A few years ago, my friend Pete Lessing said he had a gift for me. It was a book he wanted me to read. I love to read. I love getting new things; however, as he handed it to me, I couldn’t help but notice my new gift was used. It was as if he pulled it right off the shelf of some old used bookstore, dusted it off, and called it good. The edges sported a slight curl and the pages wore thin. The cover showed obvious signs of wear and tear, and even the smell of freshly printed ink had long faded away.
But soon the state of the book would mean nothing to me – the edges, the pages, and the cover would just become the things that held it together. I could tell, by the passion with which my friend Pete described it, that these words would come to life. Pete said this book radically wrecked his life.
Three hundred, fifty-eight pages later, I was saying the same thing.
Since I’ve read Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution, my whole perspective on community has drastically changed. A new hope of participating in an early Acts-like church touched sweetly on my lips, and I felt as though community was within arm’s reach. But with any new idea or any change in thinking comes so many new questions – so many voids you never knew needed to be filled. I wanted to be the first to jump up and say, “But where do I go from here?”
Well, a few weeks ago, I got my chance.
I grabbed my friend Pete and we, along with our beautiful wives, ran off to meet up with Shane after a speaking engagement in Newberg, Ore. We asked. And this is what he had to say.
Rethink monthly: You’ve been labeled Ordinary Radical. In your book though you say you’d like “radical” to mean “root.” Is that the first step in getting to a community setting?
Shane Claiborne: Yeah, I like root – like a radish. I think that’s where the word radical comes from … “radix” in the Latin … or so I hear. I think that really what we’re talking about is getting at the root of what’s unhealthy in the world. Getting at the root of what it means to be Christian. How to live in the way God intended us to live. So in that sense, radical doesn’t mean extreme or wild and crazy, you know, but really anchoring ourselves in that. And it isn’t just reserved for saints and prophets but for ordinary folks … so I like that coupling. Dorothy Day said, “Don’t call us saints. We don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” And I think that part of what we’re talking about is folks who are rethinking the way we live, and reimaging the world we live in. So really we’re saying we’re growing roots with the people in a neighborhood, and it’s with that longevity where we really see fruit that lasts.
RM: Getting to the root of being a Christian, but also preparing yourself for a long road?
SC: I remember when we brought John Perkins, who’s like an 80-year-old dude, a hero of mine, into our neighborhood. I was telling him that we hadn’t seen much happen yet, and we’d been there for a few years already. And he was like, “Oh you just wait. You’ll see some stuff in about 10, maybe 12 years.” I’ll never forget that. It was just the winsomeness with which he said it – “10 or 12 years.” But I think what it takes is that kind of longevity.
RM: So, has that process been difficult?
SC: We are finally at a point where we’re seeing progress. I have neighbors where I can borrow their cars. I have neighbors who invite me over to dinner. There is a sense of community and a real trust that is growing. And finally having kids that we’ll able to see go to college. It’s great to be a part of that.
RM: The word “radical” must seem scary to a large percentage of those within the church – just this idea that people are living in community, meeting each other’s need – must seem foreign to some. We know that it’s biblical, but do you often get opposition from the Christian community?
SC: One of the things that is really funny is the fact that what we’re doing looks radical is only an indictment on the kind of Christianity that we’ve become accustom to – which is just marked by a set of beliefs but not really as a way of life. That’s exactly how it was in the early church. It was called The Way, and it was about a new way of living. So in some ways, we’re doing just what Mary and Martha did. We’re opening our homes up. One of the things that I’m amazed about is that folks across the board are finding the American dream wanting – like it’s sort of this phantom dream. We’re the wealthiest country in the world, but we’re also the lonely and the most medicated and depressed. Maybe we’re made not for independence but for interdependence and community. I think there are tons of people that are aware of it. That’s why even mega-churches have small groups. And the irony coming out of these mega-churches is that their curriculum is how to get people into small groups. (laughs). It’s so funny. But everyone’s hungry for community. That’s what we’re made for. And it’s not surprising to me – but I think what is surprising in some way is how counter-cultural it seems that even living outside of the biological family, living with people you’re not related to, having community with other families, raising your kids together, living in a neighborhood that’s economically poor – those should not be counter-cultural values for Christians. It’s the very heart of the incarnation – that God entered into suffering, was born in the middle of a genocide, wandered the world but had no place to lay his head, was born in a manger because there was no room in the inn – that’s all a part of the story of God entering into our struggles. The call to follow Jesus is a call to grow close to suffering and to grow closer to the margins.
RM: Some would call that crazy.
SC: When folks say we’re crazy or whatever, I often quote Peter Moran of the Catholic Worker movement, who spent a lot of his life on the streets, and he would say, “If I’m crazy it’s because I refuse to be crazy in the same way the world’s gone crazy.” It’s a great line. And I think that’s really where a lot of people asking – “What’s crazy?” Is it crazy to say that we’re going to share stuff, or it is crazy within the pattern of Wallstreet, where CEO’s make five hundred times their workers? …Is it crazy to say we should help provide water access for the 1.2 billion people that need it, or is it crazy, like in our churches, we’re debated whether or not we should get a heater for the baptismal while people don’t have water?
RM: So we’ve lost what it means to raise up disciples? Do you think that has a large part to do with it, how we’ve turned a “blind eye” if you will, against social justice and poverty? We think we’ll just start another program and that will solve it. Do you think that’s kind of the mindset that we have now?
SC: I don’t know that it was intentional or even malicious or anything like that. It’s more that we became so obsessed, I think, or so infatuated with evangelism that we’ve produced a generation of believers in the church, but not disciples. You know, that’s been our whole language, “Is your mom a believer?” Then you read the scriptures and we’re not sent into the world to make believers, but disciples. That’s about living in ways that resemble Christ. I think that the early Christianity was much more holistic about creating people who were marked by the things Jesus was marked by, things like enemy love and good news to the poor. James says that the true religion that God honors is caring for the widow and the orphan, and keeping ourselves from being polluted by the world. That’s true religion! That’s what we are to produce and cultivate, people who remind the world of Jesus, who are marked by the same grace and the same selflessness.
RM: Is this something that we’re called to do forever? You know, generation after generation, does this form of community evolve or change?
SC: I think there’s tons of different forms of community, you know. Some of them are really ugly, but I think inside all of us is this longing to love and to be loved. It’s what we are made for, we are made in the image of a God that is a plurality of oneness, and Jesus models it; he sends the disciples out in pairs, he does community with a group of people, so if Jesus didn’t do it alone, I don’t know why we think we can. I think that is part of the great myth of America, it’s that you don’t need other people, and its part of why people end up so lonely. There’s so much more to say on that. One story that does come to mind is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, where Jesus tells this beautiful story where the rich man locks the poor man out of his life, so he has a gated neighborhood, a gated life where he locked the poor man outside, and so the story goes that the poor man was longing for the droppings that came from the rich man’s table, where the dogs are there licking his wounds. Come to find out that not only did the rich man lock the poor man out of his life, but he had locked himself in to a life of utter loneliness. In the end, it says that they both die and that Lazarus was brought next to God. And the rich man is separated from God, and he is begging the beggar for a drop of water. He finds out that this chasm he has built between himself and his neighbor is not only a division between another human being, but it’s also a division between him and God. I think that should raise a lot of questions for us as people who have a lot of picket fences, gates, and walls culturally. They socially build walls around nations to keep people out. All of these things are a direct contradiction to this promise that the gates will not prevail against the church, and this tearing down of the things that divide us and getting to know people. I take a lot of courage from that call to community and communion to know the people outside of our gate. Jesus isn’t saying to the poor “Come find the church,” but He is saying to the church “Go into the world, get out!” “Go into the prisons, go into the streets, go and find me where I’m thirsty, find me where I’m hungry, so it’s our invitation to find Jesus.
RM: So what can we, the people of our community, do to take steps toward community?
SC: Some of it, I think, is surrounding ourselves with people who remind us of the person we want to become. We see God’s love in them and so we rub off on each other, but then again I think a community can exist for its own sake, like ultimately the community of scripture, whether it’s the Israelite community or it’s the church, it’s not to exist for itself, but it’s to exist as an instrument of grace and redemption for the world. A part of what we really have to do is get outside of ourselves and go after living for something together, you know. I think that includes things like praying together, working together, helping kids with homework, planting urban gardens, and all those sorts of things. When the community exists for its own sake, it begins to sort of implode on itself. We gotta keep doing it because there are so many great forms of ways to connect. There are so many different forms that it has, but ultimately it begins with starting small, with one person. Mother Teresa said so well, after they said “How did you manage to lift 50,000 people out of the streets of Calcutta?” and she said, “I started with one.” It begins with one person that we have the eyes to see and to notice, and that begins to bubble up. The invisible children and the sex trafficking, and all those things to try to figure out how to interrupt injustice as it happens in the world, and the “make poverty history” campaign – all of those are great. But just as important as making poverty history, is making poverty personal. Maybe that’s the challenge of the Northwest, too. You can live a life of integrity in and of itself, and yet, if we still don’t have relationship with the folks that are suffering in the world, I think it falls short of touching the groaning of God.
RM: So in this journey toward community we should start with small steps, right?
SC: Any step is a step that we should celebrate, and hopefully all of us are moving closer to the poor, and closer to Jesus in some capacity, but for one person that may be bringing a homeless person to dinner, for someone else, it might be just talking to a homeless person for the first time, and either of those are fantastic. Like steps to celebrate and encourage each other to risk a little bit more, and to take one more step towards our neighbor and towards the poor. I think that is one reason that people kind of identify with our own journey, and that for me it’s been a real process. I could have been born and died in East Tennessee, and not encountered anything outside of the bubble that I grew up in. And yet, I have been on this continual quest, largely being pushed by friends that kept challenging my own life, like politics and theologies and stuff. I met a guy the other day that said “I’m a textbook redneck.” “I’m a gun-totin’, pickup truck driving redneck.”
RM: Was he talking about you?
SC: Oh, no no, it was him. Basically he said, “I’m a redneck, but I’ve been reading your book, and it got me reading my Bible, and it messed me up.” Then he goes, “I’m a recovering redneck.” And I think it’s fantastic.
This article was written by Bo Lane was printing in the March/April issue of Rethink Monthly magazine (issue #6).