Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical

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Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 367 pages.
Review by Pastor Nathan, September 2006
I’m sitting right now in my favorite local coffee shop for working – efebos (my favorite spot for food is Café Jumping Bean and for music is Café Mestizo). I just finished reading the recent Christianity Today cover story about the Calvinistic resurgence among today’s younger evangelicals (“Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback – and shaking up the church”). CT has also done cover stories in the last couple years about the Emergent Mystique and the New Monasticism, touting them as potential waves of the future in the church. I enjoy reading and thinking about these ministry fads/emerging trends (perhaps too much). Ultimately, I want to learn from others who are seeking to follow Jesus in today’s world, hold their ideas and beliefs up to Scripture, take what is biblical and helpful, and discard the rest. Shane Claiborne’s community – The Simple Way – was featured in the CT article on the New Monasticism; that’s how I first heard of him. But recently a pastor-friend recommended Claiborne’s new book to me and after reading it on my vacation I think there is much to learn from his understanding of what it means to follow a homeless man named Jesus… and some things that I disagree with.

Really, Claiborne’s take on the Christian life is not that new. His ideas flow out of the same stream that produced the radical reformation (i.e. Mennonites) and communities like Jesus People USA and the Sojourners movement in the 1970s. In fact, Jim Wallis writes the foreword for this book and says that Claiborne reminds him of himself “three decades ago” (12). While “the war” is different, much else is the same. Claiborne is inner-city (The Simple Way is in Philadelphia’s decayed Kensington neighborhood); he’s green (they grow much of their own food and drive cars that run on vegetable oil); he’s communal (many of them live with a common purse); he’s political (but not partisan); essentially he’s a radical. And I like radicals (most of the time). Jesus was a radical. Much of Claiborne’s life reflects the life of Christ in ways that convict me of my comfortable acquiescence to the status quo. And yet he is quick to assert that he’s just an “ordinary radical” and anyone can be one too.

Claiborne starts off telling his own story of growing up in your standard, evangelical church in Tennessee. He was involved in youth group and a regular at summer camps where he “got saved” over and over again. But he writes, “I came to realize that preachers were telling me to lay my life at the foot of the cross and weren’t giving me anything to pick up” (38). He became disillusioned with the standard evangelical fare – being a “believer” but not a “follower.” Something about the $120,000 stained glass window in his home church didn’t seem to square with the picture of Jesus painted in the Gospels. Suddenly being prom king, going to med school… the whole American Dream lost its allure as “Jesus wrecked his life.” As Claiborne tells of going to Eastern College and falling in love with the poor in the inner-city of Philadelphia, of being exposed to the piety of past saints like St. Francis of Assisi, and of searching for a real, modern-day Christian and spending a summer with one named Mother Teresa in Calcutta, the reader begins to realize for himself that his Christianity has been all too safe and that there’s something more to it than getting saved, going to church, and going to heaven. Or, I suppose, if one were an urban, green, communal, activist radical already, but not a Christian, she might realize that Jesus came up with it first.

Claiborne’s clear call to distinguish the kingdom of God from the country of America was right on. The religious right would probably be uncomfortable with the real Jesus (he was the kind of guy who got arrested for leading a non-violent protest… think about it). And the real Jesus would probably be uncomfortable with bumper stickers that read JesUSAves or fish symbols with Bush in the middle (see Claiborne’s critique of suburban spirituality was also good. The suburbs can easily suffocate your soul with their ethnic homogeneity, affluence, and pride. Even though he jabbed at my beloved alma mater – Wheaton College (he spent his senior year there during an internship at Willow Creek Community Church in a nearby suburb), I have to agree with him that the suburbs aren’t necessarily spiritually safe. And, finally, Claiborne’s criticism of the “super sized church” resonated deeply with my own convictions about “success” in ministry. His fabulous chapter entitled, “Growing Smaller and Smaller… Until We Take Over the World” started off with the story of two pastors. One boasts that his church had only 30 members a year ago when he came and now they’re seeing over 400 on Sunday mornings. He asks the other pastor how things are going with his new church and he replies that when he got there about 100 people were coming. He started preaching the gospel and preached the church down to 10. Exactly! We want as many people as possible to hear and believe the gospel, but the gospel is offensive, Jesus is radical, grace is not cheap,… bigger is not necessarily better. Small, subversive communities leavening the dough, now that’s the way to go.

I finished this book encouraged to live simply; to love the poor; and to let go of civil religion. Shane Claiborne was genuine, humble, and biblical. His stories were real and inspiring – true examples of faith expressing itself through deeds (James 2:14ff). But if you do read it, here are my caveats…
First of all he’s a full-blown pacifist. I understand how one can come to this conclusion in a sincere effort to follow Jesus. I was raised in the peace tradition as part of the Friends Church. Again, I agree wholeheartedly with pledging allegiance to the global kingdom of God and its counterintuitive values. I hate war and believe Christians should be a voice in the world for mercy and reconciliation and human rights. It’s wrong to naïvely assume that America is always on the just side of every cause. Yet at the same time I think it’s naïve to deny that there are no just wars. I think Claiborne fell prey to the classic confusion that fails to distinguish between individuals and the state. For example, Jesus taught that we should love our enemies and turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:38ff), but the New Testament also makes clear that God has established (secular) governments and given them the power of the sword to maintain order, hold back evil, and enact justice. Not once did Claiborne reference Romans 13 – a serious deficiency in my mind. And his chapter aimed at exposing the American church’s dualism (ch. 7) actually exposes a dualistic component in his own thinking. While Christians belong to the City of God they also simultaneously live in the City of Man and are called to participate in it while working for its common good. Claiborne’s decision to write in Jesus on the 2004 presidential ballot strikes me as irresponsible and a smart-alek shirking of his civic duty.

Secondly, I feel like Claiborne’s understanding of economics is too simplistic. He seems to direct his righteous anger at the system of capitalism itself. The way I understand things is that free-market capitalism is the best economic system for creating wealth and thus alleviating poverty. The global economy, when driven by capitalism, is a positive-sum game. Even if the rich get disproportionately richer, the poor are getting richer too. Capitalism in a fallen world naturally leads to horrific evils such as greed and materialism, but the Scriptures seem to presuppose a world of trade and commerce where God’s people are restrained by honesty and generosity (cf. Lev. 19:35-36; Dt. 15:7-8). And here’s where the kingdom of God is subversive – instead of using capitalism to exploit the poor, we exploit the system on behalf of the poor. As people are converted from worshipping Mammon to worshipping God they will make money and then give it away freely. But the point is the money wouldn’t be there in the first place, if not for capitalism. If not for capitalism (either directly or indirectly) Claiborne would not have been able to go to a college like Eastern, fly to Calcutta or Iraq, or write a book like this one (by the way he’s giving away all the proceeds he makes from the book). Claiborne’s exegesis of Mt. 25:11 where Jesus says, “The poor will always be with you,” was a helpful reminder of the inadequacy of mere charity. The poor must truly be among the church. “Far from saying in defeat that we should not worry about the poor, since they will always be among us, Jesus is pointing the church to her true identity – she is to live close to those who suffer” (160). But we work from within the fallen capitalistic system with upside-down kingdom values – incarnating among the least of these, abandoning status, resisting the temptation to hoard, and radically sharing our wealth for the advancement of God’s kingdom.
Oh yeah, and the frequent quotes from Gandhi made me uneasy and some of the references to love sounded too hippy-ish, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it about how radical Jesus really is.

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