Q&A With Shane Claiborne

As the co-authors of Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers (not to mention the popular New Monasticism and Jesus for President), Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove merge their knowledge of religion and politics to build a basis on social justice and helping out those in need. Here, the spiritually and politically minded speakers talk to RELEVANT about the economy, helping the poor and how the apocalypse-type language going on now can be seen as a good thing. 


RELEVANT: We’re in a recession, officially now. The government bailed out our banks; they bailed out the car industry. What’s your take on it all? What do you think?

JWH: Well I think God’s economy is always real, no matter how the world’s economy is doing. But sometimes we can see our need for it even more clearly when the world’s economy ain’t doing so well. It was during what America calls its Great Depression that the Catholic Worker Movement was born and Dorothy Day and a number of other folks really led the Church in thinking about its works of mercy and how it is that we take care of each other in what we used to call economic hard times. 

It’s interesting that poor people seem to get the tactics of Jesus a little better than people who have resources because they know that you have to take care of each other if you’re gonna make it in this world. So when Jesus says things like “Give to whoever asks,” that makes sense to people who’ve learned how to survive on the margins and in the cracks. In some ways, I think in the midst of an economic crisis, especially in the Church, we might look to learn from our brothers and sisters who’ve lived in poverty what it means to really be God’s economy and receive that as good news here in the midst of an economy that might be going down. I mean, after all, if you’ve invested everything in your 401k, things aren’t looking so good. But if you’ve invested in friendships, you’ve still got those friends 

SC: And one of the places that I’ve learned that was about a year and a half ago. We had a big fire here in our neighborhood and it was a difficult time for our neighborhood and the Red Cross set up a shelter nearby and they came by the house and they said, “The wildest thing happened”—nobody ended up staying in the shelter ‘cause everybody in the neighborhood opened their homes up to each other. 

There’s an incredible, inherent resourcefulness and creativity of survival that a lot of poor folks get. Certainly it’s not to romanticize the poverty in the inner city or something, but a lot of people live in community not because they choose intentional community but because that’s how they’ve had to survive. I think we have a lot to learn from that, like Jonathan said. 

The other thing is, I was on the airplane the other day and this guy got a little hellfire on me and he was like, “This is the apocalypse! This is the end times!” And I think he was onto something, though, that folks are asking a lot of really good questions right now. He may have read too many Lehane books, but I think that apocalypse comes from the same brood as revelation—it means to reveal or unveil, ripping away the veil so you can see what lies underneath everything. In that sense, I think these are very revealing times where folks are asking questions like, “Does God’s dream look like Wall Street?” If everyone lived the American dream, we’d need four more planets. Can the world really afford the patterns that we’re living in? 

The great thing is that Scripture says we’re not to conform to those patterns, but to be transformed by our mind and living in ways that confound those patterns. I think it’s an exciting time right now for the Church to shine and, like Jonathan said, the Church has shined pretty well in very difficult situations. If you want to find a church that’s alive, go look in places where the world is suffering and struggling. Jonathan and I and a group of other communicators were together last week and one of the things that was said at that gathering was if you read the book of Revelation, it talks in ways that are so relevant. Talk about relevant, read about the fall of Babylon. “Oh, here’s Babylon, she’s fallen, and the merchants stand back and they weep and they wail and they said, ‘Oh, fallen is this great Babylon.’” And there’s another response, though, which is that the angels rejoice and the big question is, “Will we be weeping with the merchants or rejoicing with the angels?” 

God is good and in a lot of ways, many of the things we’re seeing are consequential. I don’t think it’s like, “This is God looking down and smiting or shooting lightning bolts.” It’s that we’re living in the patterns that are unsustainable and destructive and inevitably that is bound to collapse. When CEOs are making 500 times that of their workers, when the U.S. is consuming half the world’s resources with less than six percent the world’s population—that should cause us to ask, “What does God’s dream look like in light of what we’re seeing?” 

The great thing is that when we look at Scripture, we catch all kinds of glimpses of different ways we should be living, like Jubilee—good heavens, there’s a great idea. That we should systemically dismantle debt and let the world rest and redistribute property, that we should dismantle inequality periodically over and over. If there’s one thing that Wall Street has taught us, it’s that if we don’t screw ourselves in Jubilee, then it’s gonna screw us. We’ve got to learn to imagine the world as God intended it. 

JWH: I’ve got another thing to say, in light of the kind of apocalyptic type language, is that the apocalypse is always an invitation to come and enjoy God’s feast. When Jonah goes to Nineveh and says, “Forty days more in Israel in Nineveh is overturned,” the word used for overturned can also be translated to repent or turn around, and as a matter of fact, that’s what happened. The word of judgement is also an invitation to conversion, to turn toward the good news, and I believe our God is a loving God and His judgement is always for the sake of inviting us into the good life that we were made for. 

RLVNT: We have the poor all around us, we have lots of opportunities to connect with them, but I think so many people have that fear of that first connection—taking that first step is intimidating. “What will someone think of me, I don’t want to be that person who’s coming and trying to save the day.” What would you say to them? How should we take that first step?

JWH: I think the invitation Jesus offers is into relationship. When Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Give to whoever asks from you,” it’s in the context of His teaching on enemy love. It seems to me Jesus is saying that the way the world works, the poor become our enemies, but we’re invited into relationship so that we can discover a new community. A lot of times people say, “What should I do if somebody asks me for money?” And, boy, I don’t have a neat tidy answer, but I think Jesus invites us to think that it’s an invitation into relationship. So if you can move from that encounter on the street to sitting down in your home, you can move from sitting down in your home to hearing one another’s stories, to getting involved in each other’s lives, to sharing time together where you’re not just helping but you’re enjoying life together. So go play basketball together, take your kids to see a movie together—these are an invitation to life together where we really can find ways to know that we’re family. I think charity is always condescending to the poor, a handout never feels good, nobody wants to be in that position, but telling the truth about the divisions and gaps between us and doing what we can to love one another across those divides is taking steps toward becoming the family of God that Jesus says we already are. 

See Also

SC: Jonathan and I’s story is that we both had to leave some of where we came from in order to grow closer to people who were suffering. That’s not necessarily true of everyone—for some people it means remaining in the neighborhoods they came from if they came from tough neighborhoods, or returning to them after they’ve gone to college and come back to their neighborhood to be a lawyer or a teacher. Those are incredibly heroic callings and vocations. But for us, I think Jonathan and I suffered from many of the patterns of our culture that separate from the poor or the marginalized or people who look different from us. That’s where I think Jesus is saying to the Church, “Go into the world.” Jesus is not saying to the poor, “Come find the Church,” but He’s saying to us, “Get out—go into the world, go into the prison. Find me in prison, find me where I’m hungry.” In that, there’s a call to community, where we’ll do that together, where we’re not just lone rangers, but we’ll go on this journey together to move closer to the suffering in our world. 

One of Jesus’ great stories is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man created this gated life, this gated neighborhood, kept the world out and locked himself in. And what he finds is that he not only locked the poor out of his life, but he’s locked himself into a life that’s incredibly narcissistic and robs him of love and community. It’s also not just a separation between himself and Lazarus, but it becomes a separation between himself and God. He’s certainly a religious man, he knows the prophets, he calls out to Father Abraham and yet God says, “This person suffered just outside your gate and you received everything in this world that you needed.” And of course the story ends with the flipping of everything to where the rich man is begging the beggar for a drop of water. 

It’s a hard parable, but I think the rich man ended up there not just because he’s rich but because he didn’t care and he didn’t love and he didn’t connect with his neighbor. That’s the invitation that we all have. It means that we’ve gotta bust through the gates or the picket fences or the walls that we build up between nations and we’ve gotta find the alien and the immigrant, the stranger, the hurting, the homeless and learn their names. And incidentally, Lazarus is the only person named in the parables of Jesus and it means “the one God rescues” or “the one God hurts.” We have to be the folks that hear those cries and humanize those people who’ve just been locked outside. 

JWH: Of course one of the greatest tragedies of the Church in contemporary society is that the poor are among us and we don’t talk about it. One of the things I often say in churches is starting a conversation within your church about money can make a big difference. If you just get on the table that there is a single mother coming every Sunday who works two jobs and that there’s another family there who might have a lake house, what if we actually talked to each other and talk about what it means to take care of each other within our bodies of believers in terms of money. I think starting that conversation is a huge step toward mending that gap between one another but also changing that gap between us and God. 

SC: The beautiful thing, too, is that this call is something that brings us to life. It’s not just bringing life to the poor, but it’s bringing life to those of us who’ve locked ourselves into this dream or this phantom of independence and of not needing others. The prophet Isaiah says, “When we spend ourselves on behalf of the poor, our healing comes and our light begins to shine.” This is what we’re made for: We’re made to live for something bigger than ourselves, we’re made to give ourselves for others. When people do that, whether they’re the doctors here in Philly who run a clinic around the corner or the landscapers who are coming and creating green space in poor neighborhoods, there are people who are using their gifts in ways that are building the Kingdom and embodying good news to the poor. 

And so those calls, the call to community, for people in the suburbs who are going, “Hey, crazy idea, we’re gonna carpool” or “We’re gonna have the one family on our cul-de-sac who has the washer and dryer that we’re gonna use or the lawnmower that we all use.” Not only are those sensible ways of living but they’re also things that create community, interdependence, the sort of life that we’re made for together—and break the patterns of unsustainability and also land us in a place where we’re the wealthiest country in the world and also one of the most lonely, medicated and depressed people in the world.

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