Saturday, 7 January 2017

Irresistible Revolution

If you've been following this little series on Christian politics (previous posts here, here and here), you will see that I have been moving from optimism to critical engagement, from "cool" analysis to passionate engagement and from theory to practice.  I'm not suggesting that one is superior to the other.  I'm simply trying to paint a reasonably rounded picture.  You might also notice that all the authors are from the US - this was unintentional but at least it shows that there is more to Christian politics in the US than the Religious Right.

By way of completing the journey into practice and passionate engagement, my final exhibit is Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical.  You won't find any heavy theorising here.

Claiborne is in great demand around the English-speaking world as a speaker, and has written a number of books.  This is his first, the story of his life so far, published in 2006 and re-issued in updated form in 2016.  He records his reluctance to write it, the extent to which he sought guidance from friends and co-workers before committing to the project.  His reluctance arises from a conviction that he is no-one special and that he is simply one member of a community and a movement that is trying to be God's people in the world.  This humility and self-deprecation resurface regularly in the book, giving it an engaging feel, a bit of sugar to help swallow its hard but necessary medicine.

Claiborne studied theology at East University, Philadelphia as well as at Wheaton College and Princeton.  However the more important part of his education was his exposure to the realities of poverty.  This included spending evenings in the company of homeless people in downtown Philadelphia, a summer spent working in Mother Theresa's hospice and involvement in the long-running occupation of a disused Philadelphia cathedral by homeless families.

This contact convinced him and a number of his fellow-students that their calling was to live with and serve poor people in their neighbourhods.  They founded a community called 'The Simple Way' in a poor suburb of Philadelphia.  Over time, this has developed (along with other similar communities around the US and elsewhere) into a way of life which has become known as the 'New Monasticism'.  This involves elements of monastic tradition like living in community, sharing possessions, regular prayer and worship and devotion to service, but minus some features like celibacy, seclusion and the wearing of habits (although Claiborne does make his own clothes which sometimes look somewhat monastic).

The Simple Way is based around being present in their community, providing hospitality, helping people who need help, running activities for children and young people and so forth.  However they are more than charity workers - their practice combines the immediate relief of poverty among their neighbours with the challenging of systems which cause poverty, and combines a local focus with an awareness of global issues.  This approach has led them, for instance, to organise a protest on Wall Street which involved publicly giving away sums of cash, and at least one stint as a peace witness in Iraq, spending time with Iraqis in the war zone during the 2003 occupation to provide witness to the actions of US troops and afford vulnerable Iraqi civilians with some level of protection.

In the course of these actions, they are also not afraid to call the church to account.  One of Claiborne's early influences was the gospel singer Rich Mullins, who suggested that Christians have a kind of mental highlighter which marks out certain parts of the Gospel as more important than others.  Thus, Christians of a certain stripe like to emphasise the fact that Jesus said "you must be born again" but seem unaware that he also said "sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor".  Claiborne takes the latter statement as seriously as the former.

He also talks about his ongoing relationship with the conservative Willow Creek Church, famous for its pioneering 'seeker-sensitive' approach, where he did a year's internship during his theological training.   On his first arrival there he noted that there were no crosses displayed, and found this uncomfortable given his awareness of Jesus' instruction to his disciples to take up their crosses.  It was explained that displaying the cross was likely to be off-putting to people not acculturated to Christianity and that these were the people they were trying to attract.  He accepted this despite his reservations.

After the foundation of The Simple Way he continued to be invited back to Willow Creek from time to time, and on a visit after the World Trade Centre bombing he noticed that the church had started displaying the American flag.  This was too much for him and his planned sermon was ditched in favour of asking the question - why is the symbol of the Cross excluded from their church but the symbol of American nationalism allowed?  I imagine the discomfort was mutual.  The take-home message is that the cross is not simply a symbol of salvation or an arcane piece of ancient culture.  Rather, it is a symbol of the kind of self-sacrificial life Christians are called to above all else - above family, community and nation.

All of this could seem to forbidding - a commitment to communal living, travel into danger and hardship, confronting people with hard truths.  However, Claiborne is at pains to paint himself as an ordinary person - hence the book's sub-title, Living as an Ordinary Radical.  Reading the book, you feel like you could just drop in on him and have a chat in his kitchen, and he insists that you really could - anyone who turns up at the door at The Simple Way is welcome.  He is also very humble, sharing credit with his many collaborators and acknowledging the many gifts that go into any successful venture.

However, in a very practical sense what he presents in incredibly challenging.  He highlights, by both his words and his life, just how far from Christ's way our "normal" Western lives are, how complicit we are in systems of repression and domination.  In response, he presents us with a practical example of Walter Wink's non-violent confrontation of the powers - a peaceful, loving and humour-filled but very direct challenge to the way the world is, and a deliberate attempt to build an alternative.

So where are we on this short journey?  Miroslav Volf introduces us to the notion that Christianity is a prophetic religion, with a message for the world.  We must be prepared to deliver this message, not withhold it by being passive or withdrawing from the world, but we must avoid the temptation to coercion.  Walter Brueggemann provides us with a summary of this prophetic mission drawn from the Hebrew prophets and from Jesus, in which prophecy challenges the dominant "royal consciousness", mourning the suffering and damage which this consciousness tries to hide while also opening the way for us to imagine something better.

Both these works are theoretical.  Walter Wink provides a practical guide for us to live out this prophetic mission through following Jesus' teaching and example of non-violence.  I'm not sure if Volf or Brueggemann had this in mind exactly, but it fulfils both their requirements - it is neither passive nor coercive, and it both challenges the dominant consciousness and points to a new and better way, the way of Jesus.

What Shane Claiborne is telling us is that this is not simply a nice theory or an impossible ideal.  It is an actual way of life, which he and his friends are living.  This life certainly has its hardships and dangers, but Claiborne's joy and love of life is infectious.  He doesn't regret the potential wealth and prestige he has foregone because he doesn't value these things.  Instead, he delights in the joys of friendship and community, celebrating his relationships in his own suburb and all around the world.  He firmly resists any suggestion that he is someone special - in his estimation he is not the centre of the story, just the one telling it.

What does this mean for us?  That will be the subject of my final post in the series, coming soon....
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