Shane Claiborne

Last night Fran and Rhiannon and I drove up to Berry College outside of Rome, GA to hear Shane Claiborne speak. Shane is the author of a wonderful book called The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (I’ve been meaning to write a review of it and just haven’t gotten to it yet; for now let’s just say it’s a book that belongs on your “must read” list). A leading figure in the neo-monastic movement, Shane is a co-founder of a small intentional community in Philadelphia, where he lives the gospel in the tradition of the Catholic Worker movement and the ministry of Mother Teresa (with whom we spent a summer). His book combines his life story with an insightful and accessible presentation of the gospel mandate for sharing and hospitality as core Christian virtues, with some plain old fashioned storytelling thrown in just to keep it interesting.

Shane is as fun and warm in person as he comes across on the pages of his book. With the physique of a preying mantis, horn-rimmed glasses, dreadlocks, and a goatee, he is hardly the image of a nice young white middle class evangelical. But as we discovered in his talk, his goal in life is to be — and to encourage all Christians to join him in being — the “spit’n image” of Christ. Shane explained that spit’n image is a corruption of “spirit and image,” suggesting that when one is the spit’n image of someone, they carry that person’s likeness inside as well as out.

His message basically covered the same ground as the book, keeping the audience’s attention with a down-home Tennesee accent (Shane hails from east Tennessee, not far from where we were last night) and plenty of humor. Particularly memorable is the story of his grandfather’s truck that caught fire when hauling hay one time (the story’s also in the book, so I won’t attempt to recount it here. Go buy the book!)

As someone who’s closing in on my half-century mark, it was a treat for me to hear a young man who must be barely over thirty share the gospel imperative for hospitality and restructuring our society to a chapel full of college students, here in the heart of a “red state.” It gives me hope. And part of Claiborne’s charm is that he never resorts to guilt-tripping or attacking in his efforts to get the message across. Even when, as he recounts in one memorable story (also in the book), he was arrested for distributing Holy Communion in a public park (at the time Philadelphia had an ordinance against distributing food in public), he notes how he was able to forge friends with both the police officers and the judge who presided over the case (he didn’t quite win over the prosecuting attorney; the fact that he accidentally called her the “persecutor” probably didn’t help matters).

Over the course of a sixty-minute talk and a q&a afterwards, Shane realizes he’s not going to change lives, so he kept his message upbeat and gentle. With a bible in his hand, he asks of his Christian-college audience, “What would happen if we really lived by this book?” But for me, the most brilliant moment of the evening came during the q&a, when one student asked him to comment on how Christians should approach the question of homosexuality. Here, Shane proved himself a brilliant tactician (and/or a true prophet). He never directly answered the question, knowing that to do so would mean — no matter what he said — an instant loss of credibility with a huge portion of the audience. Instead, he admits that different members of his own community hold divergent perspectives on this question. “As Christians we need to learn to disagree well,” he said. He also noted that it was important to put a human face on issues like “the gay question,” and finally that, as Billy Graham once said, it was the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and so our job is simply to love. “We need to remember not to overstep our job description.”

Sure, I would have loved a more definitive answer from him. But to what end: so I could either applaud him or condemn him? By refusing to give me such an answer, he gave me (and everyone else there) the gift of not having to judge him — and also a glimpse of how the larger community of faith might learn to work through this and other polarizing issues.

So if Shane Claiborne comes to your home town, go hear him speak. And in the meantime, get the book, and read it. Through it, the Holy Spirit will convict you. But in a good way.

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  • phil foster

    His answer about “the homosexual question” is the scriptural/early church answer. On 2 grounds: 1) there is nothing definitive about homosexuality in the Bible, especially the NT and 2) hospitality is a core spiritual practice.

  • Darrell Grizzle

    If Shane were alive in 1860 and gave a similar non-answer to “the slavery question,” would we applaud him?

    His answer, however brilliantly diplomatic, shows that he is definitely NOT a prophet. A prophet is one who speaks the truth, regardless of whom he might lose credibility with – whether slave owners in the 1860′s or homophobes today.

  • Carl McColman

    I hear you, Darrell. But compare your analogy to Paul’s letter to Philemon. Sometimes God works through baby-steps, too.

  • Darrell Grizzle


  • Peter

    I like Darrell’s definition of a prophet: one who speaks the truth no matter who likes it or doesn’t.

    I don’t think we can make agreement on “the gay question” a condition of fellowship or conversation. or we would lose a lot of valuable interaction with those who differ from our side of that question. [For example, Shane probably does have a definite view on this issue, even if he is good at sidestepping or avoiding it. It would not be wise to categorically dismiss his prophetic voice in other areas because of a possible impasse on this one.] This applies to a lot of other pressing issues too!

    Phil is right to identify hospitality as a core spiritual practice. It is very tricky to remain hospitable to those who refuse to be hospitable to people we love! This is a dilemma I face daily and for which I have not found the magic solution yet.

    I continue to appreciate the openness of this forum [and of the Open Heart Bible Reading too, especially when that was more active] when it comes to issues so inherently divisive as this one. The Anglicans and Episcopalians in particular enjoy a heritage of tolerance and inclusiveness that is not based on complete agreement. Conflict over what we see as truth may be inevitable, but let’s keep the spirit of hospitality alive and well, according to the New Testament commandment: “As far as possible, live at peace with all men.”

    Peace and love to all (in sincerity),

  • Carl McColman

    I would say that Shane was being diplomatic, not prophetic, when he refused to answer the question directly. He was being prophetic when he said that church needs to learn how to disagree well. We are seeing various bodies, from the Lutherans to the Methodists to the Anglicans, at risk of being ripped apart because of our inability to disagree; while other churches (including my own) attempt to maintain unity by stifling dissent. In all these cases, I believe the inability to disagree well is a place where the devil is hard at work. I also, quite frankly, believe it is those who fear or hate gay people who are simultaneously the most incapable of disagreeing well.

  • zoecarnate

    What a good conversation. I agree with Darrell that prophecy trumps diplomacy; I would add to Carl’s insight that Shane could well have been being ‘incrementally prophetic’ in dislodging the hearts and minds of many in that room in that even Shane’s acknowledgment that the Christian family has different perspectives on homosexuality is an altogether novel thought for these folks. You may balk at this–surely these students are aware of the debates that have been raging endlessly in Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal and (even) Catholic churches? Maybe, but you need to understand: For many of these evangelical students, those people aren’t even real Christians. Forget accepting gay Christians for a moment–these people were already being stretched accepting Catholic Christians! I should know…I’m a Berry alum. I think Shane did a great job establishing with his life credibility as a “true believer” they could relate to…then demolishing many of their stereotypes about wealth, militarism, patriotism and war, Catholics, the poor, and (yes, even) gay people. I personally would have liked a bit more volume on both war and gay people, but I understand why he took the tone he did that night. It’s heartening that Chaplain Dale will be following up Shane’s one-off visit with a community reading of Irresistible Revolution and practical/creative ways of implementation. It gives me hope for my alma mater, that a Christ-centered spirituality could begin to flourish that transcends conservative-liberal divides, that has Love at her center.

  • Darrell Grizzle

    Zoe, the concept of being “incrementally prophetic” is a new one to me, but I love it. I can see Shane’s words as being incrementally prophetic, if not fully prophetic. And that may very well be Shane’s calling. We’re not all called to be prophets (thank Goddess).

  • Jason Aubrey

    Carl et. al. – Krista Tippett did a great interview with Shane on her public radio program “Speaking of Faith.” You can subscribe to the show via iTunes (or at the website for the show) if your local public radio station doesn’t carry it. Also, check out her episode on Rumi, it was also really great.

  • Phil Bradshaw

    I say Shane was being unloving to himself, the environment (“mother earth”), all people on the earth but especially to the word of God by not speaking the truth in love about homosexuality. You might say that homosexuality is not his ministry, fine, but if your gonna dress like Jesus and look like Jesus on the outside he better know about Jesus’ word. I can appreciate Shane for what he does. I mean sure we all need to be concern for the poor and actively help out, but we also need to balance that with the fact that Jesus was more concerned about the Kingdom to come. And this Kingdom to come is about sharing the gospel which has a little nasty and unpopular aspect to it called sin. People dont want to be talked to about their sin and their depravity, but yet that is the very thing that one must come to terms with if they are to be reconciled to a holy and just God.

    The whole benevolence thing is only a bi-product of the Christian faith not to be confused with the whole monastic, self abnegating thing.

    Ten years from now I hope to see Shane a little more matured in the faith and preaching like the preachers of old, making disciples of Christ to all the nations.

  • Carl McColman

    Phil, you sound like someone who really is devoted to seeking the truth of the Gospel — a quality I admire in anyone. But as Shane says, “Christians need to learn how to disagree well,” and based on your comment I suspect that you and I might disagree considerably in terms of how we understand Christ’s message, as well as what constitutes true Christian sexual morality. You might find it worthwhile to read a book by a New Testament scholar named William Countryman, called Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. It is a solidly Biblical study of a number of moral issues, including homosexuality, and I think once you read it you’ll have a clearer understanding of where Christians like Shane (and me) are coming from.

  • judith collier

    Why all the focus on other peoples’ sins. If homosexuals are truly homosexuals(not just visiting) then the question is, what do they do about their sex lives? Should we as christians tell them “never do that again” or you will burn in hell. Tell a heterosexual he/she can never have sex again, see what answer you get. I thought even if a man(or woman) lusts in their hearts that it was sin. Not all people are called to be celibate,not even half of them. I remember being young and passionate, therefore I am incapable of asking others to do more than was asked of me unles I possess the magic formula and I don’t. At least I could get married. judy

  • Carl McColman

    Amen, Judy.

  • Another World is Possible

    Hey if you’re a fan of Shane Claiborne and his book, then you should really check out the Another World is Possible DVD series. It’s a multimedia project by Shane Claiborne and Jamie Moffett (co-founders of the Simple Way) that emerged in response to their belief that things are not right in the world, and that they don’t have to stay that way. There are three DVD’s, one on war, one on poverty, and one on creation. You can find out more about them at

  • 4854derrida


    I’ve just uploaded two rare interviews with the Catholic activist Dorothy Day. One was made for the Christophers [1971]–i.e., Christopher Closeup– and the other for WCVB-TV Boston [1974].

    Day had begun her service to the poor in New York City during the Depression with Peter Maurin, and it continued until her death in 1980. Their dedication to administering to the homeless, elderly, and disenfranchised continues with Catholic Worker homes in many parts of the world.

    Please post or announce the availability of these videos for those who may be interested in hearing this remarkable lay minister.

    They may be located here:

    Thank you

    Dean Taylor

  • Me

    Homosexuality is an abomination in God’s eyes.. While it is not a Christian’s place to judge others, it IS our place to tell the truth.. Your surrendering to Jesus Christ will make you further understand what God really has in store for you. I’m not a homophobe… I have family members who are in the same position, nor am I here to judge… just here to say the truth.. God bless…

  • Carl McColman

    I think anyone who says “Homosexuality is an abomination in God’s eyes” but then protests “I’m not a homophobe,” is caught in the grip of fundamentalist doublethink. You may have fooled yourself into thinking that your stated agenda of being “just here to say the truth” is not judgmental, but I can assure you that others have a more accurate view of you than you appear to have of yourself.

  • Lover

    I find it a bit sad that the one thing people seem to be focusing on is what they don’t like about Shane’s response to “the gay question” as if he avoided giving a straight answer because he was afraid to. What he was trying to do was show that his opinion on the matter had very little to do with his status as a follower of Christ. As was said, the Bible is unclear on this issue, so he told everyone to agree to disagree. I find that to be a good answer, falling in with everything else he speaks and lives. (I also highly reccomend the book. It challenged my “comfortable Christianity” in a way that I love.)

  • Jason

    Since we are talking about things the Bible is or isn’t clear on, I would like to know where in the Bible it says we as humans/Christians should “agree to disagree.” I have always heard this phrase when people are discussing homosexuality, drinking alcohol, etc., but in my opinion this is a secular phrase that I can find no reference for in scripture. Inform me if this isn’t the case.

  • Carl McColman

    To the best of my knowledge the Bible nowhere says we should “agree to disagree.” And when Shane Claiborne said “Christians need to learn how to disagree well,” that’s something entirely different from merely agreeing to disagree.

    I think we need to be careful about this idea that if something isn’t in the Bible, it must be secular (and, by implication, not permitted). Assuming that the Bible does not permit honest debate is but a small step from saying “the person or group with the most power/influence/money/etc. gets to tell everyone else how to interpret the Bible.”

    Like it or not, conflict has always played an essential role in the intellectual history of humankind. If there had never been a Protestant Reformation (a conflict that was particularly bloody, especially given the age in which it occurred), there never would have been the emergence of Reformed ways of thinking about the Bible — let alone fundamentalist or literalist ways of interpreting scripture.