James Stacey talks to Shane Claiborne, author of bestseller The Irresistible Revolution and a founder of The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community in inner-city Philadelphia, USA.
Thanks for giving us your time, Shane. You tell quite a bit of your own story in The Irresistible Revolution. Could you tell us about one or two of the turning points in your life?
The big one was in 1995. Some homeless families moved into a derelict cathedral in Philadelphia and began a struggle over their right to live there. When Philadelphia began to really criminalise homelessness it stirred our heart for justice; that was the catalyst for our community, The Simple Way.
A story you tell in The Irresistible Revolution.
Yeah. But I don’t know whether you know this: our first experiment with community involved buying a double-decker bus. Our ideal was to have a mobile, hospitality space for folks on the street, they could come and get their mail, they could get something to eat, network. But it was a disaster! Philadelphia isn’t built for double-decker buses. We couldn’t get it into Philadelphia, so we had to rethink our strategies. I always joke that our community began with a mistake.
Then when I went to Iraq in March 2003 there were huge moments, wrestling with the violence in our world, and how we’re called to non-violence.
The Simple Way came out of all this; tell me a little bit about where it’s at now. I understand you’ve made a distinction now between The Simple Way as a not-for-profit organisation and the community within that?
That’s right; we had to distinguish between them because we wanted to keep community a local expression – “this is what’s happening on our block”. And The Simple Way had got bigger than that. Some of the people on our block are involved in the other things that we’re doing, and some aren’t. It’s not at all a divorce or separation, but distinguishing between grass-roots community and larger concerns.
Our first experiment with community involved buying a double-decker bus
As The Simple Way, we’ve come to articulate who we are as “a web of subversive friends that are loving God and loving neighbours and following Jesus”. Of course, that includes the local thing, the community; in fact that’s the heart of it. We have a kind of village now; we started in one house and now we’ve got a dozen or so, all of them within walking distance of each other.
And we’ve had people live with us and then start other communities, we’ve got a magazine that we do, we’ve got a project called Friends without Borders which is trying to create a social network for reconciliation around the world. The Simple Way has grown quite a lot of appendages.
It says in The Simple Way’s “Foundation” that the community is committed to “always remembering to laugh”. What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you in community?
There are so many. One of my housemates climbed above my bunk – I was on the top bunk about a foot from the ceiling – and plastered a full-size picture of George Bush above my bed. I woke up with him (George) literally lying on top of me. That was great; I’m really grateful for folks that know how to play hard even in the face of a lot of really difficult things we experience.
What would you say is the best thing and the worst thing about living in community?
Other people, in both cases!
It can be tough facing ourselves every day. It’s easier to hide when you live alone. Community brings us in touch with our own vulnerabilities and brokenness – but there’s also more to celebrate. I think you laugh harder, you cry harder, you hurt each other deeper – it’s a choice to live deeper. Community comes with more laughter and more tears.
Have you had those moments where you feel like running away and never coming back?
What do you say to young Christians looking for something to do with their lives?
I’m not sure there’s one answer; I think every person’s unique. Some are coming from a faith background, some are not. For some people I’d say “You need to be in community”, to others I’d say “You need to be alone”. I say: “Don’t give up on Christianity because of Christians; Jesus is bigger than the embarrassing things that we’ve done in His name.”
Don’t give up on Christianity because of Christians
I do think that to find community is a deep hunger in all of us; to find a group of people who look like what we want to become, who help us get closer to that – and ultimately to Jesus. I do – we do – call people to embrace Jesus and to embrace justice and reconciliation: all the things which are on God’s heart. A big part of our message is that we must connect our passion to the world’s pain, not flee the suffering of the world into our own bubble. We’re called to do something meaningful for God and for our neighbour.
I think Christianity thrives at the margins; when it’s in the centre it loses itself. Communal expressions of Christianity offer something the megachurch can’t. It’s the day of the micro church, the house church, and the idea that the gospel is lived out of homes and dinner tables and doesn’t need paid staff for it to work.
How do you combine building local community with international speaking tours? Are they in tension?
The simple answer to that is that we believe in mutual submission as a part of community – supporting each other in finding and living out our passions and gifts. I do that for other people and they do it for me. I have a “clearness committee” that discerns my travel plans with me. I don’t say yes to any engagement without them and I cap my travel days in any month.
My wife’s in that group, too!
The gospel is lived out of homes and dinner tables and doesn’t need paid staff for it to work
You mention your wife and that was my other question, which I’ll put provocatively: is it more difficult to be radical when you’re married?
Ask me in a year! I’ve only been married three months. I sometimes joke that I was single as long as Jesus was!
I think that marriage is one wonderful form of community and covenant – but not the only one. I’ve learned a lot through singleness. I’ve learned to love God and people through it. I think we have to celebrate singleness as a gift to the Church so I’ll continue to passionately ring that bell. But I think that marriage can also be radical – it’s actually very radical in our neighbourhood to have a good family, to have fathers, things like that. Our entire neighbourhood celebrated our wedding and will continue to celebrate our marriage with us.
Have you experienced heartbreaks or things that haven’t worked out or disappointments?
There are plenty of stories of trying to love people and them not making it off the streets, overdosing, or ending up in prison. But part of the gift of community is that we bear each other’s burdens; we’re carrying the load together so when those things happen we have a lot of arms to make it lighter. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have to carry a cross, it just means we have help carrying it. One of my friends says “Even Jesus didn’t carry His cross on His own, so we’d be pretentious to assume that we should.”
When it comes to disappointment with those I’m living and working with, I’ve learned not to box ourselves into a corner where everybody has to stay the way that they were when we started. We’ve got to allow ourselves to be malleable clay.
I moved into community with six people and I thought we’d live together for the rest of our lives in 32-34 Potter Street. That didn’t happen. But actually, it was right that it didn’t happen. There may even be heartbreak, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Sometimes we hold onto the forms of community rather than the spirit of it. We can be attached to “the way things are now” in an unhealthy way. Don’t get me wrong, I love it that we still have dinner each week with the people I started the community with. One of them has adopted two kids that used to live in the cathedral. Another is god-parenting a kid from the block who came out of a tough situation. And so on. I think actually it would have been a great shame to try to keep it all like it was when we started.
Sometimes we hold onto the forms of community rather than the spirit of it
These can be really hard decisions to make. Sometimes it is a failure when someone moves on; sometimes we just think it’s a failure; and sometimes it’s actually a failure if we try to keep them when they should be somewhere else.
Shane, come to dinner next time you’re in the UK!
I’d be delighted. It would be good to hear some of your stories.
Let me give you one of our trademark red crosses. They actually glow in UV lights; they’re popular in the clubs.
I’m officially branded for the Jesus Army – or for a club tonight. Thanks.
Shane, author of bestseller, The Irresistible Revolution, is described on the website http://thesimpleway.org as a “bestselling author, prominent Christian activist, sought-after speaker and recovering sinner”. This article is from a Jesus Life magazine, published in January 2012.