Working on our posture:
talking about God’s mission with Shane Claiborne
He’s been profiled in esteemed media outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and Esquire magazine – yet on a warm (for the UK) June afternoon, US-based Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne paid a visit to Church Mission Society for a lively conversation about mission.
Interview by Naomi Rose Steinberg, Head of Communications
Naomi Rose Steinberg: Recently, I attended a webinar hosted by a somewhat progressive Christian group in the US, and the title was Is Mission Over? So that’s my first question: is mission over?
Shane Claiborne: I believe we’re here to live for something bigger than ourselves, that God has a plan to restore and redeem the world. And each of us gets to explore what role we get to play in that story.
I don’t know how much Jesus uses the word mission, but he talked a lot about the kingdom of God: this idea that God’s dream is coming on Earth as it is in heaven. And that sounds like a mission to me: that we should be after God’s dream for the world.
I grew up with a version of Christianity that was more about escaping this world than transforming it. But we’re here to do something more than just prepare people to die. I think we’re inviting people to live out the vision of God – this incredible idea that the gospel is good news to the poor, that Jesus came to liberate the oppressed. I think we for too long have just promised people life after death when a lot of people are asking, is there life before death? And doesn’t the gospel have something to say to the brokenness of the world that we live in right now? I think it does.
Naomi: In CMS we talk a lot about being at the edges. What do you think of this?
Shane: The entire gospel and life of Jesus, it seems to me, is about a God who is in solidarity with those at the margins or the edges. Jesus coming to Earth is God leaving all the comfort of heaven to join the struggle in this world. And Jesus didn’t just come in any body, but in a brown-skinned Palestinian Jewish refugee body, and he’s constantly pushing the boundaries of social norms and inclusion, even to the point of being executed on the cross – this is God’s most profound act of solidarity with folks who are marginalised. To say this is good news, to everybody and especially, I think, to those who have been really crushed: those who Jesus blesses in the Beatitudes: the poor, the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, the peacemakers. These are folks that this world has pushed out, and they’re at the centre of the kingdom of God.
Naomi: We believe people at the edges have things to teach us. Has this been your experience, choosing to live in a struggling neighbourhood in Philadelphia?
Shane: Sometimes mission has been just about people of privilege going to poor people. And I think that’s problematic. I think when we have a more holistic understanding of things, we get that God’s already there in neighbourhoods that have often been forsaken by people, even by the church. So we’re not bringing God, we’re not bringing the gospel to these places. In fact, we might see things that we didn’t expect – that the Spirit is already at work.
One of my earliest encounters in the neighbourhood I moved into 25 years ago, was with a friend of mine who was born there; he’s a pastor now.
He said, “All your peers think you’re a hero, a saint, for moving into the worst neighbourhood in Philly. All my peers think I’m a failure for not moving out.”
If we aren’t careful, the narrative becomes about these heroic people from the outside who’ve moved in, and it misses the heroes that are indigenous to a place.
So, we talk a lot about how restoring a neighbourhood takes remainers, returners and relocaters. Returners are people born there that don’t forget where they came from and bring their resources and skills back to the neighbourhood. Remainers are folks that stay even though there’s pressure to move out. Then there are folks like me that are non-Indigenous, but we relocate, coming in with hopefully the right posture, with humility to learn and listen and build on what’s there.
For some of us, the gospel is about going to places that are struggling. Others were born there. And I think that this should cause us to reimagine mission, so we don’t see that this is just about the answers being outside the community. People who have survived much have much to offer. The best healers are wounded healers.
So, I think that is a little different from a professionalised model or some of the traditional paradigms for thinking about mission, which says we’re going to people to bring healing, rather than we’re going to listen and learn and join what God’s already doing.
Naomi: As someone originally from the US, I appreciate you being a voice against rising Christian nationalism. I am wondering if mission done well can be a sort of antidote to nationalism?
Shane: There’s this sense that in Christ, I have an identity of that supersedes my national identity. I think this has everything to do with what it means to be born again. We have a sense of belonging that’s deeper than even biological family or DNA.
This is about having a vision that if one part of our human family is suffering, it is as tragic as if it was my own mom, dad or child. And that’s why immigration matters – these are not just them. This is us. These are children of God as much as I am. And it breaks God’s heart. That’s why loving our neighbour as ourselves is such a wild command.
I think that’s where patriotism or nationalism becomes so problematic. It’s just too small. It’s not that people in our country don’t matter- it’s that everybody else matters too.
Mother Teresa said that the circle we’ve drawn around our family is too small. I want to keep expanding the boundaries we put on the concept of family. I think that’s why Jesus speaks so radically about not being ready to be a disciple unless you can denounce your own family. I think this was not about shrinking your family, but expanding it. Because in Jesus we have a new love that is boundless.
I think this iteration of Christian nationalism we are seeing is the most imminent threat to authentic Christianity in America. It’s trying to camouflage itself as Christianity, but it doesn’t look like Jesus at all. You hear Jesus thrown around like a mascot, but not as the central person that we’re to emulate. It’s doing so much damage to the mission of the church and to the reputation of Christians. There’s a lot of young people that are looking at that going, I don’t want anything to do with that. And I say neither do I. I think if it were a few hundred years ago, there would be a council to denounce this as a heresy – it’s that dangerous. It’s about trying to camouflage bigotry with Christianity, to try to hide hatred behind the cross. There are literally bumper stickers where Jesus has an assault rifle saying if he’d had a gun instead of the cross, he might have ended up differently.
There’s a saying that God created us in God’s image and we decided to return the favour. But when you make a God that is more like you and what you want God to be, that’s idolatry. And that’s what a lot of this is: recreating God so that God looks more like John Wayne or Donald Trump than Jesus on the cross.
And if I might get outside of the US a little, because one of the things I see when I come to the UK is a temptation to point to America and say, at least we’re not that bad. But some of those same principalities and powers are here, too. Martin Luther King, Jr, said that the church isn’t meant to be the servant of the state, and the church isn’t meant to be the master of the state. The church is meant to be the conscience of the nation. It’s hard to navigate that power dynamic.
Naomi: Even stepping out of a Western context, we see many places that are ostensibly hugely Christian, where there have been devastating power struggles and violence?
Shane: Yes, I speak from my own context, but I’ve been to many places where you can see how Christianity, or any religion, can be used to justify bigotry and turned into a violent ideology. Some of the worst atrocities in the world have happened because Christians have twisted the cross. At the end of the day, another identity superseded their Christian identity.
There’s a great book by Emmanuel Katongole, Mirror to the Church, that warns us of the dangers of this. That’s partly why I wrote this new book Rethinking Life, to look at things in history like colonisation and eugenics: how we begin to value some lives over others. And the complicity of the church in the theology that was used to build the foundation and defence of some of these atrocities – it’s stunning. We’ve got to tell the truth about this history to build a better future.
Naomi: We talked earlier about adopting a posture of humility in mission. What do you think about also adopting a posture of curiosity? Do you think that some problems we have are because we’re not curious enough?
Shane: Oh, absolutely. What a lovely question. My friend Jemar Tisby, a black historian, told me about someone describing Christians who said, “My experience with Christians is they are people who don’t have any questions.” He said there’s no curiosity, because they think they’ve got all the answers.
I think those answers are not working a lot of times. And a new generation is not looking for Christians to have all the answers. But for people who are maybe questioning the answers rather than answering the questions.
Jesus did that. So often, he’s asked a question, and he answers it with a question. He stirs curiosity. He’s asked about paying taxes and pulls a coin out of a fish’s mouth.
Part of the problem with some mission historically is we’ve come in thinking we’ve got all the answers. And I think part of why there’s so much deconstruction in our society right now, is because we’ve tried to put God into too small a box. The theological boxes we’ve had just aren’t big enough for the problems of the world, the pain of the world, the mystery of God. If your theology states that when a ten-year-old kid is raped, it must have happened for a reason, that’s messed up. It doesn’t work.
But I think when some people leave these toxic beliefs, they think they’re leaving Christianity. So, we’ve got to keep that curiosity going, stirring questions. I think a lot of young people have left the church for very good reasons. It often looks very unlike Jesus. In the US, so many folks saw white evangelicals in particular defending indefensible things. And they’ve left that. But many are discovering that leaving Trump-evangelicalism wasn’t the end of their faith. It was the beginning. The spiritual landscape of what God is doing is bigger than the most toxic versions of our faith.
I think one question we should ask is what would it look like if love, not fear, was the compelling force shaping how we think about immigration? We see a fear of scarcity, a fear of other people replacing us, and that fear pushes out love and ends up dictating policy. The question is, what does love compel us to do? The question is how, not if, are we going to welcome asylum seekers? How do we do it well and responsibly?
Another idea about the posture that we come with, is that I grew up often hearing that we need to be a voice for the voiceless. I would push back on that, even though people I respect have used that language. People actually have a voice. And rather than trying to be a voice for them, we should be an amplifier of their voice. We should take try to take the hands off the ears of people who aren’t listening and amplify the voices people are not hearing.
Naomi: People describe you as having a lot of integrity, that you have remained in a place of radical discipleship for a long time, and they wonder how you sustain that? How do you resist institutionalisation? Or power?
Shane: One piece is that I do life in community and that keeps my joy, my hope. That’s how you keep a fire alive: you keep the coals together. If you spread them out, they start to dwindle.
Just to roll with my fire metaphor, one thing we do is take guns, melt them down and turn them into garden tools or jewellery. You take dull, hard metal and put it in fire and it begins to soften and take on the character of the fire. If we spend time with Jesus, hopefully we begin to take on the character and love of Jesus. If you come out of the fire too long, your heart begins to harden.
We’ve got to keep going back to the fire that keeps our hearts malleable and soft and tender to the pain of the world. Jesus is that fire.
There’s a lot of other stuff as far how we sustain ourselves. We have a lot of fun. I believe we’ve got to protect our joy. We’ve got to laugh hard together and we’ve got to see this is bigger than just ourselves, that we’re a part of a big mission of God, a big movement of God.
You mentioned institutions…I think we have to be careful not to think that God is only going to act in a particular way or in a particular space. For instance, Jesus is Jewish. He went to synagogue. He read from the scroll of Isaiah. He practiced Passover. He’s also challenging the law when it’s not rooted in love, like with his Sabbath and healing answer. I mean, Jesus is healing people with mud and spit. So, I think Jesus can work within institutions but God’s not bound to them.
Naomi: In the UK, a majority of people don’t go to church and 85 per cent of them say they are unlikely to do so. From CMS’s point of view, this presents a real opportunity for creative mission. What’s your response to those stats – what do you think the future holds?
Shane: I got a letter a few years ago from a guy who said, “I feel alone because I’m surrounded by inactive believers on one hand and unbelieving activists on the other.” He was saying, I’m around all these Christians who don’t seem to care much about the injustices of the world. And I’m also around all these activists that don’t necessarily see the spirituality of what we’re doing. And he’s longing to hold those together.
And I think that’s what we’re trying to do with Red Letter Christians and so much of the mission that you all are about, is saying that Jesus and justice are like blades of scissors. They’re meant to go together. The social gospel can lose the fact that there’s a God that is personal and the individualistic evangelical gospel of salvation can lose the fact that God so loves the world and is transforming the world.
Sometimes I think regarding the future, some of what we’ve got to do is the hard work of confession. When we think of confession, we often think individually confessing sins. I think we’ve also got to confess that the church has often acted very unlike Jesus.
Years ago, the Barna Research Group went around the US, asking young non-Christians, what do you think when you hear the word Christian? The number one answer was anti-gay, number two was judgmental and number three was hypocritical.
How do we change that narrative? I think it’s by changing the narrators, amplifying beautiful faith communities on the ground that are known for love, that are demonstrating God’s love in concrete ways in real communities, and that are championing policies that look more like love than like fear. Some lovely things are happening that don’t necessarily draw big media attention.
It’ll be up to us, of course with the help of the Holy Spirit. We’re the body of Christ. I hope and I pray that a generation from now, when people hear the word Christian, they think of love. I hope they say justice. I hope they say compassion, hospitality to immigrants. That we are the folks that love the people that have been crushed in the world.
That’s what they said about Jesus. And I hope it’s what they say about us.