Summer 2009

Economics of an Ordinary Radical

An Interview with Shane Claiborne

When it comes to Christians and money, Shane Claiborne has something to say. But unlike many outspoken voices on these issues, Claiborne actually practices what he preaches.

He’s got the street cred (literally), with a resume that includes ridding himself of his earthly possessions, working alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta, serving needy Iraqis in Baghdad at the height of the war and helping to establish a sustainable intentional community (“The Simple Way”) in one of the poorest sections of Philadelphia, where he now resides.

Claiborne, who appeared on the cover of Christianity Today in 2005, has authored several books (including The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President) is the subject of the documentary The Ordinary Radicals and is a sought-after speaker at churches, colleges and conferences throughout the world. The thirtysomething Claiborne - with his dreadlocked hair, homemade burlap tunic, soothing Tennessee accent and fiery evangelical passion - has made a name for himself as an advocate for social justice and the “upside-down values” of the kingdom of God.

He’s one of the most original, provocative, feather-ruffling Christian voices today, and Biola Magazine recently had the chance to speak with him the economy, social justice, and how we can live simpler lives.  

BM: Shane, what are some of the good things that you think will come out of this economic recession?

SC: It’s a great opportunity, I think, when folks are asking questions about the patterns that they’ve been living into, when folks are saying, “You know, I’m not sure it’s a great idea for CEOs to make 400 times their workers.” I think folks are going, “Can the world afford the American dream? Maybe God’s got another dream in mind than just the patterns of Wall Street” And you know, clearly these patterns - if we continue living in to them - would require four more planets. What’s really great is that folks are reading Scripture too, and the words of Jesus are so fresh and pertinent. He said don’t store up treasures on earth and tells the great story of the guy who builds the big storehouse for all of his stuff, and then needs a bigger one. And eventually God looks around and says, “You fool! You don’t know what tomorrow holds. You’ll die and what will be left of all your stuff?”

We’re to consider the lilies and the sparrows. They don’t worry about tomorrow because tomorrow’s got enough worries of its own. So I think it’s really exciting to have folks thinking about where our treasure is and where our heart is, and to really begin to feel some of the urgency of the Scriptures that say, “Blessed are those who hunger for justice and for righteousness.” I think most of us want that, but maybe we don’t hunger for it. It doesn’t quite hit home. But this crisis is confronting us with it in a new way. And I think it’s a really beautiful thing.

BM: One of the things you often talk about is how we should live simpler lives and consume less. As Christians, what are some ways that we can live more simply?

SC: Basically, I think a lot of it begins by us getting the log out of our own eye rather than just pointing at other people. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.” I think the best critique of what’s wrong is always the practice of something better. There are really concrete things we can do. For example, we can fast in some way - in a way that allows us to identify with poverty and the groaning in the world. We can fast from the things that clutter and complicate our lives, things that we think are necessities but for the rest of the world are really luxuries.

I don’t really believe it’s a call to ascetism out of guilt but rather the call to live life to the fullest, as John 10:10 says. It’s a call that not only brings life to the poor and is a sensible way of living, but it also brings us to life. We’ve chosen patterns of living so that even though we are the wealthiest country in the world, we have some of the highest rates of loneliness and depression and medication. We’ve really lost community and the things that are the deepest hungers of our heart. And in order to remember those things, I think we need to cut away the chaff. We can learn to carpool, or grow our own food, or share our possessions like the early church did. We may be rediscovering this by necessity these days. I’m excited because I see folks saying, “Hey, not everyone needs a washer and dryer. Why don’t we share it with a few families? Why don’t we share a car together? Why don’t we have one lawnmower that our cul-de-sac uses?” I think all those are great steps, and ultimately what you discover is that it’s fantastic to free yourself from this compartmentalized existence where you don’t know your neighbors and think you don’t need anybody else.

BM: You live communally at The Simple Way in Philadelphia. Could you describe what this looks like on a daily basis?

SC: One of the things about community is that it’s alive. It’s always changing. Things are always evolving and that’s certainly been true for us over the last 10 years. Now we’re starting to function a little less like an intentional community house and more like an intentional village or multiple-house community. We do have to carve out a common life together, and for us that looks like morning prayer together, activities in the neighborhood like gardening and clean-up or helping kids with homework, meals together a few times a week, and one day a week where we have a Sabbath, a day of rest. I think another part of simplicity is learning to slow things down a little bit. We have people who have chosen to work part-time jobs and actually form their day’s work around community rather than trying to squeeze community in around our work schedule, which is what we usually do. I think seeking first the kingdom of God is orienting us around those values - common work, neighbors, community. Its missional, it’s vocational, it’s about using our gifts for the kingdom of God rather than just trying to find a job that pays the bills.

BM: Speaking of bills, how does your community support itself financially?

SC: The way that we’ve done it is each person contributes a certain amount each month in order to cover the common expenses. That has been $150 per person per month. Over the years, a lot of communities similar to ours have found that many hands make for light work and many wallets make for cheap rent. It really frees you up to live more simply by sharing a car and sharing a house. Rather than just thinking about how I can accumulate more, a lot of folks are beginning to ask, how can I spend less? How can I live off less? It also makes sense for a lot of young people who might have a lot of debt. Living off $150 in a community like this is one way that a lot of people I’ve known have gotten rid of their debt. They might have a job where they make $1,000 a month or something crazy like that while their living expenses are pretty minimal.

BM: Do you grow your own food?

SC: We do some of that. One of the tensions is that we are living in a neighborhood that is sort of a concrete jungle and it’s virtually impossible for us at this point to grow all of our own food. Gardening is certainly a part of our life, but as much as it is about having food to eat it is also just for people to connect with the earth again and see where carrots come from and stuff like that.

BM: Do you think that it’s feasible that these types of communities could be replicated on a large scale?

SC: Certainly I think community can be replicated. We’re not trying to start a brand or franchise, but I think these ideas can be replicated. And they’re ancient ideas. It’s God forming a community of people that is living into different patterns — like Jubilee and gleaning. These are such sensible ideas. It’s kind of like God saying, “If you don’t have different patterns of living, then you are going to end up just like the empire you came from. You’re going to end up destroying yourself from the patterns of the world you were living in.” But the exact forms that it takes are many. There are folks living together with a couple of families. There are huge high-rises like JPUSA where three or four hundred families are living under the same roof. There are rural communities where a few hundred families live off the land together, totally off the grid. I think all of those are beautiful and all of those are faith-based Christian communities. Those are things that come a lot more naturally to poor people because it’s what they do to survive. In some ways the only reason what we’re doing seems radical is because of the culture we live in. It’s sort of an indictment against the kind of Christianity we’ve grown accustomed to - a Christianity that is belief-based but not lifestyle-based. It’s just a statement of doctrinal beliefs without any sense of what it looks like in real life. Dorothy Day used to say, “If every Christian home had a room for a stranger, it would end poverty.” We would end homelessness. This is a movement of hospitality and mercy that spreads from the church and into our living rooms.

BM: I recently saw your film Ordinary Radicals, which was filmed on your book tour for Jesus for President. What does it mean to be an “Ordinary Radical”?

SC: I like the coupling of the two words. Radical doesn’t just mean extreme or crazy. It’s about getting to the root of things that are creating problems around us - the social ills, the habits that are making us sick - rather than just dealing with the symptoms. “Ordinary” means that this isn’t just for freaks and hippies and goths and saints. It’s really a calling for all of us - to not conform to the patterns of the world but to be transformed by Christ to live into the values of the upside-down kingdom of God. So I like the phrase. I think it’s helpful for grandmothers and doctors and lawyers who are trying to use their lives for the purposes of God’s kingdom.

BM: In the film, Chris Haw - your co-author for Jesus for President - says something to the effect of, “if everyone in America truly followed the Ten Commandments, our economy would immediately collapse.” Do you think that’s true?

SC: It’s so interesting that we put on our money, “In God We Trust.” I think it’s the very essence of using the Lord’s name in vain. I mean, we can just put that phrase on whatever. But our economy? Do we trust it? I think Wendell Berry is right when he says the economy branded with “In God We Trust” looks like the seven deadly sins. If you really look at what our economy is built on, you realize how antithetical it is to the core of the Gospels, which over and over again tell us to not store up for tomorrow, to consider the lilies and the sparrows. I think the Gospel is not a great plan for leading the largest superpower in the world.

One of the beautiful images at the end of the Bible is John’s description of the fall of Babylon in the book of Revelation. It speaks of Babylon as the quintessential symbol of the spectacle of power and worldly success. But when it falls, John talks about how there are different responses. There’s the response of the merchants, who stand back and weep and wail over the falling of Babylon the Great. And then there’s the response of the angels who rejoice and say, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great whore!” And so that image calls into question: Are we going to weep with the merchants or rejoice with the angels? It doesn’t cheapen the fact that these are difficult times, but I think Tony Campolo is right when he says, “We may live in the best Babylon in the world, but it’s still Babylon.”

The call of Revelation is for us to come out of Babylon and live as different people and with different patterns. If nothing else, I think what this time can do for us is simply to draw us a little closer to the vulnerabilities and the struggles of the masses of our human population. As one of my neighbors recently said, “We’ve been in a recession for hundreds of years.” Maybe it’s an opportunity for us to ask ourselves questions about the ways that we are living and the things that are going to bring us life.

BM: In many peoples’ minds, Christianity in America has been too closely tied to capitalism (televangelists, megachuches, etc). People might be surprised to know that you were affiliated with Willow Creek - one of the biggest megachurches in the world. What is your opinion of megachurches or churches with huge, multi-million dollar operating budgets?

SC: I was totally stunned when I got to Willow Creek. Two weeks before I had been in Calcutta, and then I went to Willow and it was heartbreaking, puzzling and troubling. I mean, there I was trying to process my time in Calcutta while sitting in the food court in Willow. But I was also amazed by the genuineness in the imagination that I found there. For instance, I was wondering: Why do we have a food court? And the answer was that they didn’t want people to just go out to Chili’s or Friday’s, but to eat in the building here, together. And the money they get from the food court goes toward world hunger relief. And recently they’ve really done some incredible work in moving toward fair trade, raising questions about where our food comes from, and things like that.

Having said that, I think there is an inherent problem in the ways that the megachurches have grown. It necessitates that we spend large amounts of money on buildings and staffing for ourselves. And statistics are very consistently showing that just because you have a larger congregation doesn’t mean that you can do more or even give more. So there’s a myth that we need to dispel that if we just grow more we can do more. I think that was part of the temptation Jesus had in the desert. The people in his time were fascinated by the megachurch. They marveled at the temple. In the hunger for the megachurch - and I think it’s a cultural hunger for big and supersized things - we end up losing the very thing we most long for: community, intimacy. To love and be loved doesn’t get easier in a bigger congregation. It gets harder. So now the curriculum coming out of megachurches is how to get people into small groups, which I think is hilarious. Small groups in megachurches!

The other thing I would say is that the great tragedy is not that rich folks don’t care about poor folks; it’s that rich folks don’t know poor folks. Beneath it all is a relational disconnect between the rich and the poor. I think that’s really where things have to start. It’s where Jesus started - by moving into the neighborhood. It’s “God with us.” He was born into genocide. He lived on the margins, close to the poor, and he was poor. And this changes the conversation - the conversation about whether or not we are going to get a heated baptistry radically changes when you have a sister congregation in El Salvador that doesn’t even have water or a roof on their building. It has to start with relationships. That’s why Willow and other congregations are doing Jubilee campaigns where they might match dollar-for-dollar what they spend internally to provide water access to a country that needs it. Those are good things and I applaud that. I don’t want to be so stringent as to say that every capital campaign is a sin or something. People are going to build buildings. But if they do it, I think they should at least have a Jubilee campaign, loving their neighbors as themselves.

BM: Shifting gears a little bit: Do you feel weird about being a Christian celebrity? Even if you don’t call yourself that, the truth is that you are a well-known figure and a sort of brand. How do you feel about this?

SC: I tend not to think a whole lot about it. But one of the prayers that I’ve prayed for a long time is, “God, forgive me for thinking too highly of myself. God, forgive me for thinking too lowly of myself. God, forgive me for thinking of myself so stinkin’ much.” We try to be faithful to Jesus, whether that wins us an award or gets us thrown in jail, whether it sells 10 books or 10 million. Mother Teresa put it beautifully when she said, “We’re not called to be successful but to be faithful.” And faithfulness for some people has gotten them killed and for other people it’s gotten them a book deal. To me, I try to stay very grounded in Jesus and in my community. Community keeps us honest and accountable to who we say we are and what we say we’re about. And I also think that to whom much is entrusted much is expected. I try to be really responsible with my travel and have people offset the carbon footprint of my travel by not using fuel for that week before I come. Not only do these things allow me to speak with integrity but it also allows others to think critically about the things that we’re talking about. Our ideologies and our beliefs demand something of us. So I don’t just want to go out and write books and preach sermons but I want to have something that I can show for the beliefs that I have.

BM: Do you ever think that the “alternative” lifestyles - the dreads, piercings, tattoos, etc. - associated with the “ordinary radical” lifestyle might make it difficult if you want to get soccer moms on board? Is there too much of an image or trendiness that goes along with social justice that makes it alienating to the straight-laced crowd who might otherwise want to get involved?

SC: One of the things I’m trying to do in the position I’m in right now is to use it as an opportunity to celebrate all the things that God is doing - and I really think the Spirit is moving in the world now. It’s so exciting. So a lot of what I’m doing now is collaborative - things that point people to a diverse movement of what God’s doing in the church right now. We have a website called “Community of Communities” that’s connecting the dots of intentional communities. We’ve got a magazine called Conspire that tells stories and creates an open forum for people to share their ideas and what they’re doing. We literally have people like 60 years old to 16 years old who have written for Conspire from six different countries and all different walks of life. And this sort of cooperation mentality is true of most of the things I’m doing right now.

The things I’m writing right now, for example, are with other people. They’re collaborative. I like to talk about harmonizing without homogenizing, and I think that that’s happening. There are a lot of great voices out there, and they’re not all just white men. Right now I’m writing a book with one of my heroes, John Perkins, called Follow Me to Freedom. He would say it’s about leadership and I would say it’s about followership, because I really think we need to be learning from people who have different lived experiences than we do and can help us understand God and how to live. And we need to be teaching the things we know to other people. So the Ordinary Radicals film is exciting to me because it shows a lot of different people doing things where they’re at. We want to get their voices out there, and that’s what I want to continue to do. I’m amazed by how broadly there seems to be a renewal in the church, and I avoid any branding like “emergent” or whatever. I was in New Mexico a few weeks ago with a thousand Catholics and mainliners; I was in Mennonite country and rode in an Amish buggy in Amish-land, where they’ve been talking about these things forever. If you think of anything new - like running your car on veggie oil - probably the Mennonites are already doing it. So how do we learn from them and celebrate that?

I’m excited that there are soccer moms and military folks getting involved. I don’t want to be preaching to the choir and I don’t want to write people off. All of us are a work in progress. And when it comes to simplicity, it can’t be about guilt. I think guilt can be an OK indicator that things are wrong, but it’s a terrible motivator and sustainer for any sort of long-term change. I’m very aware that progressive folks, liberal folks and social justice folks can be pretty self-righteous and have this Phariseeism that’s different than the conservative side. The conservative might say “I never smoke or drink” while the liberal says “I only eat organic” or “I would never drive an SUV,” but it’s basically the same thing. What’s exciting is that we have a Jesus who is trying to show us life to the fullest - that it’s not just about being moral and keeping rules but it’s about coming to life. Christ didn’t just come to make bad people good but to bring dead people to life. No matter where we’re at, I think we are increasingly aware that there are ghettos of poverty and extreme affluence that are suffocating us and not allowing us to be freed up to the life that God wants us to have.

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Issue Highlights

  • In God We Trust?

    Five biblical lessons for believers during an economic recession

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