A Monastic Revolution
Shane Claiborne is founder of The Simple Way, a New Monastic community in Philadelphia, and author of The Irresistible Revolution, Red Letter Revolution, and, more recently, Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It's Killing Us.
July 1, 2010
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. At the age of 21, Shane Claiborne co-founded a small community, The Simple Way, in a row house in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia. He is a galvanizing figure and creative spirit within a constellation of movements called the New Monasticism. These mostly young people model their communities in some contrast to the churches they grew up in. They’ve patterned their lives in direct response to the human needs and spiritual hungers in the world around them. And they find sustenance at the heart of historic Christianity, from the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr.
MR. SHANE CLAIBORNE: We had all kinds of baggage from the church. You know, recovering evangelicals and disenchanted Catholics, and, you know? And we just said, ‘We’re going to stop complaining about the church that we’ve experienced and try to become the church that we dream of.’
MS. TIPPETT: This is On Being. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Shane Claiborne is an original voice, a leading spirit in a gathering movement of young people known as the New Monastics. Monastic orders always formed as forces for renewal along the edges of historic Christianity. These “New Monastics” have emerged from the edges of modern evangelical Christianity, though their appeal extends far beyond it. With virtues like simplicity and imagination, they are taking on the gap between the churches they were raised in and what they perceive as the essence of Christianity. They’re patterning their lives in response to the needs of the poor and the detachment they see in our culture’s vision of adulthood.
From American Public Media, this is On Being, conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “A Monastic Revolution: Meeting Shane Claiborne.”
Some young fans have called Shane Claiborne “the coolest Christian ever.” Tall and lanky, with signature dreadlocks and goatee, he looks the part. But he lives a deeply pragmatic and challenging vision. In his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, he describes it like this, “We are trying to raise up an army, not simply of street activists but of lovers — a community of people who have fallen desperately in love with God and with suffering people, and who allow those relationships to disturb and transform them.” Though Shane Claiborne and other new monastics find much to criticize in the forms of church they grew up in, they are theological thinkers. They find their role models at the heart of Christian tradition — St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day. Shane Claiborne’s life tells some of the recent story of politicized evangelicalism that gained prominence in the U.S. But he also embodies an intriguing and lesser-told story of how some in new generations have examined that experience and are living beyond it. I spoke with him in 2007.
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MR. CLAIBORNE: I was raised in the Bible Belt down in East Tennessee, sort of suffocated with Christianity.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: You know, and I felt like the Christianity I grew up with really sort of looked at the world and said, ‘Yeah, it’s fallen apart, but there is life after death.’ While a lot of us were really asking, ‘Is there life before death?’ you know, and ‘Doesn’t our faith have just anything to speak into the world that we’re living in?’ I became pretty disenchanted with a lot of the church culture that I grew up with and just felt like I was asking bigger questions than they were willing to trust me with.
MS. TIPPETT: You became also quite involved in politics.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah, I did.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, in Christian politics, in a kind of conservative Christian politics as that evolved in the last 10, 15 years.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Surely. And I organized the Bush-Quayle campaign in 1992, and met Dan Quayle. And …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: I was always passionate no matter what I felt about different issues. I loved, you know, debate. And so I had strong views about abortion and homosexuality. But I didn’t know any gay folks. And I didn’t know anyone that, you know, had had an abortion or many, you know, folks that were, who were struggling.
MS. TIPPETT: Who would admit to it, right?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. I guess it’s what gives me a little bit of grace with other people, is I see how much people have had a lot of grace and patience with me in my continual evolution of thought and faith. And that gives me a lot of grace with others.
MS. TIPPETT: And then you went to a Christian college. You know, what’s intriguing in your story is you were very interested in these spiritual questions. You wanted to know more about Christianity and apply your mind to it. And it seems to me that that really began to happen in North Philadelphia for you — not so much in the classroom or in church …
MR. CLAIBORNE: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: … but among homeless people.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, my first encounter with Kensington in North Philly was when there was a group of poor and homeless families with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which was just a group of mostly homeless women and children that had gotten together. And they did something really courageous. In the midst of the ruins of North Philadelphia where there’s, you know, over 20,000 abandoned houses and 700 abandoned factories, they found an abandoned Catholic church building, and they moved into it.
And we read about that in college. And the newspaper article that we read said that these families had resurrected the church, you know? And that they had also, ironically, been given an ultimatum eviction notice — that within 48 hours, if they weren’t out, they could face arrest for trespassing on church property. So that really stirred all kinds of deep questions in us. And a group of us from the college got involved and, basically, put our lives alongside theirs and said to the city, ‘If you come to evict them, then you got to take us, too.’ And over 100 students …
MS. TIPPETT: Wow.
MR. CLAIBORNE: … eventually got involved in this. And that made a big difference. Because the media became very involved and now …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: … you know, we were all facing arrest as well. And they made it look like the church was kicking homeless people out. And that’s because the church was kicking homeless people out, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And so, it just lasted not for 48 hours, but for weeks and weeks and weeks that we were there.
MS. TIPPETT: And, I mean, it had a happy ending, didn’t it? They didn’t get evicted. And is it right that those homeless families had, for the most part, found a place to live by the time you all left?
MR. CLAIBORNE: It was incredible, what happened. Folks saw it on the news. And they bought houses or donated houses. Some Section 8 and low-income housing vouchers were released. And there were hard stories, but there were also beautiful stories. And those families have been our theologians. You know, they’ve been our teachers …
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: … and sociologists, and the folks that have really opened our eyes up to the world.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you also, you write a lot about miracles. So I think the hard question a cynic would ask is why didn’t God work the miracle beforehand of giving them jobs and enough money and to have safe places to live, rather than have to go through that ordeal?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah, it’s a great question, I think. It’s one that we’ve been asking for years and years. And I can remember a comic in Philadelphia that was in the paper. There were these two guys that were asking that very question. It was — and one guy said, ‘You know, I wonder why God allows all this poverty and pain and hurting in the world?’ And his friend says, ‘Well, why don’t you ask God that?’ And the guy says, ‘Well, I guess I’m scared.’ And he says, ‘What are you scared of?’ He says, ‘I guess I’m scared that God will ask me the same question.’ And I think that in some ways, when we’ve put all of this on God …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: It’s as if God has been throwing it back and going, ‘Hey, you’re my body. You are my hands and my feet.’ And, you know, that this is something that we are entrusted with. And I think, probably, one of the most difficult things that Jesus ever did was sort of leave this idea of transforming the world or the kingdom of God coming in the hands of such a ragtag bunch of people that goof it up over and over.
MS. TIPPETT: The following year, 1997, when Shane Claiborne was 21, he and a few friends from his college, Eastern University cofounded an intentional community in that same Kensington neighborhood. They called it The Simple Way. Over time it has grown from one house to six, including both single and married people with children. They all commit to “singleness” or monogamy, and to contemplation and action intertwined. But before Shane Claiborne settled back in North Philadelphia, he went looking, as he puts it, for “real Christians” in the contemporary world. And he ended up seeking out Mother Teresa in India in the last year of her life.
MR. CLAIBORNE: You know, I start reading this stuff that Jesus said. And I’m just, like, ‘Man, does anyone really believe this anymore?’ And Mother Teresa was one of those people that I felt just lived so magnetically and authentically the simple words and teaching of Jesus. So we wrote her a letter, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: We said, ‘Hey, we don’t know if you give internships out there in Calcutta, but we’d love to come work.’ And we didn’t hear back. And I guess she got a lot of mail.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: But we, we ended up just calling some of her sisters on the phone. And they gave us a phone number. So we called Calcutta. And I’m expecting a polite, ‘Missionaries of Charity, how can we help you?’ or something, you know? And I just hear this raspy, old voice go, ‘Hello?’ you know? And I’m thinking I’ve got the wrong number and it’s $4 a minute, you know? So I started talking really fast. And I’m like, ‘Well, we’re trying to get hold of the Missionaries of Charity or Mother Teresa’s order out there, the Sisters.’
And she said, ‘Well, this is the Missionaries of Charity. This is Mother Teresa.’ And, you know, and I’m like, ‘And I’m the pope. You know, what are you talking about?’ And so, finally, I started asking her, you know, ‘Well, can we come out and work?’ And she says, ‘Yeah, come on out.’ And then I asked her what I think are logical follow-up questions, you know? ‘Well, where are we going to sleep? What are we going to eat?’ And she didn’t worry a whole lot about those things. She just said to us, ‘Well, God takes care of the lilies and the sparrows, and God will take care of you.’ So I don’t know how you argue with that one, so we just, we went over there. And I worked there with other close friends of mine. And several of us have been over other times in the past 10 years. But it’s, she was just a beautiful life, I think, well lived.
MS. TIPPETT: And you worked in a leper colony there. And, you know, that has such biblical echoes. And also …
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: … and also, I think it seems, not only to belong to Bible stories — for people in this culture, but to a world that surely doesn’t exist anymore, right? Lepers surely don’t exist anymore?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Right. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: What did you learn there in that work about the Bible?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Boy, yeah, I learned so much. I think part of what I learned was, that it wasn’t just enough to protest the things that were wrong in the world. Because I think we had been sucked up into this real movement of social justice, and going out and getting arrested and protesting everything that was wrong. So we knew what we were against. We just didn’t know we were for, you know?
And in that leper colony, I learned from a group of people, who had been, basically, forced by their society to create a new society in the shell of the old one. So it’s really there that I kind of caught that vision of let’s build something new together, you know? As one of my heroes, Dorothy Day, said, “Let’s build a society where it’s easier for people to be good to each other,” you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And was it from there that you went back to Philadelphia and founded the community you now live in, The Simple Way?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah, it was. There was a group of us out of that student movement that ended up going, ‘Let’s try to do church like, like the old days,’ you know? We would read in the Book of Acts that all of the believers were together and shared everything in common. No one claimed any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything. And there were no needy persons among them.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: That’s exactly what it says in the Book of Acts. And we said, ‘We want to try to live like that.’ And there was surely a moment where we had all kinds of baggage from the church, you know, recovering evangelicals and disenchanted Catholics.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And, you know, and we just said, ‘We’re going to stop complaining about the church that we’ve experienced and try to become the church that we dream of.’
MR. CLAIBORNE: Hmm. Tell me how it works, The Simple Way. I mean, how many people are there in the community? And what is your — you are called New Monastics. I mean, do you, do you have a rule of life the way old monastics do, the ancient monastic orders?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Well, first, I — it’s — I guess it’s important to know, too, that we’ve been doing it for 10 years, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And so sort of stumbled into everything. We had no idea what we were doing. We were pretty pretentious when we started. And we’re like, ‘We’re doing church for the first time in hundreds of years, you know?’
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And there were six of us. And we just put our money together. And we, we got a house in North Philadelphia. And then we had no huge visions for transforming our neighborhood or something. We were coming very much as learners. And we opened our door up to people. Our mission was just to love God, love people, and follow Jesus. And we said, ‘If we can figure that out, then we’ll be doing well,’ you know? And …
MS. TIPPETT: Were you all kind of just out of college, 22, 23?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. That’s right. And so we had a lot of homeless folks that came by the house; we had a lot of kids that needed help with homework. And everything that we do just sort of bubbled up out of that, you know? And in North Philly, we’ve — there’s a lot of struggles, but there’s also a lot of hope. And so we tried to feed each other hope and to reclaim abandoned spaces. So, you know you’re important, Krista, because I came down here after — I’m missing out on all the gardening today. We’re reclaiming two lots on our block where they were formerly just filled with trash and needles. And we’re reclaiming that space and doing gardens with our neighborhood.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER, FEMALE: Here we are in the Neighborhood Garden, also a part of the Eve’s Garden Initiative. And, basically, in the Neighborhood Garden, what we do, as much as possible, is grow vegetables that people from the neighborhood consume the most. A lot of the garden has been grown and worked on through children in the neighborhood coming to the summer gardening program.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER, MALE CHILD: The garden is going to be empty because we’re digging all of the stuff.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER, FEMALE CHILD: OK. My grandma is going to cook black-eyed peas. So, if anybody wants to come over to eat black-eyed peas, you are welcome.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER, FEMALE: The mint family is very good for congestion in the head and in the chest, and a lot of the kids here have asthma. And so, one thing that can be done just to help them feel immediate relief is making some kind of a mint tea and adding mint to a medicinal mixture, also improves the taste for children. We have oregano and sage …
MR. CLAIBORNE: So, all those things just sort of have bubbled up out of living there, and all the programs that we do sort of evolved based on ideas of neighbors and things. So we have a little thrift store. We — and as soon as I leave here, we’ll be giving out about 50 bags of food to folks that need food and — those sorts of things. But I think it’s also that we’ve, initially, when we started the community, we were just responding to crisis, you know, and needs, and everything. And then there comes a point where Dr. Martin Luther King said so well, he said, “We’re called to be the Good Samaritan and lift our neighbor out of the ditch. But after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say, ‘Maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be transformed.'”
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So I think the question an American has to ask is, how is it funded? What’s the financial set up? How do you afford to give away 50 bags of groceries?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Well it’s really fun because I think what we’ve learned is by living in community just like you hear the saying, “many hands make for light work,” is when we share stuff, we have an abundance of resources that we begin to see. So as we moved in together and started sharing finances and sharing things together, we create a very sustainable way of life. So we have one car that we all share together, we share a washer and dryer and houses and everything. And the way that it works financially for us is that we all work part-time jobs and doing things that we love, you know? So we have a massage therapist and a carpenter and a bike messenger and …
MS. TIPPETT: And you write books.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah, and I write books and speak. That’s a crazy job. And …
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And so — but we do things that we love, and then we pool our money together in order to meet our own needs. And then we get tons of donations from all over the country to help us give school supplies to 500 kids, you know, and do the community gardens and all those things. And we also try to restore a lot of stuff that’s getting thrown out, by sort of a disposable society, you know, where a lot of our food we get, that’s being thrown away, you know? So if you come to a potluck at our house, it says vegetarian, vegan, and rescued, you know? And “rescued” means right out of the trash.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. But one of the exciting things that we have going on now is trying to start up some incubator businesses that create some jobs in our neighborhoods and community. So, one of those that’s pretty neat is we have vegetable oil that we gather from around the city and are converting it to biodiesel or running cars off of it so that several of our communities have converted their cars to where they run off of used vegetable oil and …
MS. TIPPETT: Can people do that to their own car, to a regular car?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah, yeah. And it’s great.
MS. TIPPETT: I didn’t know that.
MR. CLAIBORNE: But the way that we’re doing that, too, is out of a — one of our sister communities called New Jerusalem, and everyone there is in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions, and they are providing jobs for themselves through that business.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being from American Public Media. Today, “A Monastic Revolution: Meeting Shane Claiborne.” We’re exploring how some young evangelicals have been reimagining church, and having a magnetic effect beyond it.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, there’s something in the way you, not just the way you see your Christianity, but the way you look at the world. It’s a very holistic vision. There’s a self-awareness. There’s kind of a global sensibility. So, for example, you’ve taken the old adage that if you give someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day. But if you teach them how to fish, they can eat for a lifetime. Right? But you say, we also need to ask who owns the pond and who polluted it?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, that’s new, I think. And I’m not sure people, human beings have previously been free, been — lived in a world where they could think that way, or see all the connections. Have you thought about this? About your generation and this time?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Everywhere I go, I am so encouraged by the questions that people are asking, especially, even within the evangelical church that’s been so scared of a lot of those questions. And, I think, some of the more damaging views that we’ve had around from the religious right and stuff of folks going on. Well, you know, global warming is just something that takes us off track from the important issues, like homosexuality, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: It’s just, like, what in the world, you know? Most people my age that I see, even within the evangelical church, like, transcend those categories of left and right, and really are wanting to know how to create a better world and know that the world that we’ve been handed is very fragile. And I love when Jesus said that if the Christians are silent, then the rocks will cry out. And I think now he would say, maybe, ‘The rock stars will cry out,’ you know? I mean, there’s a lot of Christians though that are going, ‘We don’t just need, you know, these celebrities to work out, you know, to change the world. We need to figure out how to live differently ourselves and how to live with some imagination and some creativity, and give ourselves for something bigger than just our own little circle of friends.’ And so, that, to me, that’s so encouraging. And I’m convinced that if the Christian church loses this generation, it will be not because we didn’t entertain them, but because we didn’t dare them, you know, with the truth of the world. And it won’t be because we’d made the Gospel too hard, but because we made it too easy, and we just played games with kids and didn’t actually challenge them to think about how they live.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you also made a really interesting observation, I think. Now, you’ve been saying some critical things about the religious right, but you’re also, you’re quite critical of liberals and progressives. I mean, you want to get away from all the boxes, I think. And you’ve written about being disturbed by flags in churches and by the patriotism that gets mixed up in American Christianity and, certainly, in the time of war, it gets mixed up. And you wrote of this post-9/11 period: “This burst of nationalism reveals the deep longing we all have for community, a natural thirst for intimacy that liberals and progressive Christians would have done much better to acknowledge.” Say some more about that.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. I think that a part of my own journey gives me this sense of invitation for people to ask those questions in ways that we — because I’ve floated in the side of conservativism and in the side of progressive, you know, liberalism …
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: … you know, I’ve seen, in both of those circles, sort of a self-righteousness, you know, that marks itself by how pure it’s become. And, you know, and in East Tennessee, that meant, like, we didn’t listen to Metallica, right?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Or we didn’t listen to any secular music. And thank God, I’m not like those people, you know? And yet, like, on the other side of things, I really felt some of that within the social justice circles, that it was, like, ‘Thank you that we only eat organic,’ you know? ‘We,’ you know, ‘we aren’t defiled by those others,’ you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And so, it was — it makes us feel good just by making everybody else feel how bad they are. And I think, what I really love about much of what’s happening in the younger generation is there’s a sense that, man, we all have a lot of contradictions and we don’t need to feel like we have it all figured out. There’s something just as magnetic as a church that seems to, like, pretend that we’ve all got it together, which is definitely the church that I grew up in, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: There’s something magnetic about a group of people that say, ‘Hey, we don’t have it all figured out, and we need each other.’ And for me, that was a story — what happened after September 11th is that some people, you know, they just rallied around the flag and the church community, and I went to those congregations and spoke at some of them, you know, and …
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: … and other folks rallied in the streets. And yet, there — from many sides, there was such a polarity of anger and homogeneity that everybody was just with their own people, and …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: … I was really hurt by that because I think we would do well to just acknowledge the vulnerability of the moment and respond well in the midst of that. And I think of how the Amish responded to the shooting in their school, you know, and how tragic that was. And yet their instinct was to go and, you know, be with the murderer’s family and go to the funeral of the one that killed some of their kids and send resources there, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Since I had this conversation with Shane Claiborne in 2007, a lot has happened. He’s published another book, his community’s original house burned down, and he’s traveled worldwide speaking about his work. We reached out to him and asked how he stays connected to The Simple Way and its intentional lifestyle — as his popularity and demand grow. You can read his candid answers on our blog, Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog. And, you can also watch him on stage with Evangelical leaders Chuck Colson and Greg Boyd. He participated with them in a passionate, cross-generational dialogue I led at a gathering of ministers about the role of Christians in U.S. politics. Find video of that conversation and download an MP3 of this show at speakingoffaith.org.
MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, how Shane Claiborne navigates the goal of love and the reality of violence with children in his neighborhood. Also, new forms of community that he sees emerging in the lives of people young and old.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. On Being comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to On Being, conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “A Monastic Revolution: Meeting Shane Claiborne.” He co-founded an intentional community called The Simple Way, in North Philadelphia, when he was just out of college in 1997. I interviewed him in 2007, and he has continued since then to grow in prominence as a leading figure at the intersection of a number of movements, primarily of young people, that are reimagining the essence of Christianity. His book The Irresistible Revolution is a best-seller, especially among young Christians and churches who are seeking to understand them. He is also a sought-out speaker and writer in ever-expanding spheres of visibility. In December 2009, Esquiremagazine invited Shane Claiborne to write an open letter to nonbelievers. It included these lines: “I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. … Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.”
As he was telling us earlier, Shane Claiborne and others were galvanized in part by what they experienced as the distortions caused by evangelical Christian involvement in U.S. electoral politics. Yet they question the smugness of both right and left in polarizing American culture. They’re more concerned with connecting the dots between local human needs and global crises. Shane Claiborne went to Iraq just as war broke out in March 2003. Here he is speaking at a gathering of the Christian Community Development Association after that experience.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Because I’ve seen a lot of hard things this year and actually, I brought a couple of things that symbolize those, I’ve been carrying them with me. One is — this is a shell of a bullet on the corner of my neighborhood where one of the young men was killed. And this is the shell of a bomb from Baghdad. And I’ve been holding those with me because in a lot of ways, this year, for the first time, I experienced firsthand the violence of our neighborhoods, and I was a victim of an attack. And I had a broken jaw and I couldn’t talk for a month. That was right after being back from witnessing the most horrific violence I’ve ever seen in my life in Baghdad. So as I hold these two things, I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, who said: “These are extreme times. And the question isn’t whether or not we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will you be extremists for love or for hatred?”
My theology is very practical theology. It didn’t come out of reading books by good Mennonites or something.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: It came out of, you know, trying to teach kids that it takes more courage to confront someone that’s violent with nonaggression and still confront it, you know? And so we teach kids that. So one kid came home, I remember, years back, and a kid was picking on him. And he’s like, ‘Aw, this kid, you know, keeps beating me up, they’re calling me names.’ And we’re like, ‘Well, you know what, Rolando, that means that you’ve got to show him what a friend looks like, because they may not know what it’s like to be a good friend. They may not have had good friends before, so you get to show them.’ And Rolando goes, ‘Oh, man. Love is so hard.’ And I think that’s the love that Dostoevsky speaks of when he said, it’s not love that, you know, not a sentimental love like storybooks, but it’s a harsh and dreadful love that we’re talking about.
MS. TIPPETT: But you know, it’s a big responsibility for you to be telling a kid who’s facing true, potentially dangerous bullying to go back and love them. I mean, does that ever backfire? Does that ever not work?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Well, I think that’s true. And I think that Jesus, when he’s telling us these things like turn the other cheek, he’s speaking to people who had been slapped. You know, he’s speaking to people who are peasants and revolutionaries and people that were confronted with violence every single day. And yet, it’s not a cowardly, like, just sort of, ‘Well just get stepped on.’ But I think every one of the instances that Jesus is showing us in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, you know, “If a person slaps you on your cheek, turn your other cheek. And if someone asks you to walk a mile, go two miles.” All these things were very real realities that confronted evil, but not on its own terms.
MS. TIPPETT: Confronted evil without mirroring evil.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Right. And in fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I was walking down the street with Kasim, who’s a young man on my block, and a bunch of teenagers jumped us, and they started calling us names and throwing stuff at us, and they were just ready for a fight, you know? They’re just trying to stir it up, and we keep walking and then, I said, ‘You know, let’s not run from them. Let’s go back.’ And we introduced ourselves and Kasim is thinking, like, ‘What in the world?’ You know, we introduced ourselves to them. And I said, ‘My name is Shane. This is Kasim.’ And they totally didn’t know what to do with that, you know, they’re ready to fight. And, then we keep walking and then one of them hits my friend, Kasim, on the head with a club. And I mean, at that moment, my instinct is like ‘God, where are you? You know, why didn’t you, we tried not to fight these kids,’ you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And then I turned around and I don’t know what happened. It just sort of snapped for me. And I looked at them and I said, ‘You guys are created in the image of God and you’re made for something better than this.’ These kids looked at us and they were — they had no idea what to do with that. They just sort of, like, disintegrated into every different direction, you know? And Kasim looks at me and he goes, ‘What was that?’ And I’m like ‘I don’t know what it was,’ you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Was he all right?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Oh, yeah. He was OK. And he came home. And listen to what he said. He said, when we got home, he goes, ‘Shane, you know, we get to go to bed tonight, thinking that we acted like Jesus. And those kids have to go to bed thinking about how they acted.’ And this is just a middle school kid, you know. And we sat down, and we prayed for those kids, and we thought about it. And I said, ‘Kasim, I don’t know what Jesus would have done in our place,’ you know? I know one thing, he would not have run from those kids, and he would not have hit those kids.’ To me, the idea that we can look in the face of evil and say that you are better than the worst things that you do, it’s a beautiful, beautiful story. And that’s what I see in the lives of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, is his scandalous love for even the people that are inflicting violence on him. So he, you know, Dr. King says: “You can threaten our children and we will still love you. You can burn down our houses and we will still love you. You can put us in jail and put your dogs on us and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our love.” And I love that because it’s a story of the martyrs. It’s the story of our faith.
MS. TIPPETT: And I want to ask you, there’s a phenomenon, and I’m talking to you, you’ve been following this passion for over a decade and you still have — you have so much passion, so much energy and you’re, you know, one thing that I’ve heard a lot about talking to religious people who are involved in the civil rights movement is that they are followed this period of burnout. You know, that’s also a really common story in social justice causes. And have you gone through periods where you were more dry? And, you know, how do you imagine not becoming depleted or not becoming cynical? Because cynicism is often something that follows in the wake of movements like this. Have you thought about this?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. Well, I think that something I’ve learned in being in social justice circles is that — in conservative or liberal circles for that matter is that there’s often something that everybody has in common is that we don’t have joy. You know, and we don’t have celebration or laughter. And I have — we have so …
MS. TIPPETT: It’s very serious stuff. Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. We have so much fun, like, I live with people who — we laugh hard together and we cry hard together, too. I think what community is, is surrounding yourself with people who are like the person you want to become. And for me, I also keep a really good rhythm of life, like I have a very disciplined life of, you know, getting up in the morning for prayer, and we have a Sabbath day where we just rest together, you know, and we don’t answer the door or the phone. And so all those things are sort of a part of our integrated faith and who we are and things that we share together. And we have meals together as a community, and we function a lot like a family. So that keeps us, I think, very energized for the long haul.
MS. TIPPETT: But I mean, families have hard times and families have struggles and irritations. I mean living in proximity, I’ve heard this also from monastics, traditional monastics, that they have all the kind of irritations and necessity of forgiveness that any family has. I mean, have you had periods of despair or of discouragement?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Oh, yeah. I don’t know if we have enough time for all of that. But we — for sure, we — you know, and I think that like for instance, drug addiction is huge. You know, we are a block from one of the most notorious heroin corners in Philadelphia. And that’s something that I think drove us to the very brink of collapse because we had folks living with us. I mean, we’re trying to hold this vision of ‘We’ll just live with the doors unlocked,’ you know? We had people that came and stole our car and stole our refrigerator and our Crockpot. That was sort of the end of the line, the Crockpot. You know, I mean these are things that we’re trying to use to take care of folks. And then we — but then we look at ourselves and we go, ‘Well, why do we stink so bad at, you know, dealing with addiction?’ And we’re, like, ‘Well, none of us have used heroin.’ How about that for starters, you know?
And so then we began really having this deliberate relationship with New Jerusalem, the recovery community. And we have this sense that we’re a part of a body. And that’s refreshing to know that we don’t have to be the full picture of everything that’s going to happen in our neighborhood or in our world, but we work out what we do best and try to harmonize with other, you know, communities and voices as best we can.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being from American Public Media. Today, “A Monastic Revolution: Meeting Shane Claiborne.”
MS. TIPPETT: Do you think of yourself as being part of a revolution, a kind of revolution?
MR. CLAIBORNE: I …
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a word you’ve used.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And you can hear my hesitation.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. CLAIBORNE: I’m careful because I don’t ever want to fall in love with a movement or a revolution. You know, I think that Jesus’ life shows me that revolution is not a big thing, but it’s a very small thing. You know that we’ve got to live it in small ways out of little communities. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer who has been a good teacher for us on community, he says, “The person who’s …
MS. TIPPETT: German theologian who died in a Nazi prison.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. And one of the things that Dietrich Bonhoeffer says is “The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.” And I think that that’s something that’s held us together is not just to fall in love with a movement or a revolution, but to try to live in radical ways and in simple ways. Because I think that the world right now is undergoing a beautiful transition of thought and in young people within the church, there’s so much that’s hopeful.
MS. TIPPETT: Talk to me about some of the people in the communities who, for you, are defining the present or, you know, participating in this new imagination that you describe.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Boy, there’s so many different communities that give me a lot of hope. And some of them are folks just like — I met a suburban family that said, ‘We’re trying to figure out what it means to love our neighbor as ourself. And for us, it means that for every biological child that we send to college, we’re creating a scholarship fund and making sure that an at-risk youth can go to college. And we get to know their family and, you know, interact with them and help make that happen.’ And then I met a bunch of kids that said, ‘You know, we’re trying to figure out how to find the Calcutta around us.’ As Mother Teresa said, “Calcuttas are everywhere if we only have eyes to see.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Find your own Calcutta. Mm-hmm.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. And they said, ‘So we started looking around and we found this old folks’ home and we went in.’ And these are actually, I should say, they’re kind of preppy teenage girls, you know, like cheerleaders and stuff.
MS. TIPPETT: All right. Where are they?
MR. CLAIBORNE: So we found — this was out in Western Pennsylvania.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And they said, ‘We were — so we’re trying to find this little, the retirement home. We went in and we asked for all of the women who don’t have any visitors or family. And so we go and we visit them and we paint their fingernails and toenails and we just listen to their story.’ And I love it because it’s unique, you know. And there’s all kinds of expressions of people that are beginning to experience life just outside of the detached nuclear family.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CLAIBORNE: You know, and are seeing that bring themselves to life. And one of the great examples of that was a married couple that I stayed with. And they said, you know, ‘We were unable to have children as a married couple.’ And they were about 50 years old. And they said, ‘But then we were walking through our neighborhood and we met this woman who had found herself homeless and she was six months pregnant. And so we said, “My gosh, you know, you got, you can’t be on the streets.”‘ So they brought her back to their house and said, ‘You know, we’ll figure this out as we go.’ And they really hit it off together. And they said, ‘If you want to have your child while you’re living here with us, we would love to be a part of that process because we’ve always wanted to have a kid,’ you know. And so, she did. She had her kid there, living in their home.
And it was so amazing that they continued to live together and raise the child. And then, they said to this mother, they said, ‘Well, what are your dreams, you know? We’re getting to live out one of ours.’ And she said, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to nursing school.’ So they said, ‘Well, we will take care of your kid and help you financially if you want to go to nursing school,’ and so she did. And I just went back to visit them and they’ve lived together for over 10 years. The woman who’s formerly homeless is a nurse. That little girl that she had is almost a teenager now. And the amazing thing is that the woman of that married couple now has multiple sclerosis and she’s dying, but she’s got a nurse living in her home with her, taking care of her as she dies. So I think those expressions are, they’re all over the place, and that’s what’s so beautiful.
MS. TIPPETT: You know — you call yourself a radical and you draw on the root of that word, which is driving to the core. And yet, you know, you’re having a quite a bit of success. You have a book that sold a lot of copies, that people are reading. You’re speaking all over the country. It was hard for us to pin down a time to have you on the show. I mean, do you worry about what our culture does to success, even if it comes from the best of intentions? Do you worry about what our culture does to saints? Because I think that some people probably are setting you up as a very cool but saintly figure.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Well, I think one thing that community does is it keeps you very grounded, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CLAIBORNE: We make sure that, because you see each other at your best and your worst. And I am, to me it’s such a gift to have a group of people that I live with and that I’m accountable to and that don’t take me too seriously.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And I love when Dorothy Day said, ‘Don’t call us saints because we don’t want to be dismissed that easily.’
MS. TIPPETT: How would you respond to someone who said, ‘Well, you know, these stories you tell about good things happening are beautiful in these communities, but it’s anecdotal and it’s just one person here, one person there, one small group of people here, one small group of people there. Why, you’re not going to really change the world.’ And how would you — how do you respond to that?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Well, I’d say if we looked a little closer at history, we see that that’s the only way it’s ever been done, you know, and that these groups of people begin to come together and ripple new imagination and ideas that are very contagious. And I especially look at the story of my faith, you know. And Jesus’ chooses this little group of people where, what a bunch of, you know, goofballs. I mean, one of them denies him, another betrays him, and another doubts him. And yet, it’s that little group of people that, even in the midst of that brokenness, I think, is a testimony of God’s goodness, and that the movement builds. And the Christian mystics know that so well because they say that ‘God’s spirit comes through the cracks and not through the togetherness.’
MR. CLAIBORNE: I would say that one thing that’s been so encouraging, after writing the book, is just having letters come in, you know. And I try to write folks back, and especially people that have said, ‘I knew that there was more to Christianity than just, you know, patriotic pastors and cover-up bishops and all these horrible, you know, things that we’ve seen and over and over, folks that are, you know, sexual minorities and people that have really felt themselves completely outside the church.’ And I am so encouraged by that. And I even had a, some folks in a mosque that told me that they were reading my book together in a study group.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MR. CLAIBORNE: It’s like, oh my gosh. That’s exactly some of the, you know, the most encouraging things that I would see. In the South, where I’m from, you know, we have a saying that you’re “the spittin’ image” of somebody. You know, I got told I’m the spittin’ image of my grandfather all the time, and it’s shorthand for “the spirit and image,” you know. And it doesn’t just mean you look like them but that you have the character of them.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh. I didn’t know that.
MR. CLAIBORNE: And so, in a lot of ways, I guess what I hope that we are seeing is Christians who are beginning to be, again, the spitting image of Christ, you know, that are starting to look like and do the things that Jesus did and not be totally distracted by those which have proclaimed the name of Christ and done so many other things.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, there’s a lot of speculation about this Gen Y, you know, I’ve heard the we-not-me generation and then, I’ve heard other studies that say they are more selfish and self-obsessed than any previous generation. And you know, I don’t hold very much, I don’t trust those kinds of analyses of entire swaths of people. But what do you see in the people around you, your age and younger? What do you see as qualities of this generation, in your experience?
MR. CLAIBORNE: Well, I can definitely say that they’re — we are totally overwhelmed by the amount of people who are responding to the message and the witness of the communities that we’re a part of. We get like 20 calls and letters a day of folks that have, that are, like, ‘Oh, we’re so ready for something new, you know. We’re ready for a revolution.’
MS. TIPPETT: All right. And are they young? Are they …
MR. CLAIBORNE: Oh, my gosh. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.
MR. CLAIBORNE: Yeah. They’re so young. They’ll hitchhike across the country and end up at our door, you know. We’re, like, well, we’re not taking visitors right now, except we did have a visitor that showed up the other day that had hitchhiked up from Liberty University, which is where Jerry Falwell …
MS. TIPPETT: All right.
MR. CLAIBORNE: … you know, that’s his school. We’re like, ‘Well, we’ll make an exception. Come on in,’ you know. But we — it’s so encouraging that there are people that are out there asking that. I think the world’s a little smaller and folks are, they want to know where their clothes are made. They want to know, you know, where their food comes from. And there are people that, over and over, where I — I go places that folks have seen the emptiness of the dream that their parents have settled for, where we’ve been sold this idea of the American Dream, that they’ve seen just can end up being loneliness, you know. And can rob us of community and joy and life.
And so, they are looking for something more. They want to volunteer. They want to do something bigger than that. And I think that’s why you have, like, folks joining the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps and all these programs, you know. But you also have folks that I think are asking great questions about who, not just what they’re going to do when they grow up, but who they are becoming. And I think that’s a much more important question. It’s not whether or not we’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor but what kind of lawyer or doctor we’re going to be.
MS. TIPPETT: Shane Claiborne is a founding member of The Simple Way community in North Philadelphia. His books include The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
MS. TIPPETT: You can download an MP3 of the show you’ve just heard, and my entire unedited interview with Shane Claiborne, on our website, speakingoffaith.org.
And, I’d like to invite you to participate in a community narrative we’re producing over the summer. There are so many dire scenarios of ecology, sustainability, and climate. But, on the other side of despair, we keep hearing about new realities emerging — a “brightening on the path” as Ellen Davis put it — causes for renewed hope about what’s before us. We’d like for you to share what this means for you. It could be a place — a prairie night sky or an urban garden. It could be an interaction with a neighbor or a local farmer — something that makes you contemplate the deeper meanings of possession of land and its care.
So, paint a picture for us — in words or with photographs — and we’ll create a multimedia narrative that moves beyond numbers and statistics. Look for the Share Your Story link on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is produced by Colleen Scheck, Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Shubha Bala. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is managing producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.