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Interview: Shane Claiborne, activist, speaker, author

19 July 2019

‘The best cure for what has become toxic in American Christianity is Jesus’

 red letter christians UK

A few years ago, my high school was putting together a directory of alumni, and asked “What is your occupation?” That was hard. I thought about what occupies my time and energy and thought “love”. That’s what I’m striving for — to love God and love people. So I wrote, “Love”. Now my profession’s listed as “Lover”.

I had lots of jobs over the years, and I went to circus school thinking I’d join the circus, but I got radicalised in college when a group of homeless families were evicted from an abandoned cathedral where they were living. I’ve never really been the same since then.

Mother Teresa helped shape me; and our Red Letter community in Philadelphia. I worked with her in the 1990s — in the Home for the Dying, in the orphanages, in the streets of Calcutta. One of the things she helped me realise is that there’s a relationship problem in the Church, not a compassion problem. Most people just don’t know many poor people, and it’s hard to love people if we don’t know them. She said: “It may be very fashionable to talk about the poor, but still not talk to them.”

She also taught me that what’s most important is not how much we do but how much love we put into doing it. She said that we’re called — not to do great things — but to do small things with great love. So what’s important isn’t how many we help but how deeply people feel loved. She also used to say that our best sermon is our life. One of our hopes, as she put it, is to leave the fragrance of Jesus everywhere we go.

Mother Teresa wasn’t afraid to speak out about abortion, and the death penalty, and other controversial issues; but her life of service gave her credibility. She said our biggest problem is that our family is too small. Jesus invites us to love beyond biological family, beyond national borders, to love as big as God loves.

A friend was being interviewed, and the DJ said to him: “I’ve read the Bible. There are parts I love and there are parts I find confusing, even troubling, but I’ve always liked the parts in red [the words of Jesus]. You seem to like the stuff in red. You should call yourselves ‘red-letter Christians.’” So we did, and we launched in the UK last month (News, 21 June).

Many Christians and non-Christians love Jesus, but I just wish that Christians acted more like him. Red Letter Christians is a movement asking: “What if Jesus meant the stuff he said?” We want a Christianity that looks like Jesus again. Some Christians talk a lot about things Jesus didn’t talk much about, and don’t talk about things Jesus talked a whole lot about.

The other stuff in the Bible is important. Jesus is simply the lens through which we understand the Bible and the world we live in. He’s the Word made flesh — what God’s love looks like with skin on.

Scriptures sometimes conflict with each other; so Jesus becomes the referee, saying: “You have heard it said, but I tell you. . .” And: “Moses told you this . . . but I tell you. . .” Some Christians interpret Jesus through the lens of Paul or the Old Testament, rather than interpreting Paul and the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus.

My own community is in Kensington — not anything like your Kensington, and gun violence is a real problem, but I’m proud to call it home — Philadelphia. It’s called “The Simple Way”. Red Letter is an umbrella for hundreds of Christians of all stripes in the US, and in the UK, too, who’ve gone to our website to pledge to live lives for Jesus and justice. We believe that God calls us to move into neighbourhoods, as Jesus did, and put flesh on God’s love, bringing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Kierkegaard said: “Where everything is Christian, nothing is Christian.” We lose our essence when everything is branded “Christian”. We call ourselves a “Christian nation”, and created a theology to justify our history; but we must resist the hijacking of Christian faith by American nationalism.

It’s nothing new. It happened in Rome. It happened during Constantine. The words of Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and abolitionist, ring true today: “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognise the widest possible difference… I love Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” The best cure for what has become toxic in American Christianity is Jesus.

Sometimes, Brits point to America and Trump and say, “At least we aren’t that bad.” But there are many similarities between what is happening in America and Britain, and other countries — policies shaped by fear. Fear of scarcity; fear of immigrants or diversity; fear of losing power or control. As our countries, and our legislative bodies diversify, there are white people who want to take back power, and who feel fearful as the culture becomes more diverse and pluralistic.

When people say “Make America Great Again”, they mean “Make America white again.” Britain is always more polite, but you see iterations of this, with slogans like “Take Back Control.” Our family, as Mother Teresa said, is too small. Much of our anxiety comes from fear and fragility, but the promise of scripture is: “Perfect love casteth out fear.” When fear, not love, drives our policies, we do terrible things. History proves that over and over.

It’s said that Donald Trump did not change America; he revealed America. It’s the same with the American Church. Donald Trump did not change Evangelicalism, he revealed it. What we see is very troubling. The overwhelming number of white Evangelicals who support Trump has done great damage to the witness of our faith. “Evangelical” now suggests folks who are anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, pro-guns, pro-war, and pro-capital punishment. We often look very unlike our Christ. We are committed to changing that.

This is not about Right and Left — it is about right and wrong. We have a special concern for the poor and marginalised, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, sharing food with the hungry.

I wrote my latest book, Beating Guns, about gun violence in America, and my last book, Executing Grace, is on the death penalty. These issues reveal major holes in our theology and inconsistencies in our ethics. Evangelicals own more guns than the general population, and 85 per cent of executions happen in the Bible belt. They can be pro-guns, pro-death penalty, pro-military . . . and still say they’re pro-life, because they’re against abortion. For me, being pro-life means ending gun violence, caring for creation, welcoming immigrants, opposing war, declaring that black lives matter, and abolishing the death penalty.

We’ve been inspired by Micah and Isaiah’s vision of God’s people beating their “swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Prophets weren’t trying to predict the future; they were trying to change the future. They weren’t fortune tellers: they were truth tellers.

We did a 37-city tour with the forge, beating guns into garden tools every night; and we’re doing something similar with confiscated knives here in the UK.

When we turn a weapon into a garden tool or piece of art, it’s sacramental, holy work. It’s a public lament, giving space to grief and trauma, and channelling the pain into something positive. Hundreds of victims and survivors of violence come to the forge, and we invite them to take the hammer. We’ve seen mothers weep and wail as they beat on the metal of a gun. One young man took the hammer and counted to 18 as he pounded 18 times. Later, he told us that he’d killed an 18-year-old. The Spirit meets us at the forge and heals hearts and communities.

Jesus shows us we can oppose violence without using violence. Using the death penalty, and with the wars we fight, the cure is as bad as the disease. Many soldiers went to Iraq to end terrorism, but found that they were creating it. Our violence added fuel to the fire.

Jesus loved his enemies so much that he died for them, and, even as he’s murdered, his last words plead for his killers. If ever there was an argument for using violence to protect the innocent, Peter had it, but the early Christians got Jesus’ message — for Christ we can die, but we cannot kill. They opposed violence in every form — war, capital punishment, abortion, and murder.

The words “disciple” and “discipline” share the same root concept. We must cultivate holy habits. We must train ourselves in nonviolence till it becomes instinctive. As the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we’ll respond from the grounding of our soul, as martyrs have done throughout the centuries.

One of my favourite hymns says, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness. On Christ the Solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

I like the sound of the kids playing in the fire hydrant on the street corner here outside my window. In fact, I think it’s time to go join them.

I’d love to be locked in a church with Francis of Assisi, and it would be great if Rich Mullins could be there too, so that we could sing some songs together.

Shane Claiborne was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. 


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