Shane Claiborne’s understanding of the gospel seems a little skewed.
Here’s a quote of his from his book ‘Irresistible Revolution’.
“For even if the whole world believed in resurrection, little would change until we began to practice it. We can believe in CPR but people will remain dead until someone breathes new life into them. And we can tell the world that there is life after death, but the world really seems to be wondering if there is life before death”.
And another one..
“Sometimes people call folks here at the Simple Way saints. usually they either want to applaud our lives and live vicariously through us, or they want to write us off as superhuman and create a safe distance. One of my favourite quotes, written on my wall here in bold black marker, is from Dorothy Day: “Don’t call us saints; we don’t want to be dismissed that easily”.
I flicked through “Irresistible Revolution” at our local bookstore the other day. I was going to buy it, but after finding quotes like these on just about every page, I wondered whether it was worth it. I found Shane’s attitude of superiority off-putting. Apparently nobody in the church but Shane and his fellow Red Letter Christians are getting it right, and this is never a good place from which to speak to other believers. I spent a couple of decades in a cult which had the same exclusivity and taught others to shun the outsiders. It’s this exclusion of others that gives you a sense that you are right with God. It is so incredibly easy for people to fall into this delusion. It’s why there are so many churches like that. But Mr. Claiborne has fallen into the same trap. Unfortunately nobody can tell him that, because he seems superbly at ease with his critics, almost encouraging them. A person who has come to this place of sublime ignorance of his own fallibility is in a dangerous place. It is a place where you are so sure you can never be deceived, yet it is almost always the hallmark of those who actually are deceived. It makes me think of this quote from the character Sheldon Cooper from TV’s “Big Bang Theory”
“Howard, you know me to be a very smart man. Don’t you think that if I were wrong, I’d know it?”
I want to deconstruct the above quotes. When I left the cult we were part of, I had to look again at the books and literature we had to read, written exclusively by the cult leaders, and understand what they were actually saying, as opposed to what we thought they said. What I found was actually pretty revealing. It opened my eyes. So much we took for granted actually wasn’t there. What was there however was a horrendously boastful and arrogant assumption that not only were the leaders always right but any wrongdoing could simply be determined to be dealt with by themselves. They were never accountable to anyone, least of all the people they destroyed. I began to study other writings, such as those of George Orwell. His “Politics and the English Language” is very good, it shows how words can be used to manipulate people’s minds and emotions. This kind of language is common in politics, but just as common in advertising, religion, social movements or anywhere where human beings want to influence others.
I want people to think about what is being said, even if it is coming from a genuinely likeable Christian guy who looks a little groovy and seems to know how to fix the world.
Let me just say that I am aware I am taking these quotes out of a much larger context, but I have studied Shane Claiborne’s message in other mediums and read exhaustive critiques of the book “Irresistible Revolution” by others. Mr. Claiborne I think has made his message clear. These snippets are more about decoding language than they are about looking at Shane’s larger works, I think they are good examples of how his language is symbolic of a confusion of theology and a deliberately non-biblical gospel. Shane wants to start a revolution, not preach what has been preached before. He wants to remove landmarks and create new ones, not follow the ways of Paul and the other apostles.
First of all “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and then ignore one on Monday”.
Let me show you why this language is so powerful. Like I said, the visual image of Shane is not that of a dangerous person who wants to lead you down a dark path. He looks like a college kid even though he is now in his forties. So you are lulled into a sense that here is a guy who knows a thing or too because he is not pretentious, nor is he a stuffy religious leader or pastor. He is not ‘pastor Shane’, he is just Shane. So we listen to Shane speak because not only is he not stuffy and pretentious in a religious way, he has kudos. He is well known, people want to hear him speak, he must be saying something important.
But let’s look at what he says. First of all he poses a question. It is a question which puts people on the back foot because it uses language which nobody connects with church. Jesus, a homeless man? Yeah, I suppose he was. So if this statement is true then so must the other one be. Yeah, we worship a homeless carpenter and then ignore a homeless drunk guy the next day. You feel humbled, despondent, depressed even. Boy, I just don’t know how I can call myself a Christian. But look at Shane, he lives with homeless people and the poor, he must know what he is talking about, I should be like Shane. How could you argue with that? An appeal to consider the plight of the homeless based on who Jesus was.
Actually Jesus was not homeless. He had lived with his family for 30 years as a carpenter, probably supporting His mother and younger siblings after Joseph died. His choice to leave home at 30 and begin his ministry was deliberate, and he did not have a home because the bank foreclosed or because he had been thrown out by his wife or because he could not afford one or because he was a drug addict. He did not have a permanent home because His ministry was to move amongst the Jewish settlements preaching the gospel. He went and stayed with friends often, or asked to stay with those he talked to. He was not homeless, as in sleeping on the streets. Everything he did was deliberate and was the will of the Father. I don’t think you can say the same thing about the guy in the street.
Neither was Jesus ‘a homeless man‘ in the same way the guy in the picture is. Jesus first of all is the Son of God, not just a man. Claiborne seems to major on Jesus humanity and forget that He is holy, perfect righteous and just and not just a guy we follow. So the message that Jesus is the same as the guy on the street is false and misleading. We don’t worship a man, we worship God, and Jesus himself said to the Pharisees that if you can’t accept that Jesus is the I AM then you can’t be saved.
The question also implies that all Christians ignore homeless people. This is not true either. I find Claiborne’s sweeping statements about his brothers and sisters in Christ to be condemnatory. The amount of emphasis he puts on actually living amongst the poor rather than doing what you can at the local soup kitchen etc is rather dishonest. Shane can pick and choose how he responds to his own situation in whichever way the Holy Spirit guides him. I don’t think it is Shane’s role to act as the Holy Spirit in people’s lives and giving others guidance on how to live. Giving is done in response to the Holy Spirit, not some man who places himself in the position of being the leader of some kind of revolutionary new world religion which is replacing the tired old Christianity which people over 40 preach about.
Shane is taking upon himself a position and an authority that God did not give him. He is nobody’s pastor except those who fellowship with him. Otherwise he is simply a commentator, a guy with an opinion. Somebody who is connected with others who have a name like Mother Theresa. Lots of people have worked with Mother Theresa and they don’t all write books and go on speaking tours claiming to be ‘irresistible revolutionaries’. There is no ‘new move’ or ‘revolution’ other than the one that certain people wish to produce. But then this has always been the way with any revolution. There are the revolutionaries, the agitators, the behind the scenes guys who get a hold of others like the university students (read Tailor of Panama it describes the whole thing) and the young seminary students who are tomorrow’s pastors. And then there are the plebs, the unaware, the moral majority who are just trying to eke out a living. Revolutionaries are rarely the dispossessed, they are the rich elite who agitate the easily manipulated (young idealistic impressionable). That’s how revolutions start, and they end with bloodshed, always and the reorganisation of the universe. Order out of chaos has always been the method of the revolutionary. Out with the old order, in with the new. But hey, he’s a likable guy, its only the doom merchants who spew bile against likable guys. Nobody else minds, they are just happy to be part of something great.
And last but not least, the question uses the royal ‘we’. He says ‘we’ but he means ‘you’. He says ‘we’ to take the edge off his judgement of apparently all Christians. If he includes himself it means he is a Christian too. If he doesn’t include himself and says ‘you’ he excludes himself from Christianity. He has to say ‘we’, it confirms the solidarity he has with his audience. However if you look at what he is saying, he can’t possibly include himself in this. If he accuses himself of worshipping Jesus on Sunday and ignoring homeless people on Monday then he is denying everything else he has told you about himself and his community. He doesn’t really mean himself or he would have to repent and in humility change the way he does things. He has already told you he lives amongst the poor. He already does the things he thinks everyone else should be doing. So this is not a ‘we’ statement any more than “so where are we going for our holidays” is from a shop assistant who just sold you a suitcase. She is being patronising, so is he.
Shane is in a position of responsibility, being the leader of a community, an author and a teacher. He is in a position of power and authority especially in the eyes of Christians. It is also the reason why so many dislike Shane’s approach, and his message. Shane likes to think that other people just don’t get him, and he encourages his followers to believe this to. Its not that his critics don’t get him, its that they don’t reflect back to him the image that he wants them to see. So while Shane is insisting that his way is Jesus’ way, in fact, it is not. It is simply Shane’s way. It’s why you have to really listen and really read what he has said and not just assume things because he uses scripture intermingled with powerfully emotive language. Really look at what he is saying.
“Sometimes people call folks here at the Simple Way saints. usually they either want to applaud our lives and live vicariously through us, or they want to write us off as superhuman and create a safe distance. One of my favourite quotes, written on my wall here in bold black marker, is from Dorothy Day: “Don’t call us saints; we don’t want to be dismissed that easily”. (my emphases)
Here Mr. Claiborne is making sweeping statements again. “Usually”, meaning all the time, it is the normal thing, other people who see his community and want to applaud them and apparently live vicariously through them. Even if he does say so himself.
This is a hugely narcissistic statement. Shane is saying that ‘people want to be me’ because they think I am superhuman. Really? So there are not just people who walk through and go ‘good for you guys like what you are doing’ and walk away and forget about them? Apparently others also want to live vicariously through them. This is another extreme statement. How do you know that is the case? And if so, why is it the case? Only cults have these kinds of extreme reactions. Nobody wants to ‘be’ the pastor down the road at the local Baptist church even if he is a great guy who helps people. Nobody wants to ‘live vicariously’ through Christians they know even if those people are Christ-like. Paul said ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’ but not even Paul wanted others to be him, as he said later when he castigated those who were ‘of Paul’ or ‘of Apollos’. Shane doesn’t actually say in this paragraph that living vicariously through them is a bad thing. He has an almost ‘aw shucks’ response to these statements. Yet even his rebuttal of these attitudes in the last sentence of the quote “don’t call us saints” is weird. Dorothy Day was another political and social activist and journalist and became a Catholic. Her understanding of the word ‘saint’ is not what the Bible teaches. We ARE saints, the bible calls us saints. It’s just a word meaning believers. We are all saints. And saints or not, nobody is dismissing anyone. There is a really strong contradiction going on here. One minute Shane is saying people want to be us, next minute he is saying don’t dismiss us. Nobody is dismissing Shane Claiborne and his works however he wants to skew this. They are very definitely making a huge fuss about him as he has already stated.
There are some serious concerns in even these two simple quotes. I haven’t touched on the other quote I mentioned. Shane states that even if the whole world believed in resurrection, nothing would change until you practiced it. OK, resurrection isn’t practised it just is. One minute you are dead, the next you are alive. You don’t have to do anything for somebody to realise something has changed. When Lazarus was raised from the dead, people knew about it. Its why we know about the story two thousand years later. When Jesus was raised by the Holy Spirit, His resurrection was reality changing. We are raised to new life and we are called to walk in the Spirit, to put off the flesh and to walk in the Spirit. The believers at Pentecost were immediately empowered by the Spirit and Peter in particular preached a powerful life changing sermon and thousands were saved in one day! THAT is the power of the gospel. Its Jesus who does the changing and its Jesus who gives the increase. It wasn’t Peter who was trying hard to be something, he simply changed. We don’t have to ‘do’ anything in order to prove that there has been a massive change in us.
I am reminded of a guy I knew at my church when I was a teenager. He used to be a career criminal, a biker, a drug dealer, a vicious thug and generally nasty piece of work. When he got saved, he had to be extradited back to Melbourne for trial. The judge took one look at this guy, Terry his name was, and said ‘you’ve changed’. This judge knew Terry as he had come before him many times previously. Yet the judge could see straight away that something was different about Terry. So much had Terry changed that his very short stint in jail ended up seeing dozens of hardened criminals saved. These were all men who knew Terry. They knew what kind of person he was. When he got saved, his face changed, his nature changed, his habits changed, he was a new creation. That whole prison was changed because of Terry and he continued going back to prison to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now Terry runs a church which helps the poor, the druggies and the down and outs. He has set up a service which provides free food. Not just for ‘the poor’ but anyone who needs a helping hand including the white middle class that Shane Claiborne seems to enjoy deriding. Nobody sees Terry’s work as being useless or pointless or ‘not enough’. Yet to Shane Claiborne, this kind of things is not acceptable. I could go on and quote a number of things Shane has said in his books and speeches, but the heart of it is that he wants to condemn his fellow Christians because in his eyes, we are not doing what we should be doing.
One last thing about Terry. He is well respected and recognised, but he is an old campaigner. He is a conservative evangelical. He got saved in the Assemblies of God church in Brisbane, and people in Australia have seen his face a few times in the media as they all seem to like him and treat him as the real deal Christian. Yet, strangely, nobody tells Terry that he is a superman. When people look at Terry, they see Jesus, because Terry still looks like a scary biker. He is a big teddy bear and a very genuine Christian. But nobody wants to ‘be’ Terry or live vicariously through him. So what’s the difference between a man who loves Jesus and reaches out to the community in love and is seen by unsaved people as an actual Christian, and a man who has to convince others by teaching and writing books that he is a totally radical revolutionary for God. What is wrong with just being an unassuming person whose life was changed by Jesus. Maybe Shane hasn’t met enough Terrys to realise that THIS is what it means to be saved. Jesus already changed the world, and they don’t want to know Him. What Jesus does is change people’s hearts and then through those changed hearts, other people are changed. Not much has changed or is going to change because of the efforts of people who don’t really know what they believe and are trying desperately to get others to believe they are special.
I don’t think Shane Claiborne understands the gospel. It makes me tired. I don’t think he knows Jesus as well as he thinks he does. I don’t think anyone can talk the way he can about the church if they love it with their whole heart the way Jesus told us to. “Love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself”. Loving your neighbour doesn’t just mean the poor. If your neighbour happens to be poor then you can help them. But giving people stuff doesn’t mean you are a great Christian or that you have been transformed by the power of the blood of Jesus. Genuine transformation is its own advertisement. It always has been, for centuries before Shane was born and will be again until Jesus returns. I don’t need somebody like Shane to tell me how to live, and I don’t like, even from a cursory glance what Shane preaches. I don’t believe he has been transformed or that he understands the new life of Christ or he wouldn’t say these things.
If people are wondering if there is life before death they need to see the new life of Jesus Christ. Not in your works, but in the actual difference in your face. There is a difference in people who know Jesus because the Holy Spirit has made them a new creation. I can testify to this for myself and others I know who have been changed by Jesus. I have seen and heard many testimonies from brothers and sisters who were miraculously saved and changed. It is this change which makes others know and see the powerful reality of Jesus Christ. If you have changed, then you will do things differently. But the change comes first, then the actions. People like Shane have always tried to make it the other way around, and all they do is lay heavy burdens on believers who try and get it right in order to impress others. The key to all of this is understanding your sin and the cross. We don’t worship the cross, we worship Jesus. We just understand the substitutionary atonement of the cross in that Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary to take away the sin of the world. I don’t think Shane understands this at all, not in a personal way, because I don’t think he knows Jesus.
I have seen men who have this kind of power before. Plenty of people want to follow and imitate charismatic men who manipulate and shame others in subtle and clever ways. The followers almost NEVER blame the leader for making them think they have to do stuff to be saved, they mostly blame themselves. They try real hard to get it right, to impress the leader and to look good to others, but in the end they are dead spiritually because they have put the leader in the place of the Holy Spirit and their faith in Jesus, and Jesus alone has been eroded. People who follow Shane seem to do so with utter devotion. Shane can do nothing wrong, nobody is allowed to criticise Shane because if you do then you are part of the fundamentalist traditional church who just want to shut him up because they ‘just don’t get it’. That too is dismissive and trite.
I don’t see Shane Claiborne preaching the gospel to people and seeing them saved. I see Mr. Claiborne trying to get in the way and tell everyone else in the church not just how to ‘do church’ but how to ‘do life’. I don’t find this either revolutionary or irresistible, in fact I find it rude and abusive.