Shane Claiborne says there’s a lot wrong with Christianity today, but he’s not one to name names or point fingers. People who do that, he says, are part of the problem.
“The top perceptions of Christians by non-Christians is that they’re anti-gay, very judgmental and extremely hypocritical,” said Claiborne, a Philadelphia resident who has created attention worldwide with his attempt at building “radical” faith communities.
“But there’s more to Christianity than pedophile priests, televangelists and extreme patriotic pastors who burn the Koran. That kind of hatred has hijacked Christianity and made it sick.”
The author of six books, including “Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals,” and “The Irresistible Revolution: Living Life as an Ordinary Radical,” Claiborne will be at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Albany on Friday and Saturday to lead a presentation titled “A Call to the Simple Way of Radical Christianity,” a course offering of the Capital Region Theological Center.
‘A Call to the Simple Way of Radical Christianity’
WHAT: A CRTC course offering with Shane Claiborne
WHERE: Emmanuel Baptist Church, 275 State St., Albany
WHEN: 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $35 for Friday, $95 for Saturday, $105 for both days; student discount, $10 for both days
MORE INFO: 462-2470, www.capitalrtc.org
Engaging the world
“What I’ll talk about is not using our faith as a ticket to heaven and to disengage from the world we live in, but rather to engage the pain and the darkness of the world we live in,” he said. “I’ll talk about life before death, and imagining all the good things God wants us to be doing before we die.”
Claiborne is 36 and looks even younger. He often wears clothes he makes himself, a homage in part to Gandhi and his spinning wheel, and his hair is dreadlocked, a style his mother helped him adopt more than seven years ago. He is not an ordained minister, although after finishing up at Eastern University in Philadelphia he spent a year doing an internship at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago while enrolled in a program at Wheaton College. He also did graduate work at Princeton Theological Seminary, spent a 10-week internship working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and most recently spent three weeks in Baghdad with the Iraq Peace Team.
He grew up in eastern Tennessee going to a Methodist church. He became a devout Christian early in his life, although his faith has evolved and undergone a series of changes.
“I fell in love with Jesus in the seventh grade, and I was so happy and grateful for having wonderful folk in the church and having a God who really loved me,” he said. “So I gave my life to Jesus early, but I’m still figuring out the best way to do that. I like to think that every summer I’m born again.”
Although he still treasures his Methodist upbringing, he has looked into all kinds of denominations.
“I love John Wesley,” he said, “and I embrace my Methodist roots, but I also went to Eastern [University], which has Baptist roots, I got a little Pentecostal for a time, and I’ve certainly learned a lot from my Catholic friends. We’re all different streams leading back to the same river, and that’s what Jesus told us — ‘to be one as God is one.’ ”
Claiborne has been labeled a pioneer of the “new monastic” movement and is one of the founders of The Simple Way, a small, inner-city faith community in the northern section of Philadelphia. His call for social justice and his support of equality issues has made him a favorite of many individuals who are disillusioned with today’s Christian church. While Claiborne shares some of that disillusionment, he doesn’t want anyone to suggest he’s anti-church.
“No, I’m not,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is look backward and move forward. I’m not jumping ship from the church, I’m engaging the church. What we want to do is pray with the Bible and have the newspaper in our other hand. We want to be a part of every congregation of every stripe.”
While he doesn’t like to address his political philosophy in detail, it’s quite evident that he has gone from a more conservative standpoint to a liberal one.
“In 1992, I was working with the Bush-Quayle campaign, and I was very passionate about what I believed in,” said Claiborne, who also preaches nonviolence and environmentalism.
“Some of that still holds true, but through the light of experience things have opened my eyes in regard to inequality and social justice. I saw homeless folks, and then I would see anti-homeless legislation passed, and I realized it wasn’t only personal, it was social and systemic. As Christians, it’s our duty to interrupt those inequalities that are in our system.”
His attitude on issues such as the gap between rich and poor and a conservative view of homosexuality have also changed.
“The disparity between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is one of the most important issues of our day,” he said. “We see people on Wall Street, living like only a handful of people can live, and then we see the masses of people living in poverty. Should a CEO make $1,500 an hour or more, while the average worker gets $7.50 an hour? Where do you think Jesus stands on that issue?”
Claiborne, always polite in his manner, said his views on homosexuality changed while in college.
“A friend told me he was gay, and how he had been told his whole life he was a mistake, and he told me how he had thought about killing himself,” he said. “He’s got tears rolling down his face, and I’m thinking of all the good arguments against homosexuality I learned in Sunday school growing up in Tennessee. But I realized that if this kid can’t find a church or at least a friend, then what have we become? I’m also convinced that our deepest hunger is not for sex, but for love. Our culture may be consumed with sex, but God isn’t.”
Claiborne isn’t suggesting that the proper approach is to love the sinner and hate the sin.
“Jesus never said that,” he said. “What he said was ‘love the sinner and hate the sin that is in you.’
“If you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t be pointing a finger at other people while ignoring some glaring contradiction in ourselves. Some people are so concerned about gay marriage destroying family values, but that’s dishonest. Look at the number of divorces. The church shouldn’t be looking for Christians who are perfect, but Christians who are honest.”
While he is actively engaged in politics, he isn’t in the business of endorsing candidates.
“You have to align yourself with the party or person that comes closer to the kingdom of God and what Jesus tells us,” he said. “So, I have to say we’re a bunch of political misfits because Jesus was the antithesis of what politics is all about. Barack Obama and hope? I have to laugh at anyone pictured with a sign that says hope. Hope is built on nothing less than Jesus, and I’m not going to place all my hope in one candidate. I’m also not going to disengage from the world we live in. So yes, I’m going to vote but it’s kind of like damage control. I try to work with politicians and have a dialogue with them, but my primary allegiance is to Jesus.”
Claiborne doesn’t like labels and isn’t comfortable being called an evangelical.
“With any label, I like to make sure the person calling me that has the same definition of the word that I do,” he said. “Evangelical Christianity has become associated with being sexist, racist, anti-gay, judgmental, pro-death and pro-military. I look at all those things and I don’t see Jesus. But I’m deeply committed to Jesus, I have a personal relationship with Jesus and I have a high view of Scripture. And we are proclaimers of Jesus and the good news, and since those are things that mark evangelism, or my definition of evangelical, then it’s OK.”