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Unfashionable revolution

Shane Claiborne
Author, activist and speaker Shane Claiborne on living out social justice.

Our Bono-inspired, Make-Poverty-History generation has successfully made charity and social justice cool.

However, actually getting to know the poor and the marginalised—to befriend and share in their struggles and joys—somehow remains low on the fashionability stakes.

But Shane Claiborne is not one to follow fashion advice. In anticipation of his visit to our shores for The Salvation Army’s Just Action Conference, we caught up with the author, activist and speaker to discover some of his less fashionable ways of expressing God’s love.

Shane speaks with a thick southern drawl. Not at all what you’d expect from a dreadlocked, modern-day hippy of inner city Philadelphia (who wears his own handmade clothes, I might add). But in talking to him, I quickly understand that this is a guy who seems to go out of his way to unfashionably put himself in places where he doesn’t belong.

Here are some classic examples:

  • Baghdad during the height of the Iraq war
  • A US Republican national convention while wearing a t-shirt that says, ‘Woe to those who deny the poor of their rights (Isaiah 10)’
  • the slums of Calcutta
  • the pews of one of the world’s biggest mega-churches.

What led Shane into these outrageously contrasting situations is fascinating. It wasn’t a mere desire to be different or to make a statement; his motivation ultimately came down to relationships.

‘It’s so important that everything be anchored in real relationships,’ Shane explains. ‘When we build relationships with people who are suffering injustice, the issues choose us. We can’t help but care about gun violence and health care and the massive amounts of money being spent on war, because we love our neighbours.

‘To love our neighbours means we try not just to pull bodies out of the river, but to go upstream and see why people are getting thrown in.’

To draw out Shane’s river analogy, we live in a world where people will happily send money to downstream problems (so others can ‘pull bodies out of the river’) and we also gladly sign petitions and post Facebook statuses against upstream injustices. But he emphasises the need to actually go to the river and get to know the afflicted.

Downstream Philly

An example of Shane getting personal in a ‘downstream’ location is Kensington, a severely disadvantaged community in Philadelphia. This was once a prosperous suburb, but when the local factories shut down they left behind a trail of unemployment, poverty and homelessness. (Kensington is also the fictional home of Rocky Balboa, which perhaps helps to give an idea of the depressed state of the place.)

Inspired by the early Christian Church, Shane joined with a bunch of friends (all graduates from Eastern University, where Shane studied under Tony Campolo) to pool the finances necessary to buy a house in Kensington and move in. Thus, ‘The Simple Way’ was born.

‘We started welcoming people off the street, helping kids with homework and getting to know our neighbours,’ says Shane. ‘It’s evolved over the years, and I think that’s what community does. Hopefully, it’s organic and ever changing as new people come and bring their gifts.

‘It started as intentional community and has grown into a village. So now we have a lot of neighbours who are actively a part of it.’

The Simple Way’s website is full of requests for volunteers to renovate rundown houses, to prepare food, or provide artwork and content for their community magazine. They now have several houses and public gardens, but Shane maintains that their operation is still very small and takes inspiration from Mother Teresa’s motto of not doing great things but of doing small things with great love.

Inspirations to go downstream

Part of what led Shane and the team to Kensington was time spent witnessing other ministries where God was at work ‘pulling people from the river’.

‘It was an amazing experience,’ says Shane of his 10 weeks in Calcutta working alongside Mother Teresa. ‘We worked in the home for the dying and in the orphanages. But part of what we learnt was that you don’t have to go to Calcutta to find Calcutta. Mother Teresa used to say, “Calcuttas are everywhere if we only have eyes to see.”

‘The spirit of Mother Teresa and the sisters is very infectious. It really became part of our DNA, and I hope that’s what we still try to live out every day of our lives.’

A world away from Calcutta, Shane also did a stint as an intern at the huge Chicago church, Willow Creek. ‘Part of why I went there,’ he explains, ‘was that I was very inspired by their story, which actually started as a bunch of young folk who were trying to reimagine what it meant to be the church.

‘They [like The Simple Way] were inspired by Acts chapters two and four. So my goal when I went to India and when I went to Willow Creek was that I could go to where God was already at work and try to learn from it.’

As well as learning from current ministries, Shane drives much of his inspiration from historical Christian figures. St Francis, Wesley, Booth are names that often roll off his tongue.

‘I find a lot of times the future of the church lies in remembering the past,’ Shane says. ‘It’s easy to stray from the vision of our founders. I think that is true of The Salvation Army, and growing up Methodist I talked to the Methodist bishops and said, “If John Wesley was alive today would he be a Methodist?”

‘We have to ask ourselves, “If William and Catherine were alive today would they recognise The Salvation Army?” So let’s keep staying true to the mission that Jesus calls us to.’

Jesus’ unfashionable example

Much further back, Shane credits Jesus for setting the ultimate standard, saying, ‘Sometimes we use these big words and phrases like “the incarnation” or “the manifestation of God on earth”. I look at that and [see that] the whole story is about Jesus moving into the neighbourhood—Jesus entering the human struggle.

‘And Jesus doesn’t come just to help the poor. He comes God-born as a refugee, God dying on a cross with love in his eyes—wandering the world, as Jesus said, with no place to lay his head. Knowing homelessness, knowing marginalisation from the very beginning. And I think that should inform the way that we approach our lives.

‘I like this old saying, “If you’ve come to help me you’re wasting your time, but if you’ve come because your survival and mine are bound up together then let’s work together.” That’s the model that I see in Jesus when he came and sat with a woman at a well and lived alongside people in their struggles.

‘That’s really what Mother Teresa often said, too: “It can be very fashionable to talk about the poor but not as fashionable to talk to them.” ’

Headin’ upstream

In his earlier years, with ‘ripped jeans and punk rock hair’, Shane did his fair share of activism, leading to multiple arrests for non-violent protests. Today, his semi-monastic life with The Simple Way has not tempered his passion for standing up against the macro issues of ‘upstream’ injustice.

In the height of the Iraq War, Shane spent three weeks in Baghdad. He lived through the bombings with local families to help humanise the war for us back in the west. Shane recently visited Afghanistan to connect with a local group of young people who send back the real stories of people’s suffering.

In his book, Irresistible Revolution, Shane says that growing up, he was told not to wear a band’s t-shirt if he didn’t agree with what that band stood for, but was never told to do the same with companies. But whether it’s clothing, food or technology, we can inadvertently promote a company’s values and practices (which may be unethical) by consuming their brand.

But with so many brands and so many causes out there, how do we choose one (or some) to focus on?

This is where Shane returns to the vital importance of getting personal: ‘It’s the relational dynamic that we see in Matthew 25: “When I was hungry you fed me, when I was in prison you visited me.” These are all human encounters. And it’s not just that we do this to people who have a label on them that they are “the poor”; Jesus is actually saying, “When you take care of someone who is sick and you welcome the stranger or the immigrant or the refugee, you are welcoming me.”

‘I’m convinced that the great tragedy in the Church is not that rich Christians don’t care about poor folks, but that rich folks don’t know poor folks. And, of course, Gandhi, when asked if he was a Christian, said, “Ask the poor, they’ll tell you who the Christians are.” ’

Shane points out that those we call ‘poor’ are often comparatively very rich in things like community, something he really admires about his Kensington neighbours. ‘As people of so-called privilege, the way we have done missions in the Church has been so backwards. We think we’re going to help the poor, whereas Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich.” ’

According to Shane, the poor possess much that the materially wealthy simply do not have. ‘We tend to push the poor to the margins,’ he says, ‘but according to Jesus, they are at the centre of the Kingdom and its fruits’.

By Hayden Shearman (abridged from War Cry, 6 April 2013, p5-7)

*Go to for more info about Shane and his subversive mission to spread the vision of ‘Loving God, Loving People and Following Jesus’ in neighbourhoods across the world.