Shane Claiborne in the UK: Our faith can't just be a ticket to heaven

Shane Claiborne talks to Christian Today about Red Letter Christians, incarnational mission and moving God into the neighbourhood

Published 29 January 2014  |  
(Photo: Shane Claiborne)
Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne, one of the leading lights of the movement known as "New Monasticism", is touring the UK to encourage and inspire Christians with the message that mission might just be easier and closer to hand than they think - starting in their own neighbourhoods.

Shane is a popular speaker and author of such books as "The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical", "Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals", and most recently "Red Letter Christianity: Living the Words of Jesus No Matter the Cost".

Christian Today caught up with him to find out more about the tour and his thoughts on living out the Christian faith.

CT: How are you enjoying your time in the UK so far?

SC: It's been great. We were in Cardiff last night and it was fantastic, great kick off. We told some stories, heard some great music. There's real energy and vision here for this kind of incarnational work we're talking about.

CT: What would you say is the purpose of the tour in the UK?

SC: The tour is called the Neighbourhood Watch, and one of the things that we're emphasising is that the gospel has to lay down in real places and real neighbourhoods.

We remember how in John chapter 1 v 14 where it says the word became flesh and dwelt among us. This idea that God somehow put on skin and moved into the neighbourhood, that's what we're really talking about.

We get to celebrate the many expressions of that, whether its these folks we stayed with last night that have moved in to help out their estate, or people living incarnational lives in other countries, or the work that Tearfund is doing, or what we've been trying to do in North Philadelphia where we've been for 15 years. The common link is we're all putting skin on God's love.

CT: So what practical responses to this have you seen in the UK while you've been here?

SC: Well, the beautiful thing is that there's not just one cookie cutter unilateral response from people. Folks are all thinking about where they locate their lives and their gifts.

We've got to take our deepest passions and pair them to the world's deepest pain. That's what I think the Christian life is about. Finding our vocation is taking our skills and gifts and connecting them to the suffering of the world around us.

"We've got to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other."
Shane Claiborne

I hope that school teachers go, not to the best schools, but to the toughest schools. I hope we see doctors who use their skills, not just to make money but also to provide healthcare for folks who can't afford it, like Doctors Without Borders.

I have a friend right now who is working for the Preemptive Love Coalition, giving open heart surgery to Iraqi children. He's joining doctors from the US and UK and elsewhere around the world. These kinds of things are responses to the questions "how do I use my skills as part of God's story?" and "how do I use my passions for something bigger than myself?" rather than just paying the bills.

CT: You are part of the Red Letter movement.  How would you describe a "Red Letter Christian"?

SC: Basically, someone who reads the Gospels and says "what if Jesus really meant the things he said?"

Someone who looks at those words and asks, what if we were to re-orient our lives around this message that we see in the gospel and embodied in Jesus?

What Tony [Campolo, in the book Red Letter Christianity] and I were saying was that Ghandi was right.

When someone asked him if he was a Christian, he said: "I love Jesus, I just wish the Christians took Him more seriously."

What we see, especially in the States, is there are lots of people who believe in Jesus but following is another thing. It's certainly possible to believe in Jesus and not act like Him, we're pretty good at that in the States!

It's sad to read the studies that talk about the things Christians are known for these days. Things like being anti-gay, judgemental, and hypocritical. The very thing that Jesus said we should be known for, our love, doesn't make the list at all. We want a Christianity that looks like Jesus again. A Christianity that is known by what we're for rather than what we're against.

CT: You talk on a lot of different topics in "Red Letter Christian". Which chapter do you think was the hardest to write?

SC: Well, we have this chapter on a consistent ethic of life, and one of the things that we lament is that, especially in the political arena in the United States, we've rarely seen Christians with a consistent ethic of life.

The idea that, from the womb to the tomb, every human is created in the image of God and that should affect how we think about abortion, capital punishment, immigration, poverty and war.

The real human cost of that inconsistency is unimaginable. I saw that in Iraq and Afghanistan. The things we do to that country while we spend $20,000 every second on our military.

That's an urgent question for us and it's something we deeply lament, that there isn't a consistent ethic of life within much of the Christian community in the US.

CT: Conversely which of the subjects did you most enjoy engaging with?

SC: Well Tony and I love talking economics! As Ghandi said, "there's enough for everyone's need but not enough for everyone's greed".

The way that Tony expresses that by wearing the same 'hand-me-down' suit he got in a thrift store 30 years ago is different to how I would do it. But we have a lot of fun with it.

We see the freedom in not being trapped by our possessions and not allowing them to possess us.

CT: How do you think the tour complements the book?

SC: Well, the message is very much the same in that we can't be just using our faith as a ticket to heaven.

Our faith should compel us to care about the neighbourhoods around us and the world around us. I once heard someone say that so much of our Christianity is so heavenly minded that it's no earthly good. That's really the message of the tour. That we've got to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

We need to allow our faith to make us care about the world that we live in, not just using it as a route to heaven.

CT: How would you respond to those who say that what you're suggesting is just a different kind of political message, just a left wing version of what the right wing Evangelicals in America preach, rather than something necessarily more deeply Christian?

SC: Well, as to the fact that our message is political, I think that our message is about loving our neighbour, so we are concerned with legislation that affects our neighbour, such as how we welcome the immigrant. Jesus said when you welcome the stranger, you welcome me.

In the end all of the laws lead up to this: Love your neighbour as yourself, love God with all your heart. That summarises what we're about but that also comes with responsibilities. Cornell West said: "Justice is what love looks like in public."

So hopefully we bring about changing of people's hearts to bring them to love more, and that love changes public policy.

Jesus's message of the kingdom was loaded with political language ripped right out the imperial lexicon of his time - the language of kingdom, saviour, throne and banner. All these were political words but he was spinning them on their head and taking those who were at the margins and putting them at the centre.

The message that the last shall be first and the first shall be last is certainly an upside-down kingdom. We're glad to create that conversation, either at Parliament or in the estates.

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