What Shane Claiborne (& Mother Teresa!) Got Wrong: On Being the Body of Christ with Imperfect Bodies

Last spring, I heard a terrific talk from Shane Claiborne at the Festival of Faith & Writing. Claiborne, a prominent voice in progressive Christian circles, lives in Philadelphia’s inner city, where he and the other inhabitants of the Simple Way community practice a “new monasticism.” They value hospitality and communal living, seek to build relationships with those living in their neighborhood, and are concerned with issues around poverty and wealth, power and violence. From the descriptions I’ve read, the Simple Way practices similar values to the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., where I worshiped for most of my 20s. The Church of the Saviour had the unusual distinction of taking both Jesus and social justice seriously. It was a community in which I was comfortable speaking like an evangelical, while voting and approaching social issues like an Episcopalian.

Listening to Claiborne speak back in April about justice and love and how our stories illuminate God’s kingdom, I felt at home. Here was the kind of guy I used to worship with in my earnest urban-dwelling days. His message, his words, and his stories felt intimate, familiar, and inspiring.

That is, except for this one story:

During Claiborne’s time with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, he noticed, when Mother Teresa took her shoes off for daily prayer, that her feet were knobby and deformed. He eventually asked someone what was wrong with Mother Teresa’s feet. The person explained that Mother Teresa and her sisters relied on donations for everything, including their shoes. When a load of donated shoes would come in, Mother Teresa consistently chose the worst pair of shoes for herself. As a consequence of wearing substandard shoes, her feet had deteriorated.

Eyes shining, Shane Claiborne asked all of us in the audience that April night, “What would the world be like if we all chose the worst pair of shoes for ourselves?”

It was a rhetorical question, the answer clear: The result would be unequivocally good. Claiborne was talking about shoes, but obviously, he was talking about more than shoes. He was talking about the radical power of sacrificial love.

While I can’t argue with the radical power of sacrificial love, I would answer Claiborne’s question very differently.

Question: What would the world be like if we all chose the worst pair of shoes for ourselves?

Answer: We would all have messed-up feet, and would struggle to be of service to anyone because our feet would hurt so damn much.

Claiborne was, of course, speaking symbolically. Nevertheless, the story was about Mother Teresa’s very real, very non-symbolic feet. I can’t speak for Mother Teresa. I don’t know if her feet hurt. If they did, I don’t know if she ever struggled mightily to keep on walking and serving and tending in spite of that pain, or if she had the mental fortitude to block it out.

I do know, however, that my feet frequently hurt. As do my knees, my hips, and my back. And this pain, far from being a symbolic self-sacrifice is just…well…a pain. And it very much affects what I can and can’t do, for my family and for God’s people.

Claiborne’s job that night was to tell stories that might draw us closer to understanding our place in the ultimate story, in which God is calling us to work that will bring God’s kingdom closer to reality. But what I heard in the Mother Teresa story didn’t come across as good news. What I heard were assumptions, the same tired old assumptions, about what kinds of bodies are required to do the real work of the kingdom.

Assumption 1: Our bodies’ needs (for a decent pair of shoes, for example) are not important as we consider how to minister with others and respond to God’s call.

Assumption 2: Bodily pain and disability doesn’t (shouldn’t?) influence what we are willing to do for God and God’s people.

Generally speaking, of course, the people who make such assumptions are those whose bodies are robust, healthy, and largely pain-free. And given that many popular, charismatic, high-profile people who are leading our national conversations about how to build up God’s kingdom are young, energetic folk like Shane Claiborne, it becomes easy to assume that robust, healthy, pain-free bodies are the norm. But they’re not. There are lots of people like me, who have some clear physical or psychological disability that significantly influences what our bodies and spirits can and cannot do. And then there is our rapidly aging population of people who were once robust, healthy, and pain-free, but who are becoming arthritic, hobbled, and hunched.

Do our models of Christian service adequately encompass people whose bodies don’t work all that well, who live with chronic pain, who can’t even think about accepting the worst pair of shoes because without decent shoes they can’t walk? No, they don’t. Even in the progressive Christian circles in which I feel most at home—circles in which we strive to name and chip away at class and race and gender barriers—we often fail to even acknowledge how life with a failing, broken, pain-filled, or disabled body can drastically alter what we can and can’t do in the name of God and out of sacrificial love. Despite being very aware of the privileges that come along with class, race, or gender, we still largely fail to recognize how often the privilege of a healthy, functional body is simply assumed.

Furthermore, we tend to look up to those willing to forgo various bodily comforts and securities as models of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in 21st-century America. We look up to people like Chris Travis, who wrote a book about spending two years teaching in a dangerous, failing urban middle school. We look up to people like Shane Claiborne and his companions, living communally in inner-city Philadelphia. We look up to people like Ann Voskamp, who lives among “gravel roads and cornfields,” homeschooling her six children and writing while her husband farms. In the Church of the Saviour community where I first tested out my adult faith, I worshiped alongside people who chose to live in D.C.’s roughest neighborhoods even though they could afford to live elsewhere, who regularly traveled to impoverished nations for various service projects, who biked everywhere wearing their “One Less Car” t-shirts.

It is folly for me, dwelling in my broken and fragile body, to aspire to such ways of living.

I cannot teach in an unruly middle school as Chris Travis did. He received a bruise to the face in a skirmish that would have likely left me with several broken bones.

I cannot live in an impoverished urban neighborhood where biking, walking, and busing are the primary modes of transportation. I can’t bike. I can walk only limited distances. I can’t negotiate a city bus easily, particularly if I’m carrying anything. My minivan—that ultimate symbol of the gas-guzzling, convenience-loving, wasteful American way of life—is an instrument of freedom for me.

My body’s limitations require me to live by a fairly strict calculus of energy conservation. I have learned through trial and error that if I want to have energy to do what is important as well as what is necessary, I cannot: hang clothes out to dry (I use the dryer), walk to do my errands (I drive), grow my own vegetables (I buy them), frequent several different stores to get the most sustainably grown and/or least expensive food (I can barely handle one or two grocery runs per week), cook meals entirely from scratch (I rely on a combination of from-scratch and convenience foods), attend lengthy gatherings at which I will be forced to either sit or stand for very long periods (either one leaves me hurting), and…I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

I’m not looking for sympathy. I live a comfortable, happy, and quite privileged life with my family. No, I can’t go live in a developing nation where good medical care is not assured, work on an organic farm, or teach an unruly group of teenagers. But I can write. I can raise my children. I can lay my hands on hurting people in my church’s weekly offering of healing prayer. (Although I’ll also point out that no one ever holds up the life of a minivan-driving, suburban-dwelling, stay-at-home mother as an example of sacrificial love and authentic ministry—an observation for another post.)

These efforts are enough and more than enough. I know that. They are more than enough, because they are the works to which God has called me. Me. And there are many vital works that bring God’s kingdom closer without need of muscle and bone—all kinds of art, prayer, tangible comforts offered to those who are sick or grieving.

Shane Claiborne sees the wearing of flimsy shoes as an inspiring example of sacrificial service. I see it as either terrible stewardship of one’s perfectly good feet (for my skeletally healthy brothers and sisters), or an impossibility (for me). (In fact, my disability requires me to buy expensive shoes with good support, and then plunk down an additional $100 per pair to have the shoes altered for my crooked body and screwy feet). But the wonderful thing, about God’s kingdom is that there’s room for both me and Shane Claiborne within it. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work…Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized byone Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” — from 1 Corinthians 12. Confronted daily with the reality of a body whose parts are most definitely not all healthy or strong, I am perhaps better acquainted than more able-bodied believers with just what a perfect metaphor the human body is for the variety of gifts with which God equips us for ministry.

Nevertheless, in progressive Christian circles, certain kinds of work still tend to get the good press—active, uncomfortable, slightly dangerous work. This is precisely the type of work that people with many kinds of disabilities, as well as aging Christians learning to live with bodies that don’t operate as they used to, cannot do. The vibrant presence of those with far-from-healthy bodies in our faith communities requires that we get serious about honoring the full diversity of gifts and ministries, and not just the most active gifts and ministries that make for the most gripping stories.

It’s unlikely that a speaker will regale thousands of listeners with stories of prayer-shawl knitting at the next Festival of Faith and Writing. But we can still be intentional about honoring the many ways that all of God’s people can help advance God’s kingdom—even those whose screwed-up feet are, by necessity, covered with a really great (and pricey) pair of shoes.


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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://www.dorothygrecophotography.com dorothy greco

    I’d clap if you could hear me. Very insightful and relevant for me (also quite limited in body but not spirit).

  • http://www.purepiano.com Jeff Bjorck

    Well said.

    My wife and I attend a seniors’ Sunday School class with my 84-year-old mother, to help her have more sense of connection as Alzheimer’s Disease slowly disconnects her. A week or two ago, we were talking about health, and SEVERAL of these elderly folks literally said, “If you don’t have good health, you can’t do anything.” I was truly taken aback.

    Human denial is amazing and can apparently last until we are at death’s door in our last years, as evidenced by the anecdote above. I agree fully with you that the Church actually helps perpetuate the myth that, not only is physical health needed for truly serving God, but it is an assumed result of being right with God. We seem to forget that Paul told Timothy to take a little wine as medicine for his infirmity and did not scold him for his lack of faith, or that Luke was a physician (what? Christians need physicians?).

    And mostly, we simply forget that our “bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit,” which means that we should take care of our “temples,” not abuse them “for the kingdom.” Indeed, self-care should be a form of good stewardship and even worship as we seek to be all the God intended each of us to be, no matter what disabilities we have. Doing so means accepting our disabilities and limitations as part of living in a broken world, and working within that context as we strive to be lights.

    Thank you again for your excellent essay. I hope many more read it.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thanks for all of those insights. I am likewise dismayed by the idea that if you don’t have good healthy, you can’t do anything. But I also understand how people could get the impression that the only activities that matter are those undertaken by robustly healthy young people. So often, those endeavors are the ones that get all the “good press,” so to speak.

  • http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com Jenny Rae Armstrong

    Love it, Ellen. Down with the martyr worship! I get particularly sensitive when children get pulled into these expectations–been there, done that, as a missionary kid in the 80s. Sacrifice JUST for the sake of sacrifice is unneccessary and sometimes harmful, particularly when it’s legalistically forced on people who don’t have the resources to deal with the expectations being put forth.

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      “Down with the martyr worship!” You’re such an iconoclast, Jen! Hand me a hammer and I’ll join you.


    • Dave

      > Down with the martyr worship!

      Jesus was a martyr.

      • http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com Jenny Rae Armstrong

        Well, yes. A pithy response, but we don’t worship Jesus for being a martyr, do we? We worship him for being God, and thank him for his sacrifice on our behalf. I was talking about the tendency among many Christians to be over-awed with people who make righteous-looking sacrifices, whether they are necessary and helpful or not. That was the world I grew up in, and it WASN’T healthy. Sacrifice is sometimes necessary and asked of us, but it’s not an end in itself.

        • Dave

          > but we don’t worship Jesus for being a martyr, do we?

          You mean Jesus could have just snacked on cookies for our sins?

          > the tendency among many Christians to be over-awed with people who make righteous-looking sacrifices, whether they are necessary and helpful or not.

          They are always helpful, if only as examples to others. As to whether they are necessary or not sometimes cannot be determined until later. For example, a person who falls on a grenade can’t tell in advance whether the grenade would actually have killed anyone after it exploded — everyone might have already been slightly out of range.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    “… the people who make such assumptions are those whose bodies are robust, healthy, and largely pain-free.” This reminds me of something one of my Environmental Studies professors said decades ago: “Environmentalism is a full-stomach phenomenon.” He explained that it’s hard for someone who is worrying about where the next meal is coming from to care one whit for the environment.

    It’s like that with ministry, too, but in reverse. It’s hard for those of us who are healthy and robust (I’ll skip the youthful part!) to keep in mind that God’s people who are otherwise can’t engage in sacrifice in the same way we do, yet sacrifice they do. It takes an awareness that comes from experience and the Holy Spirit’s guidance in understanding the various ways God calls people to living sacrifice for his kingdom. Thanks for helping us with that awareness, Ellen. Well done.


    P.S. I’ve seen a related issue in the courtroom too when it comes to how some people are unable to participate in the same way as those who are more physically able. When I first got on the bench 17 years ago, my bailiff used to call court into session with the words “All rise and come to order … .” It’s a very solemn and effective ritual. Then one day I noticed a man in a wheel chair who remained rooted to his seat as everyone around him stood. I decided right then that I would never again purposefully create a courtroom environment that excluded someone like that man from participating in the civic process. From that day I instructed my bailiff to call out “Remain seated and come to order … .” It’s just as solemn and works just as effectively. And everyone gets to participate in the opening of the court day.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      LOVE that courtroom story, Tim. There are indeed many daily instances of people assuming a certain level of physical ability, without realizing it, and it can make a huge difference to someone with physical limitations when someone recognizes such an assumption and does away with it.

  • http://jesusscribbles.wordpress.com/ Emily

    This was just wonderful and timely. Thanks!

  • Priscilla Hooper

    This was excellent. It reminded me of how we have to take care of ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually to be of any good to anyone. Shane obviously wasn’t a proponent of clergy wellness.

  • http://bellaverita.wordpress.com Angela

    Wow, I loved this post, Ellen. As the mother of a child with special needs & daughter of a mother with Alzheimer’s, this resonates with me immensely, for their sake & mine. I used to struggle with how to balance serving in the church, when the needs of my family are so great at times. There are things I simply can’t do & that isn’t always understood.

    I came to realize that a huge part of my ministry & calling is in tending the people I’m blessed to have around me. It’s not something seen and it can be difficult seeing people in the church mostly championed for the great & visible acts of service. But, I have to say I’m grateful for the opportunities that God has brought that seem to fit my life, such as a bit of writing. Excellent post. Thank you!

  • Dave

    > Answer: We would all have messed-up feet, and would struggle to be of service to anyone because our feet would hurt so damn much.

    Unless really good shoes were really plentiful, then no one would have messed-up feet.

    But since good shoes weren’t really plentiful for Mother Theresa’s followers, it might be that her taking the worst pair of shoes was not a symbolic sacrifice, but a form of fairness. “Equalizing everyone’s suffering”, if you will.

    So, for example, if there were 100 people and a load of 50 shirts came in, I presume the men would go shirtless and give the shirts to the women. For Mother Theresa, the condition of her feet might not have been a big deal to her, so she equalized the suffering by giving the better shoes to others.

    On the flip side, if someone was in pain due to a foot disability, then I think that “equalizing everyone’s suffering” would mean ensuring that they got the best pair of shoes.

  • http://Www.kewp.blogspot.com Katherine Willis Pershey

    Great piece, Ellen.

    I am so grateful for your writing ministry, which invariably opens my eyes to new truths. Thank you.

  • Miriam

    “My minivan—that ultimate symbol of the gas-guzzling, convenience-loving, wasteful American way of life…”

    no, that would be the SUV. I read a book once about marketing and cars and did you know that folks with minivans tend to be more concerned with community welfare and sharing then people who own SUV’s? the car market research people say so!

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      Good point, Miriam. We bought our first minivan before we had kids. We were doing youth ministry and knew it would be useful. We also have made a habit of loaning out the minivans (now on our second) whenever someone needs it for driving a bunch of people to a retreat or just for extra capacity errands around town. It’s got to be one of the most useful investments we’ve ever made.

  • J

    Yes! Yes! Yes!!!! Ellen, you are speaking truth and blessing many with your ministry! Oh, what a GREAT way to start the day! Appreciate you!!

  • Dave

    Ellen, thank you for your post; it’s been something interesting to think about for the past few days.

    In my opinion:

    The sacrifice made by a soldier who falls on a grenade is praiseworthy because it helps his team accomplish their mission.

    The sacrifice made by Mother Theresa (picking the worst pair of shoes) is praiseworthy because it helped her to accomplish her mission. I think that her reputation for “picking the worst pair of shoes for herself” helped her to get the funding and materials she did in order to help India’s poor.

    The sacrifices that you make (extra time and money spent dealing with OI including having to pay extra for shoes you can walk in, drug side effects, extra pain for ordinary activities, etc) are praiseworthy because they help you accomplish your mission (“But I can write. I can raise my children. I can lay my hands on hurting people in my church’s weekly offering of healing prayer”).

    > … no one ever holds up the life of a minivan-driving, suburban-dwelling, stay-at-home mother as an example of sacrificial love and authentic ministry …

    I think I did just hold up your life as a minivan-driving, suburban-dwelling, stay-at-home mother as an example of sacrificial love and authentic ministry. :)

    > We look up to people like Chris Travis, who wrote a book about spending two years teaching in a dangerous, failing urban middle school.

    And we look up to people like Ellen Painter Dollar, who wrote a book … :)

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Aw shucks, Dave…

      Seriously, thank you for that affirmation. I certainly did not write this as a way to fish for reassurance about my own life and lifestyle, but rather to point out ways that Christians can adopt the same worship of youthful, healthy bodies as the wider culture, and to question why we see physical sacrifices as particularly holy.

      But I appreciate the reassurance nonetheless.

  • Dave

    > … worship of youthful, healthy bodies …

    … and of taller bodies!

    I hope you won’t look down on me for pointing out that we both used the phrase “we look up to people” to express respect.

  • Hannah

    Thank you for this article. I also have physical limitations that include diabetes and hurting, arthritic feet. I too am grateful for my car and do the best I can with the limitations that God has allowed in my life. He can use us where we are, as we are, to accomplish His purposes.

  • http://mashenahope.blogspot.com Nicole

    Thank you for this! I spend a lot of time thinking about fatness and its intersection with theology and “good Christian living” – and I’m learning there are numerous intersections with “ableism.” Bookmarking this to re-read later! :)