I live an admittedly comfortable life. So comfortable, in fact, that when I picked up my copy of Shane Claiborne’s new book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as An Ordinary Radical, it didn’t even dawn on me to dawn on me that it would be anything other than some chewable food for thought. I had heard Shane speak his provocative words at my church, experienced first hand the rabble-rousing caused by his radical notions. I was fascinated by his hand-made clothes and dreadlocks and inspired by his ardent adherence to the uncomfortable parts of the Bible that most of us conveniently ignore. But I still didn’t get that the heart of Claiborne’s message is as simple as love.
From the moment I cracked the first page, I knew I was in trouble. I was not even through Jim Wallis’s introduction before I caught myself biting my nails in discomfort at the “cultural Christianity” describing to the letter my consumer existence. The Gospel is not comfortable, says Claiborne, and it is precisely our comfort inside church walls, inside our own homes, inside our own prejudices that has kept Christians immobile and ineffective as agents of social change. “I did not want to settle for a life detached from the groanings of the slums or the beauty of playing in open fire hydrants,” Claiborne asserts. “The more I read the Bible, the more I felt my comfortable life interrupted.”
Described by Paul Beston of the Wall Street Journal as “part memoir, part social manifesto, and part theological commentary,” The Irresistible Revolution is Claiborne’s account of life as he knows it from conversion to maturation. His journey is one that most of us can relate to: Starting out as an amiable and popular homecoming king, he had materialistic Christianity figured out. Wear this T-shirt, pass out these tracks, tell a few people there’s a better way, and you’re golden. What Claiborne didn’t account for in those early years was the way Jesus would eventually “wreck” his life. “The more I read the Gospel, the more it messed me up, turning everything I believed in, valued, and hoped for upside down,” he says. “I am still recovering from my conversion.”
As depicted in the book, Claiborne’s “recovery” has taken him from the impoverished streets of Philly to the war-zones of Iraq in search of a Jesus whose Gospel is actually good news and who not only gives life after death, but life before death as well. A self-described “career lover” and “extremist for love,” Claiborne’s experiment with the Gospel has found him redistributing wealth on Wall Street, exchanging iconic medals with a lepor in Calcutta, on death’s door in war-torn Iraq and being arrested time and time again for his protests of the injustice of homelessness in Philadelphia. Claiborne is perhaps best known as a co-founder of the Simple Way, an intentional community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, where the house set out not to start programs, but to be good neighbors.
Through his myriad experiences in disarming acts, Claiborne never wavers in his commitment first and foremost to loving his neighbors as himself. We are not transformed by staying at a safe distance, he says, no matter how much we tithe or how many times we drop off our clothes at the local shelter. “When the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning,” he writes. “And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.” It is “falling in love with each other across class lines” that will make the revolution irresistible.
Claiborne quotes Mother Teresa, whom he at one time joined in Calcutta: “Do no great things, just small things with great love. It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” The trouble with this “small things” concept is that many of the acts of love in Claiborne’s book seem so big. As a reader, this is where the forest threatens to lose itself to the trees, in the bigness of incarceration, Iraq and throwing money out the windows of Wall Street. Where discomfort with the ways of the world becomes intimidation of Claiborne’s life and guilt at our own lack of big acts is addressed in the book only in passing. But one cannot look to the book to answer struggles of guilt, for that is not its purpose. Its purpose, rather, is to tell a story of the way Jesus changes lives through love, and for us to take one step closer to finding our “own Calcutta.”
The greatest risk Claiborne takes is in telling a story so radical that objectors will dismiss it as fantastical, foolish, or, at worst, unrealistic. He takes pains, however, to point out that he is ordinary, that this irresistible revolution is one of fools, of Average Joes, of people like you and me who have simply decided to let themselves fall in love with the people Jesus loves. There is a stirring in the evangelical world, he says, to turn the unhealthy monologue into a new dialogue with new voices speaking the ancient words of Jesus to a tired and hurting world.
I’d like to say that by the time I closed the back cover, I had a plane ticket to Sudan in my back pocket and a heart full of love, but I’m not so sure our journeys work that way. What I do have is a renewed energy for delving into the uncomfortable scriptures I so easily sweep under the rug, for dreaming big dreams of transformation, for using my imagination to fathom a world free of consumerism and selfishness, free even of poverty and war.
To those like me who are so comfortable with their surroundings that they don’t even recognize their own comfort: Read this book to stir yourself out of the slumber and awaken to transformative love. To those already knee-deep on the frontlines: Read this book to hear a kindred spirit speak the words so heavy on your own heart. To everyone else: Read this book, because you never know what you’re going to learn when you open yourself to new ideas. And in our awakening, let us never once forget that we are able to love because He first loved us, and from the love of Christ first and foremost comes the power to do acts both great and small.
All proceeds of The Irresistible Revolution will be shared with "other local revolutionaries and ordinary radicals." To learn more about Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way, or to read Claiborne’s journal from his time in Iraq, go to www.thesimpleway.org.