Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is a speaker, activist and author. He founded the Simple Way, an intentional community in Philadelphia, building a neighborhood of belonging. And he leads Red Letter Christians, a group that tries to live “like Jesus meant the things he said.”

I interviewed Shane at the Sojourners office in DC right after the Moral March on Washington, led by the Poor People’s Campaign.

“Courage is contagious. And if we want to be more courageous, then we need to hang out with courageous people, and they kind of rub off on us.”

Shane Claiborne interview

“The people that have shaped and informed me are folks that have their feet on the ground in real neighborhoods, real spaces, with people that are vulnerable and impacted by injustices. And that also creates a fire in your bones to do something about the things that are crushing folks lives. 

So, that little community in north Philadelphia, I’ve been there for 25 years. And so much of the fire in my bones comes from that. We’ve seen way too many people killed by guns. I mean, almost every corner’s got a memorial to the lives lost.

Dr. King was right when he said we’re all called to be the good Samaritan and lift our neighbor out of the ditch. But after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say, “We gotta do something about the whole road to Jericho.” 

These are like the two feet I walk on. The Simple Way, the local stuff in Philly. And then Red Letter Christians and work like we’re doing today in Washington. Movement work. And I believe in both.

I know a lot of folks that are working here in DC, they need to come play in a fire hydrant in north Philly. They need to get outside the halls of Congress and hang out with some kids and help ’em with their homework or something. That’s kind of the integration of things that I really enjoy. 

For folks that are students of church history, there is this sense that the church is constantly in need of renewal. Those monastic communities—mono means one—and those traditions like Mother Teresa have been a real inspiration for me. The way that she integrated her faith into a way of living. That meant simplicity. I mean, for her, it meant celibacy. It meant living her life among people who are hurting. 

The church needs that kind of renewal. The Catholic Worker Movement, that was another iteration of renewal. What it means for me is that we don’t just believe that Christianity is a way of believing. It’s a way of living. That affects how we hold possessions, how we interact with violence, the trajectory of the gravity of our lives. Rather than moving away from suffering, we’re leaning into it, because that’s what Jesus did. And that’s what a lot of these monastic communities have done over the centuries, is keep us true to the gospel way of life. So I I’ve always liked that. 

I really like the word radical. It doesn’t just mean extreme or over the top. I mean the actual word itself—radical—means root. You know, just like a radish. It’s a root. When we’re talking about social justice, let’s get at the root of it. Let’s not just put bandaids on a bullet wound. Let’s actually do systemic change. 

So, I like the word radical. I often couple it with ordinary. My first book was Living as an Ordinary Radical because I don’t think that we want to be seen as this supernatural saintly life. There’s all kinds of ways of being radical. I mean, I know doctors and engineers and lawyers that are all using their gifts and vocations in incredible ways and they inspire me.

I think the other thing that I’ve learned is that courage is contagious. And if we want to be more courageous, then we need to hang out with courageous people, and they kind of rub off on us. And so I’ve come to think of community as surrounding ourselves with people who look like the kind of person we want to be. So if you wanna be more generous, you hang out with generous people. 

We do tend to act a lot like the people we surround ourselves with. So yeah, I wanna surround myself with people who remind me of Jesus, and they help me maybe act a little bit more like him. 

I’ve always liked that scripture that says we’re working out our salvation with fear and trembling. That it’s not about a moment, but it’s this kind of movement that the Spirit’s doing in us, shaping and forming us. There are some really clear moments in the midst of working out my own salvation, and one of those was when I fell in love with Jesus in middle school and [I’ve] been figuring that out ever since, what that means. 

But then another one was when I was in undergrad, a group of homeless mothers moved into an abandoned Catholic church building in north Philadelphia. And they had nowhere to go and there were like 3000 families on the waiting list for housing. So they moved into this building, out of desperation, in an abandoned Catholic sanctuary. 

The Catholic church gave them 48 hours to get out or they could be arrested for trespassing. That was one of those moments where it shook us, and it sparked a student movement. Reverend Liz Theoharis, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, was a student organizer in Philadelphia. We’ve known each other for 25 years but we were organizers as students back then. I was organizing on a different campus and a different circle than she was, but we all converged to stand in solidarity with those poor and homeless mothers and families. 

There’s a handful of those that lit the fire for our community, the Simple Way. We started around the corner from that old abandoned church, I got married in the old abandoned church. We got permission to go back in cuz that could be awkward, you know, getting arrested in the middle [of your wedding.]” 

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“So, when the war broke out [in Afghanistan and Iraq], we were all grieving the violence, the response of a war after the terrorist attacks. I went to Iraq, and Jonathan who was here with us today, he and Leah were there as well. We went as a part of a delegation to stand against the war and to witness and volunteer in the hospitals, to be with Iraqi families. That was one of the most transformative experiences. I mean, that was during what was called the Shock and Awe campaign. So 900 bombs a day, some days, were being dropped on Iraq, and we were living in Baghdad. So that really shaped me and my passion for nonviolence.

I didn’t grow up in the traditional peace church, like the Mennonites or Quakers. My dad was in Vietnam. I was in the evangelical church, which is unfortunately very comfortable with God and war. I already had that kind of gut instinct or that conscience that war was wrong. But being in Iraq convinced me, like never before. Once we experienced what we saw there, you just don’t walk away from that without feeling like I wanna spend the rest of my life trying to stop violence in every form that it has, including our military spending and our addiction to violence. 

I’m writing a book on that right now, called Rethinking Life. This goes all the way back to the inaugural murder of Cain and Abel. I mean, the first thing that happens outside the Garden of Eden after the fall, is a murder. Cain killing his brother. And it’s also the first time that the word sin is used. Not actually in the Garden of Eden, but the murder. And of course that scripture says that the blood cries out to God from the ground. And my Jewish friends have taught me the depth of that, that the word blood is actually plural. So it’d be more accurate to say the bloods of all the people. 

So it’s very clear in the text that this was not just about Abel’s blood. It’s about all the blood of humanity, and it’s in the present tense. So it’s not that it cried out to God, but it still cries out. And until we stop spilling blood, it is always crying out to God. 

I think of Michael Brown, left in the street in Ferguson. I think of all the lives lost, over and over. In Buffalo and mass shootings and the not mass shootings. The other 98% of our shootings that are just happening largely under the radar every day. That matters to God. Every person’s made in the image of God. Anytime a life is crushed, we’re crushing part of God’s image in the world. When I think of what happens in Jesus…I mean, this is for me, the pinnacle of history, when God puts skin on and moves in among us. 

And [Jesus] doesn’t just come in any bodily form, right? But he comes in the flesh of a brown skinned, Palestinian Jewish refugee. When Jesus is born, Herod’s killing children, separating families, trying to massacre the kids. And so from the moment he’s born until he is executed on the cross, Jesus is God’s most profound act of solidarity with us, to come and to suffer with us. Even to the point of saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So I tell people, if that’s how you feel right now, then you’re in good company. You’re not alone. Like literally, you could chew on that for a while…God felt the absence of God. And on the cross, I think what Jesus does is make a spectacle of violence. Colossians says it really good that Jesus put death on display to subvert it, to undermine it with love and forgiveness and an empty tomb. 

And so I think that Jesus absorbs all the violence of the world in order to show us a way forward, which is loving that doesn’t mirror the violence and this terrible logic that we’re gonna use violence to heal us from our violence. 

We live by the sword. You die by the sword. I mean, Jesus was such a consistent interrupter of violence. He stops the execution of the woman in adultery. He scolds his own disciples when they want to call down fire from heaven. He disarms Peter and rebukes him when he pulls the sword to protect him. So Jesus is the prince of peace. And I think literally, it became impossible for me to justify violence in any form in light of Jesus. And I think that’s the whole point of it. Jesus is teaching us there’s something worth dying for, but nothing worth killing for. Love dies, but it doesn’t kill. 

There’s this beautiful text in the prophets and both it’s both in Micah and Isaiah where the biblical prophets talk about God’s people beating swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks. So it gives you this powerful image of literally transforming metal that’s been crafted to kill, into metal that’s crafted to cultivate life. 

So a little over ten years ago, we started going, “Hey, we don’t have a lot of swords in America, but we got a heck of a lot of guns.” We’ve got more guns than people now. And we invited people to donate guns if they wanted to. To surrender their weapons. The first gun we got was an AK-47. A guy that was just like, “I have no idea why I have this. I want to get rid of it. I don’t even wanna sell it. I wanna decommission it.” And so we turned that first gun into garden tools and we’ve been doing it ever since. Over the last ten years, we’ve taken hundreds, I mean, thousands of guns and turned them into shovels and plows. 

We’ve got a network of folks around the country that are doing this, so we’re always learning. You’ve got blacksmithing, which is the old school. You heat the metal up and it becomes malleable. So that’s mostly what we’re doing. But then we’ve got welders that are making art. So you slice guns up and chop ’em up, or you make flowers out of ’em or, I mean, we made all kinds of really spectacular stuff. And a lot of times it’s got a story too, like this one guy gave us a gun and this was like an old school, double barrel shotgun. And I looked at it and I was like, what? And then I could see him almost start to tear up. 

He said, “This gun killed my brother.” And it was all rusted and everything. So my buddy took that and re-crafted it. It has these three roses for the Trinity—this guy’s a very spiritual guy—and so he wanted something that kind of evoked that, and there’s a rose in each barrel of the double barrel, but then there’s a rose that’s coming out of the handle. And he said, “I put that one there for the guy that pulled the trigger.” You know, praying that he would be transformed. 

And so there’s the art piece of it. But then, several years into this, we realized that what we’re doing is not just artistic or poetic or symbolic, but it’s therapeutic. It’s really healing. And we realized that when we had a gun that we were transforming on the anvil.

We said, “Does anyone want to take the hammer?” And a few folks that had lost their kids started pounding on that gun, and I’ll never forget this woman, Miss Ryan. She had a picture of her son on her shirt and she started just beating on it and you could feel everything in her. With every thump of the hammer, she said, “This is for my boy.” 

And now we’ve done that all over the country. We deliberately invite people if they want to. There’s never any pressure, but if people have been impacted and they want to take the hammer, they’re welcome to. And they’ll often just begin sharing their story and what’s behind the hammer as they’re beating it. We’ve seen people collapse. We’ve seen folks that have taken someone else’s life that have told their stories. 

My friend, Rev. Richard…this is the anniversary of the Emmanuel AME shooting this week and Mother Emmanuel in Charleston, that historic Black church. In their Bible study and prayer meeting, nine of them were killed. And [the] mother, her family was killed. And so she started beating on it and she named all nine of them. And then she kind of collapsed in my arms afterwards. She said, “That healed me. There’s something that happened.” 

In the church we have a word—sacrament—and I’ve come to think of it like that. The word sacrament means holy mystery. And it does kind of feel like that when we’re transforming a gun. It’s sort of hard to put words to everything that happens, but you feel like this is very holy. It’s also good for my soul, you know, after a mass shooting, you go out and just beat the crap out of an AR-15.” 

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“[There is] power in being proximate to those who are hurting and whose lives are really being crushed right now. That’s what today was about, centering the voices of people who have been impacted by poverty. 

I think that’s what happens in Jesus is God leans in, God gets even more proximate to us. I mean, God is with us from the beginning, but that sense of this is God showing us how close God really is. And I’ve come to real realize that our biggest challenge in the church, I don’t think is a compassion problem, but it is a proximity problem. It’s a relational disconnect.

Nothing puts an urgency in us to do something about these issues than when they hit home, or we’re close to someone that they impact. You don’t change your mind because you lose an argument. I think you change your mind about immigration or the death penalty, or gun violence or something because you’ve met someone that it’s impacted. 

I think policy’s the same way. It’s hard to get excited about politics, but if we think loving my neighbor means not ignoring the policies that are impacting their lives—so whether it’s guns or immigration or mass incarceration, police violence, all these things—how near we are matters. 

Much of our world, the gravity is pulling us away from the pain. It’s what suburban sprawl is about, you know, move out of neighborhoods where there’s high crime or there’s people that don’t look like us. And yet I think the gravity of the gospel should do just the opposite to us and should be kind of pulling us towards the suffering of the world.” 

Discussion questions

-Who has shaped and informed you?

-In what ways have you tried to be a Good Samaritan?

-When you hear the word “radical,” what comes to mind? When have you been radical?

-Shane says courage is contagious. Your thoughts? When have you seen this to be true…or not?

-Talk about the impact of violence on your community. What has changed? How have you responded?

-Have you ever beat a sword into a plow? Metaphorically? Literally?

-How have you put yourself in proximity to those who are hurting? What have you learned?

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