On Loving Shane Claiborne and Hating the Sinner- or Not

So this evening I’ll be attending a release party for the book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro. Of course, those of you who know me well and for a while know that Shane and the communities of which he is a part in Philadelphia have been very influential to me over the years. Shane’s story is an incredible one. He grew up in conservative Tennessee and then went to Eastern College near Philly. In 1996, Shane and some friends heard about a group of 40 homeless families that were living in St. Edward’s Cathedral in the city, a Catholic parish that had closed. The “church” was on the verge of evicting these families forcibly until Shane and his pals took action by moving into the church building as well and sharing the plight of his neighbors there. They began hosting worship on Sundays and posted a sign in front of the building that read, “How can you worship a homeless Man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”

Thus began quite a journey for Shane and other like-minded Jesus-followers that I’ve had the privilege of observing up close from time to time and occasionally emulating. Two years after the events above Shane and some of those friends moved permanently into an impoverished neighborhood in Philly just blocks from St. Edward’s, where they founded The Simple Way as an alternative, intentional community. Their vision, as I understand it, was simply to find Jesus in the “abandoned places of Empire” by living with those they felt called to love and serve, not as outsiders but as neighbors and friends. They understood that they had as much to learn as anyone else, that they were as much in need of rescue from the trappings of wealth and privilege as their new neighbors were from the hardships of poverty and disenfranchisement. To quote a phrase I heard from a like-minded pastor in Akron, Ohio: “If you’ve come here to save me, don’t bother; but if you’ve come here because you understand that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.”

The Simple Way has been around now for a dozen years and has undergone much transformation during that time. Community members have come and gone. Numerous generative undertakings have been initiated by The Simple Way and/or Shane, including cataloging a network of like communities, starting an alternative, “relational” tithing endeavor, and finally launching a magazine. Most importantly, though, The Simple Way has “simply” been a presence in Kensington, their neighborhood, an enclave of love, good will, and practical help toward those around them. They host an annual toy drive for neighborhood kids. They’ve mentored some of those same kids. When their house was part of a fire on the block they helped their neighbors recover and put a park where the house once stood, which was obviously a welcome green space in what is otherwise often a stark urban landscape (The Simple Way moved down the street, I believe).In fact, they’ve taken on so many “good works” that they’ve had to now differentiate between the community itself (now called The Potter Street Community) and all that good stuff they’re doing (which has retained The Simple Way name).

Through all of this, Shane has undergone much transformation too. He went to Calcutta and served with Mother Teresa before her death. He went to Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams and saw the horror of war and “collateral damage” firsthand. He studied at Princeton some and did an internship at the mothership of all mega-“churches,” Willow Creek in Chicago. One of the most prophetic things Shane and The Simple Way have done occurred after they were given a $10,000 gift. They decided to highlight the injustice and inequality in the “American” economy by literally dropping the money- all of it, in cash- on the steps of Wall Street for anyone to pick up (after strategically inviting folks who were desperately in need of it). You can read about this modern day Jubilee here. And then a few years ago, Shane wrote The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, which might be described as the seminal event in his sudden launch to something akin to celebrity status. Since then, Jesus for President and a number of other books have followed, along with numerous speaking engagements and appearances on CNN and Fox, to name a few.

This somewhat accidental stardom notwithstanding, I really resonate with not just Shane’s writings but his lifestyle and the simple question that seems to drive so much of what he does, namely, “What if Jesus really meant it?” That is, what if Jesus really meant that his ministry was about “good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and setting the oppressed free?” Furthermore, what if Jesus really meant it when he more than suggested that God’s judgment would center not on how you voted or whether you “went to church,” but rather on if you” fed the hungry, gave the thirsty drink, invited in strangers, clothed the naked, and visited those who were sick or in prison?” Shane’s life and ministry, in my view, has been about the struggle to answer these questions well by doing those things- and recognizing that it is impossible to do so alone. In other words, intentional- radical, even- community is necessary. For example, Shane knows, as do many others, that where your t-shirt is purchased and, more importantly, made, is a justice issue. So with a modicum of skill courtesy of his east Tennessee upbringing, Shane simply makes his own clothes. In one interview he talked about it his way:

Laughing, Shane explained, “I love making my clothes! My mom taught me; we sew together almost liturgically every Christmas the clothes for the next year.” He shared that he caught the vision while living in Calcutta in a village of people with leprosy. Since they were completely cut off from the rest of society, they had to make their own clothes and shoes, grow their own food and be a fully self-sustaining community. Shane found himself mesmerized with the way of life that they had created, a new society in the shell of the old. Shane explained that in Gandhi’s movement making one’s own clothing was a sign of resistance against British rule. The central symbol of the independence movement was the spinning wheel and one could recognize those who were part of it by their homespun clothing, whether poor or in Parliament. Shane also looked at the dark side of the global economy, such as the use of sweatshop labor. When he was younger, he would protest by being part of the counterculture, but he realized that the counterculture can be marketed too (like getting ripped jeans from Hot Topic). Shane said, “More powerful than a counterculture is to create a new culture.”

So as I’ve said, this type of life “in the way of Jesus” really resonates with me. In fact, it’s something that I aspire to, recognizing again that I cannot do it alone. A life of truly radical discipleship, one that of necessity requires “swimming upstream” against so much of what makes us up “American” culture, is obviously hard. Our entire culture conspires to keep us thinking we need more stuff– more consumer electronic goods or running gear (lately) in my case, or more clothes or cable channels or high-definition pixels to watch them on or toys or lattes or truly-God-only-knows-whatever-else for most of my friends and neighbors.

Our culture conspires to keep us isolated as we drive our individual cars on crowded (but isolating) roads into our individual, cookie-cutter garages. It conspires to keep us alone-even-when-we’re-together as we furiously type on phones or turn up the tunes on our Ipods in packed shopping centers or big box retail stores. Speaking of such stores, our culture seems to prize homogeneity greatly, as Starbucks, McDonald’s, Best Buy, and Linens-n-Things are the same whether they’re in Topeka or Toledo. The food is the same, the products are the same, and the buildings are the same. They’re all the same, of course, because mass production is cheap and profit is always the “bottom line.” Sadly, this sameness dulls our imaginations and lulls us into conformity, whether we realize it or not. We’re turned into consumeristic automatons who do as our overlords bid without even knowing we have them. We even resort to mimicking this individualistic, consumptive lifestyle as we “shop” for churches, “consume” religion, and exchange brand-name goods and services in the “Christian ghetto.”

Into this void come folks like Shane as prophets, voices crying in the wilderness, calling us to do better, to be more, to stand up and fight (non-violently, of course)! When I look at The Simple Way and other such communities, and the congregational communities that give life to and support them like Circle of Hope, I am inspired. I begin to realize that I don’t need more things, or more Facebook friends, or even more books (though this realization has yet to translate into action, as my growing library attests to). I need more life. I need more folks around me who will partner with me to do this hard work. I need community, for my family and I can’t “opt out” of the American dream (of mindless consumption and lifelong debt) by ourselves. We need folks around us to encourage us to do the “right thing” and “hold us accountable” when we don’t. We need folks around us with whom to share resources and things so that we have more– more time to devote to love and service, more money to share with those who truly lack the basic necessities, etc.

We were a part of such a community once when we lived in Philly ourselves and were a part of Circle of Hope (and so “knew,” or at least were around, Shane). It’s during our second stint there that we actually tried- and failed miserably at- living “in community.” But as I’ve written recently, we take responsibility for that failure and I at least am not dissuaded from aspiring to try again. I yearn to do so because I recognize that my/our salvation- not just from my personal “sins” but from the corporate (and Corporate) sin of consumerism, greed, gluttony, and envy, among many others- is wrapped up in the salvation of others, those who would be my partners and co-conspirators in this way of Jesus.

So, I’m excited for this book release party tonight. Liturgy is the “work of the people,” and I’ve come to greatly appreciate it over the years. I’m thankful for the chance to give words to the faith I aspire to when I don’t have them. I’m grateful for the opportunity to utter the very same words that so many others will utter and have uttered through the centuries, to be part of that “great cloud of witnesses.” I believe in the idea of “faking it ‘til you make it,” even/especially in regard to faith, and I’ve written about that in recent posts too. Liturgy helps me do that, and I greatly appreciate the efforts of Shane, et al, in collecting/writing these prayers. I’m excited too that folks from the church community we’ve connected with in Oak Cliff since our return to D/FW are hosting the party, and I’m perhaps even more excited that there will be folks there who are unconnected to Church in the Cliff as well, folks who may be drawn to Shane and his lifestyle for reasons similar to mine (or at least I hope so).

I must admit, though, that the fact that some Church in the Cliff folks are hosting this event is something that I’m wary of too, because as inclusive as the book may be, I know that the lack of LGBT inclusive language is a real issue for some. There’s simply no getting around that. I don’t know exactly why this is the case (why the language isn’t inclusive), but it is. As the book is a collection of prayers/liturgy, it’s mostly silent on this “issue,” as is the Bible itself with a few notable exceptions. In that regard, it’s probably better than the Bible because there’s nothing in the book (that I know of) that could be taken as distinctly anti-gay. The book does have a few “occasional prayers” at the end, including one for married folks that refers to “man and woman” and another for single or celibate folks, but nothing specifically for LGBT folks. This, of course, could be read as a slight at best or as exclusionary at worst, but I’d like to contend that you have to read/interpret it that way. There’s a bit of projection involved, I suspect.

I’ll only go so far as to say that I suspect this because of course I’m not gay- I get included in the prayer for married folks; so it’s easy for me to sit in my place of inclusion and talk about my “suspicions.” The Bible itself may or may not speak to the modern practice of homosexuality in a few notable verses, but otherwise seems silent on the matter, as it is silent on many other modern issues. I don’t really want to re-hash that debate here, though. Let me speak instead of my own journey regarding this. I used to see homosexuality as an “issue” (and for lack of better language just referred to it that way above) that again the Bible may or may not address. As the “church” has been hyper-focused on the matter for some time, I basically held the views I imbibed with my mother’s milk (or would have if she had bothered to breast feed me) in conservative N. Texas- that homosexuality is not only wrong/sinful- but given the focus on it- it’s arguably the worst kind of sin.

I’ve come to see what an arbitrary and self-serving focus this is, though. “Fundagelicals,” especially, like to focus on it because for some it’s an easy “sin” to avoid and distracts attention from the more difficult ones that most fundagelicals/”Americans”/people do fall into, like lying, greed and wanton consumerism, hypocrisy, etc. Over time I came to view homosexuality as a sin like any other that deserved no more or less focus than any other, and I would be the last to “cast the first stone.” That notion of judgment is critical to me now, because like so many other things I don’t (or desperately try not to) see homosexuality as a mere “issue.” Rather, it comes up for me now in the context of relationship- my relationships with LGBT folks, and this is one area where I especially appreciate Church in the Cliff- because it is a community where gay and lesbian folks are welcome and accepted without judgment. My point I guess is that in my experience it’s easy to think of something as an “issue” and make judgments about it until you actually know someone who is affected by that “issue,” by those judgments. As a Christ-follower, I’m required to love my neighbor, and my neighbor is absolutely everyone; so I’m required to love gay folks, and for me that “love the sinner/hate the sin” nonsense is just that- nonsense. It’s nonsense because making such distinctions puts me in the position of judge, a role that I am not worthy to take. I know little enough about all of my own “issues” to sit in judgment regarding anyone else’s.

I know of course that it gets a bit more complicated than this, though, as is usually the case with such things. For example, I certainly make some judgments and feel compelled and called to do so as a Christ-follower, such as regarding racism or other injustices. I try, then, to be led by Jesus as I do so. He always seemed to favor and choose the weak over the powerful, the outcast over the “in” crowd, etc. In this regard, then, if a stand is to be made against injustice it seems clear that I should make any sort of stand with my LGBT friends and neighbors, rather than against them. I would even go further in stating my regret that it is the “church” unfortunately that I would often be making such a stand against, since it has been one of the institutions perpetrating much of the injustice that LGBT folks have suffered from over the years.

Some might say that I’ve avoided the underlying question: is homosexuality sinful? My simple answer is: I don’t know. As I’ve alluded to, there are a very few passages in the Bible that can be read as seeming to state quite strongly that it is. But it really is just a few passages, and there really is “reading” involved, and of course “all reading is interpretation.” When we moderns (and postmoderns) read such texts we bring our knowledge and ideas about the modern practice of homosexuality into the text and have to make decisions about whether or not and in what way the text relates to our preconceived notions. All communication works this way. We often make such interpretive decisions, unfortunately, without even considering what the writers of the text were actually speaking to, and of course whatever we can say about their “original intent” we can only say marginally, since we can’t really “get inside their heads.” There’s much we can learn about them and what they were facing, to be sure, and so educated guesses are possible, but they are just guesses.

All of that aside, the weight of the entire Biblical canon (notice I didn’t say “text/s”) seems to favor love and justice, especially when Jesus is one’s hermeneutic of the Bible (or the “lens through which one reads it”), as is the case for me. I also get the logic of choice that so many LGBT folks speak of; that is, why would anyone “choose” to be an outcast, to be reviled and hated, to be “sinful,” when there is another way? This raises the question of creation, then: if homosexuality is not a matter of nurture but rather one of nature, why would God make anyone “sinful” when in fact we read in Scripture that God declared all creation “good?” For all of these reasons and more- but mostly in the context of relationship- I feel some confidence then in loving my LGBT friends and letting God sort the rest out, which finally brings me back to Shane’s book. I guess my hope is this: just as I and other straight folks like me choose not to focus on the few Biblical passages that for the umpteenth time may or may not deal with homosexuality, I wish that my LGBT friends from Church in the Cliff would similarly refrain from focusing on those few “occasional prayers” in the back of the book that touch on sexuality but appear to leave no room for their expression of it. Is it a slight? To be sure. Is it intentional? I don’t know, but there is so much else that is good and needed about this book and more generally about the ordinary, but radical, life of discipleship (or “new monasticism”) that this liturgy provides a rhythm and tempo for that I hope this slight/injustice- whether intentional or not- can be overcome. In other words, there’s a whole, whole lot of good there (in the book), and maybe something really crappy too, but that’s the case for the Bible and the Church and the whole Christian endeavor as well, I would argue. I pray then that the good can be taken despite the bad while we strive- together- toward that vision of a “beloved community” in which there are no outcasts, no injustice, no “bad” to overcome any longer.

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