
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the afterlife, but too often all the church has done is promise the world that there is life after death and use it as a ticket to ignore the hells around us. I am convinced that the Christian Gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and that the message of that Gospel is not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s Kingdom down. It was Jesus who taught us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth.
Beautifully said! Here is where I really want to learn from you, Brother Shane! Here is where you are my hero! I just don’t know why you seem to think that, given the fact that Christians have had too much of a focus on the “after-life,” an over-correction is called for.
One of Jesus’ most scandalous stories is the story of the Good Samaritan. As sentimental as we may have made it, the original story was about a man who gets beat up and left on the side of the road. A priest passes by. A Levite, the quintessential religious guy, also passes by on the other side (perhaps late for a meeting at church). And then comes the Samaritan… you can almost imagine a snicker in the Jewish crowd. Jews did not talk to Samaritans, or even walk through Samaria. But the Samaritan stops and takes care of the guy in the ditch and is lifted up as the hero of the story. I’m sure some of the listeners were ticked. According to the religious elite, Samaritans did not keep the right rules, and they did not have sound doctrine… but Jesus shows that true faith has to work itself out in a way that is Good News to the most bruised and broken person lying in the ditch.
Good stuff! I’ve got nothing but agreement here!
It is so simple, but the pious forget this lesson constantly. God may indeed be evident in a priest, but God is just as likely to be at work through a Samaritan or a prostitute. In fact the Scripture is brimful of God using folks like a lying prostitute named Rahab, an adulterous king named David… at one point God even speaks to a guy named Balaam through his donkey. Some say God spoke to Balaam through his ass and has been speaking through asses ever since. So if God should choose to use us, then we should be grateful but not think too highly of ourselves. And if upon meeting someone we think God could never use, we should think again.
After all, Jesus says to the religious elite who looked down on everybody else: “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of you.” And we wonder what got him killed?
I have a friend in the UK who talks about “dirty theology” — that we have a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption, a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. After all, the whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. At one point, Jesus takes some mud, spits in it, and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes to heal him. (The priests and producers of anointing oil were not happy that day.)
In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay “out there” but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, “Nothing good could come.” It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.
I like all this too, but I can sense a problem getting started here. Our Lord’s triumph at the cross does not promise that “love” will disallow the choice of the unbelieving not to follow Christ. “Love” will not prevent people from going to hell who would rather go there than love God.
It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors… a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.
In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.
I appreciate the “I hope not,” but do you not see that insult to God and His heaven implied in your saying that it would be “hard to enjoy heaven” unless some mere human is there?
I do believe that God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world. One of the main reasons that I believe in the bigness of God’s grace is that I have learned of it from the Bible. But the Bible also teaches me that there are enemies of God who will incur His wrath and will be judged and sent to eternal perdition. I would LOVE to be persuaded differently. I would LOVE to believe that God has something else up His sleeve. But until I can see it in the Bible, I have to go with what I can see in the Bible. Meanwhile, I do pray that you will turn out to have been right about God saving the whole world—even if you have bad reasons for thinking so now.
Shane, I call you brother, because I can see your faith in our Lord Jesus. But as your brother, I must tell you that I don’t appreciate you cheapening the word. To be brothers in Christ is a very special and beautiful gift that our Lord has given us. And it is inappropriate to use the word the way you have here. Worst of all, you give aid and comfort to people in their rebellion by this use of it.
The apostle Paul told us that, as we go through the world, the Lord is spreading everywhere through us the fragrance of the knowledge of Him. To some people, we are an aroma of life. But sadly, to others, we are the stench of death (II Cor. 2:14-16). It’s not a pleasant truth. That is why the apostle follows up by exclaiming, “Who is equal to these things?!”
Brother, I wonder whether you are not trying, by human energy, to be an aroma of life to everyone, instead of just spreading the fragrance of Christ and leaving it to God as to who smells life and who smells death.