Interview with Shane Claiborne: Embracing the Margins

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shaneclaiborneA big thank you to Shane Claiborne for taking a few moments to talk about everything from the new monastic movement to how we see and treat those who are different than ourselves. I am convinced these are words we need to hear more and more in a world that is pushing people to the margins. As the margins grow so does the need for communities of faith in those areas. Shane doesn’t just teach this. He embodies it.

Matt: What does that mean for you when you talk about the new monastic movement?

Shane: Monasticism begins with mono which is like when Kierkegaard said, “to will one thing” which is to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It fuses together orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Right thinking and right living. Those are things we have often separated. When I think of some of the great renewals in the church I think of folks like St. Francis and Clare of Assisi who, through their lifestyle, were challenging the patterns of materialism and militarism and it affected the Christianity of their age. Those movements of renewing the church have happened throughout history. I think of the Catholic worker movement and Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and others.

The monastic folks have the spirit of being in the world but not of the world, sort of peculiar people who have gone to the desert to live on the margins of the empire. Sister Margaret, who is a mentor of mine, says the inner city is our contemporary desert. This is where we go to find God on the margins of the empire. This is where we go to build a new society in the shell of the old one. So we have been mentored from the very beginning by Catholic folks who are invigorating the best of the monastic spirit.

A few years ago we put together the twelve marks, twelve distinctive characteristics of the new monastic movement. These are things like: racial justice, environmental care, nonviolence.

Matt: There isn’t a cookie cutter that fits all of the early desert fathers but it seems to me one of the common themes you hear from them is that their withdrawal from urban centers that was in part due to a recognition of their own fleshliness and temptations. I hear them saying that they live in the wilderness because they knew that if they lived in the city they would probably not be living the kind of life God intended for them to live. What is it for you that draws you into urban life instead of away from it?

Shane: First, in response to your thoughts on leaving society. There is one big misunderstanding of the monastics leaving society. I don’t think that is it at all. I think they were going to the desert to build a new society and in a sense to build a new world, a new culture together where it was easier to be good and holy. Sister Margaret and others said the desert was filled with the most beautiful saints and the worst of sinners. So there were a lot of people there who were outlaws and outcasts. So it wasn’t like some Utopian world. It was a hard place but it was also where they found God. In some of the places our communities are like in Canton, New Jersey or in Kensington North Philadelphia where we have abandoned houses there is this struggle in a very real way of the light and darkness or the good and bad. The principalities and powers are here. You read the monastics and they talk about wrestling with demons. You see that in a way that I didn’t growing up in the hills of Tennessee or in the suburbs and cul de sacs.

We see God all the time here. People only hear bad things about our neighborhood. Kensington is known as the badlands. I always say you have to be careful when you call a place the badlands because that is exactly what they said about Nazareth. Nothing good can come from there. I think we see God in the margins. Jesus was born as a refuge in a manger and spent much of his life on the margins. He was crucified in the center of Jerusalem. We see that in Jesus and the early Christian movement.

The city chose me. I moved to Philadelphia to go to school at Eastern partly because I wanted to study the Bible and I also went to study sociology. I like how Karl Barth said we have to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other so that our faith doesn’t just become a ticket into heaven and a license to ignore the world around us.

Philadelphia caught my attention in 1995 when a group of homeless families were living in an abandoned cathedral. Even from the beginning they connected theology with what they were doing. They put a banner on the front of the cathedral that said, “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday.” Those families really opened my eyes to the city and that neighborhood has been my home ever since. We have been here twenty years building a little village that’s inspired by the monastic renewal and by the spirit of the early church where they shared everything in common. No one claimed their positions as their own.

Matt: You mentioned that being in east Tennessee or in places of more affluence, that you didn’t see these things there even though they were present. What is it that makes it so hard for us to see those things in the context of affluence?

Shane: We can ignore suffering no matter where we live. There are people who live a few miles from here who never see much poverty or the injustices that live on our doorstep. There is extreme poverty in Appalachia, where I was, and increasingly poverty is not just an urban thing. There are a lot of suburbs where there is great poverty.

When you look at Matthew 25 where Jesus is talking about the least of these, people asked when did we see you hungry or in prison. What I take away from that is that we can live and die and not choose to see people who are in prison or a stranger in need of a house or refugees…the choice to see is a choice. There are scriptures that point to that like in 1 John when he says how can I pass by my neighbor who is in need and not have compassion and say the love of God is in me. I like how someone once said being a Christian is not about having new ideas but having new eyes. This is the ability to have our hearts broken with the things that break the heart of God. That is part of what it means to be a Christian.

Matt: In Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death he talks about how we have professionalized and clinicalized suffering with the example of how we used to tend to our sick and home and when they died we buried them in the backyard. It was all very personal. Now people take them to hospitals away from where you can see the hurt and pain. We insulate ourselves from suffering. What advice would you give to churches that are in places where the suffering is present but maybe not something we see or choose to see? How can Christians and churches engage more in those areas?

Shane: We have a relational problem with those who are suffering or who are different from us. All of us are most comfortable around people who are like us culturally and economically. Jesus is challenging that when addressing “who is your neighbor” and he has a lot of hard things to say about family, “unless you hate your own family you are not going to be a disciple.” He is challenging the limits of our compassion and our love as if someone’s kid suffers it should be as devastating to us as if it were our own kid. That is what the early church said. If you have two coats you have stolen one. We have no right to have more than we need when someone else has less than they need.

This is something we see racially in the church as well. As Dr. King said, one of the most segregated hours in the world is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. We end up reinforcing segregation. We reinforce the walls rather than tear them down. That doesn’t change until our relationships change, until our dinner tables and living rooms change. Mother Theresa said it is very fashionable to talk about the poor but it is not as fashionable to talk to the poor. The question is, Do we know poor people? Matthew 25 says, if I was a stranger you welcomed me in. I was in prison and you visited me. These are very personal, relational acts of compassion. For a lot of wealthy folks, it is not that they don’t care about poor folks it is that they don’t know poor folks.

It is similar with race too. Sometimes our tunnel vision is limited to what we see outside our window. Until racial injustice becomes personal then I don’t think it moves us in our gut. What the Black lives matter movement is doing is they are making it personal. They are making it hash tagged, exposing the racial injustice that continues to haunt our country in a way that you can’t ignore. There is power in injustice becoming personal.

Matt: There seems to be a tendency in ministry of thinking that if we have a ministry for that then we are that kind of people or we are that kind of church. A church solution is not ultimately a personal solution. I think it starts around a table. There was the Corinthian church who had the socioeconomic divisions around the Lord’s table in 1 Corinthians 11 where the rich are going first and getting full and the poor are going last and it is so bad that Paul says they aren’t even taking the Lord’s supper any more. One thing I gathered from what you are saying is that if we started out around our own dinner table, not just thinking the church needs to take care of it on Sunday morning during that “most segregated hour” that even if we addressed it in the assembly or as a ministry that we still don’t have to take it or make it personal.

Shane: That is part of our critique of some of the charity and service work is that we can still keep relationships at a distance by creating programs that offer services but we don’t really create a reconciled community. That is the most radical thing the church is called to do. It is not just that Jesus ran programs for the poor but Jesus actually ate dinner with people. There is a difference between feeding someone and eating dinner with them. If every Christian at home just made room for the stranger we would end homelessness overnight. If every Christian family brought in a child who needed a family we would put the foster care system out of business.

When it comes to the big issues like immigration, everyone has a role. The government has a role. The church has a role. Every Christian has a role. We can run programs and still not have that kind of community. So Mother Theresa said it is not how much we give that is important but how much love you put into doing it. So it is not just how many units of housing we create or how good our health care system is, it is that people have someone to eat dinner with and that people have someone to hold their hand when they die. That is what we are called to do and it is the love of Christ. It is relationships. When we have those relationships we cannot help but to develop a heart for justice to care about why people are hungry. When one in three Black men are in prison, those larger systemic injustices become a part of what it means to love our neighbor as ourself. We care about dismantling institutional racism. That begins in relationships when you see injustice happen.

That is the power of the Eucharist. At the communion table you have rich and poor together in the early church and they were being challenged. We don’t actually have rich and poor together instead we have a family. What does it mean? If you have resources, you hold them with open hands. The mark of the early church was that they began sharing and it said there were no needy persons among them. They ended poverty as they created this new loving community. The Eucharist is a symbol of that as you have bread, the staple food of the poor, and wine, a luxury of the rich, which are brought together at the table. They both have in them things that are crushed: grain and grapes to become a new substance. Some people were getting to worship while others hadn’t gotten there yet so they were well fed at the love feast while other people had jobs and couldn’t come early. There was a class thing that was happening during the love feast that Paul is getting at that they weren’t waiting on everyone to get to the table and that is a disgrace.

Ghandi said in a world with so many hungry people it just makes sense that God would come as food. God sent the living bread and the living water in a world where there is so much thirst and so much hunger. We can super-spiritualize those but for many it made a lot of sense that God is bread and God is water as those are things that are killing people who don’t have them.

Matt: We are in an identity crisis in many of our churches trying to figure out who we are and what we are really all about. Christianity has lost some of its position, power and influence in the Western world and we had put so many eggs in that basket that as that is removed we are confused as to who we are. Jesus said that nothing grows unless a seed falls to the ground and dies. Only then will something else grow that is more what it should be. It seems to me we have fantastic opportunity to re-envision things. How do you see Christianity re-pointing things into the future?

Shane: The future of the church is also about looking back and looking at where we see these wonderful renewals and what we can learn from the early church. I think it is a really exciting time where Phyllis Tickle said every few hundred years the church needs a rummage sale where we can get rid of some of the clutter. We can also cling to the treasures of our faith and get rid of the things that are cluttering that. It is a time we are seeing some trending away from the things that were cluttering our faith. There is an innocence or purity that we see in renewals and in the Mennonite church and a new an invigorated civil rights movement. We see it in things like Moral Monday’s in North Carolina and in people like Traci Blackmon in Ferguson. It is a really exciting time to be alive.

So I have this certain reluctance when it comes to this idea that we are spiritual but not religious and we want Jesus but not the church. Why can’t we have both? With the early Christians you couldn’t have God as your father unless you have the church as your mother. This isn’t accepting the church as a perfect thing. It is as my friend said that when people say the church is full of hypocrites, he says we always have room for more. The world is looking, not for Christians who are perfect, but for Christians who are honest and who are willing to be honest with some of our contradictions and hypocrisy. The church is a place where broken people can fall in love with a beautiful God.


If you want to get to know Shane better check out the bio below. I have been blessed by reading his books and one of his best, Irresistable Revolution is being updated and expanded. He also has a new book on the death penalty coming out next year called Executing Grace.

Shane Claiborne graduated from Eastern University and did graduate work at Princeton Seminary. In 2010, he received an Honorary Doctorate from Eastern. His adventures have taken him from the streets of Calcutta where he worked with Mother Teresa to the wealthy suburbs of Chicago where he served at the influential mega-church Willow Creek. As a peacemaker, his journeys have taken him to some of the most troubled regions of the world – from Rwanda to the West Bank – and he’s been on peace delegations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Together with his friend Tony Campolo, Shane heads up Red Letter Christians, a movement of Christians committed to living out the lifestyle prescribed in the Gospels. Shane is also the visionary leader of The Simple Way, an organization in inner city Philadelphia that has helped birth and connect radical faith communities around the world. He is married to Katie Jo, a North Carolina girl who also fell in love with the city (and with Shane). They were wed in St. Edwards church, the formerly abandoned cathedral into which homeless families relocated in 1995, launching the beginning of the Simple Way community and a new phase of faith-based justice making.

Shane writes and travels extensively speaking about peacemaking, social justice, and Jesus. Shane’s books include Jesus for President, Red Letter Revolution, Common Prayer, Follow me to Freedom, Jesus, Bombs and Ice Cream, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers – and his classic The Irresistible Revolution. Shane’s newest book is Executing Grace (February 2016).

Shane has been featured in a number of films, including Another World Is Possible and The Ordinary Radicals. His books are translated into more than a dozen languages. Shane speaks over 100 times a year, nationally and internationally. His work has been published in Esquire Magazine, SPIN, Christianity Today, and The Wall Street Journal. He has appeared on Fox News, Al Jazeera, CNN, and NPR.  You can follow Shane on Twitter (@shaneclaiborne), Facebook (Shane Claiborne), and

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