Irresistible Revolution

by Harry on June 6, 2007

One of my students, herself surprised to discover the left-wing of Christianity, lent me Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution to find out what I thought. I read it on a flight into Philadelphia, for a short stay in which I knew every minute of my time was booked, and became increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t take some time out to go and visit the Simple Way community, just to tell them how much I liked the book. And, although I know that it is impractical to demand as much of most people as Shane Claiborne and his community demand of themselves, and that there is a place for many different roles in the world, the book was deeply humbling, at least for me at this stage in my life.

It’s so hard to write about the book mainly because it is not written for me or, I guess, for most CT readers. Claiborne is not bringing us atheists the good news about Christ, but bringing the not-so-good news about what Christianity demands to his fellow Christians. I’ve looked all over the place at blog posts and reviews, and almost all are by Christians (and, interestingly, almost all are positive)

One amazon reviewer (PK Keith, May 27th) trashes him, but mainly, as far as I can tell, precisely for bringing bad news (and if Claiborne’s platform “suspiciously bears more resemblance to the Democratic party platform than it does the Bible” then I’ve been reading the wrong Democratic Party platform and the wrong Bible — bugger, I wish someone had told me before). He uses scripture effortlessly, and his faith is deep and genuine; if, like me, you don’t share it, you feel that you are looking in from the outside (he is also, I should say, a great storyteller with a great story to tell and nice self-deprecating sense of humour; the joke about being born again almost made me spill my tea on the passenger in the next seat). At the same time you feel that something very unusual is going on, at least reading it in the US. I’m getting copies for my evangelical relatives.

Here’s one reaction, from an informative review:

Reading The Irresistible Revolution, it is tempting and all too convenient to write Claiborne off as little more than an angry liberal. He’s someone who loves a simple Jesus and crudely pastes a social agenda on top of the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, he actually lives the Jesus so many of us do little more than spit out cute phrases about. That twinge we feel when we read about how our fixation on “context” effectively emasculates every hard saying of Jesus or that we must be involved in social work is not our conservative radar going off and warning us of impending heresy. Far more often than not, it is nothing more than our own selfishness dressing up in the clothes of God.

Claiborne overflows with an evangelical obsession with Christ and the things of God along with the ethical conscience and socially broken heart of Che Guevara. He straddles both worlds efficiently, but stops short of going too far in either direction and ending up with a “nice man” Jesus or a fundamentalist Christ. And it is precisely this balance which is the least appealing to us. We want to hear what makes us feel good, what lets us know that we have supported the right side all of our lives. We don’t want to know that most of the world lives on the equivalent of $.36 a day. We don’t want to hear about the rich American segment of the body of Christ gorging itself on materialism and money while the rest looks on from the brink of starvation. We don’t want the hard sayings. But that’s what the middle is . . . hard. And Shane Claiborne tells it from pretty close to dead center.

The closest thing I’ve found to a negative comment is this, from Mark van Steenwyk:

I don’t think Jesus is pleased with our worship, given the atrocious state of our discipleship. And he certainly doesn’t like it when we elevate people like Shane Claiborne as exemplars, but fail to follow their example. Shane has gotten a lot of attention, and for some good reasons. He is living out a radically Christ-centered life that is worthy of imitation. But he’s gotten WAY more fans than imitators. And the way the “machine” has gotten a hold of him has saddened me, because it is turning him into a saint instead of into an “ordinary radical.”

But, as Mark clarifies, his negativity is not about Claiborne but about some of the reception he has had, and I must say that something similar occurred to me as I read the book – someone who writes a book like this is surely on their way to being a superstar, which is hardly compatible with being an ordinary radical. It’s also, always, bad for a movement to have a single spokesperson who is so much more articulate and powerful than any others (the British left in the late 70’s suffered from this, which is not to blame that person, it hardly being his fault).

(The transcript of Claiborne’s appearance on Speaking of Faith is here)

The other thought I had reading the book was a worry that, in fact, I might be being taken for a ride. It reads as completely genuine and authentic but, as Bob Monkhouse used to say, “It’s all about sincerity; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made”. But I find the 50-minute youtube video rather reassuring on that count. Claiborne’s preaching is anything but slick, in fact technically he’s not really very good (I hope he’d take that as the compliment it is intended as); he has good jokes, but he doesn’t set them up well, he doesn’t pause for effect effectively, and he rarely looks his audience in the eye. He needs a coach; I hope he doesn’t get one.

If Madison had one of those programs for a “book that all freshmen read”, Irresistible Revolutions would be top of my list of recommendations. I’d love to hear other reactions, if anyone here has read it.

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Irresistible Revolution at Σπιτάκι
06.08.07 at 1:48 am



Russell Arben Fox 06.06.07 at 3:35 pm

I’m familiar with the book, Harry; it is, indeed, a superb work. And moreover, I would say that an increasing number of people are recognizing that what Clairborne has to say is important–not a huge number, by any means, but certainly more than you might think on the basis of superficial glance at the Christian scene. And that makes me hopeful that Clairborne and folks like him (Wendell Berry comes to mind), as they are not alone, will continue to be able serve as reproaching, radical saints, and not predictable leaders. I mean, look around: you have evangelicals branching out into environmentalism; you have Catholics recognizing that the neocons have misused papal teachings about war and peace; and most importantly, you have more and more ordinary families recognizing that their faith needs a covenantal and communal aspect to it, and are talking more and more about gardens and simplicity and equality and getting away from the technological and materialistic rat-race. Sure, I wouldn’t make any bets on the true radicalism of “conservative,” devotional Christianity becoming dominant anytime soon. But then, part of His point, I think, is that it never would be.


Russell L. Carter 06.06.07 at 4:51 pm

Hmm the gardens thing is interesting. We live at a mile elevation with minimal precip so that some serious work has to be done to implement automated irrigation just to make a garden possible. Which we have done. This is not simple. But on the other hand, the garden and its bounty, shared, are the essence of community. Which we have done. So essentially we used the technological rat-race (want to see our 6 timed irrigation circuits?) to implement the communitarian grow it local thing. I don’t know how to resolve the dissonance. The tomatos make the meta issues irrelevant, in practice.

Second, I am not at all sure why the sheer innate goodness of Shane Claiborne has anything to do with Christianity, except as a counterfactual to the abomination that mainstream industrial Christianity is today. I.e., he is evidence that it is possible for an overtly pious Christian to actually be good. The existence of people like Paul Farmer is proof that all sorts of people (even atheists!) have a handle on what it takes to be a saintly person.


Sk 06.06.07 at 5:00 pm

“Claiborne overflows with an evangelical obsession with Christ and the things of God along with the ethical conscience and socially broken heart of Che Guevara. ”


“Che Guevara, Murderer

Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967), the Argentina-born revolutionary who helped Castro come to power in Cuba, has long been lionized by the hard left. Guevara’s posthumous popularity has accelerated in recent years — especially since the 2004 release of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” a feature film based on his early autobiographical writings — making him a crossover superstar whose likeness appears on countless T-shirts, posters and tattoos, and who has been cited as an inspiration for political dissidents from Latin America to Lebanon to Hong Kong.

Yet the reality of Che Guevara’s life is far different from the popular perception, as Independent Institute Senior Fellow Alvaro Vargas Llosa explains in a new article in the July 11 & 18 issue of THE NEW REPUBLIC.

It’s safe to assume that many people now sporting radical-chic Che T-shirts oppose capital punishment, but Che Guevara served as an executioner for Castro, as Guevara himself admitted in some of his diary entries, notes Vargas Llosa, author of LIBERTY FOR LATIN AMERICA. Guevara, for example, admitted to shooting Eutimio Guerra in January of 1957 because he suspected him of passing on information. He also admitted to having shot a peasant named Aristidio, although he wasn’t certain he could justify that execution, as well as a man named Echevarría, the brother of a comrade. On the eve of victory for the revolution, Guevara ordered the execution of a couple dozen people in the central Cuban region of Santa Clara, according to Jaime Costa Vázquez (a.k.a. “El Catalán”), a former commander in the Cuban revolutionary army whom Vargas Llosa interviewed for the article.

But Che Guevara’s killing spree didn’t reach its apex until after the corrupt Batista regime collapsed and Castro put Guevara in charge of the San Carlos de La Cabaña prison.

José Vilasuso, a lawyer and professor in Puerto Rico who had served with the group in charge of the judicial process at La Cabaña prison, told Vargas Llosa that one night in 1959 he witnessed the execution of seven political prisoners. Another witness, Javier Arzuaga, a clergyman more inclined toward the liberation theology of Leonardo Boff than the conservatism of the former Cardinal Ratzinger, told Vargas Llosa that Che Guevara never overturned a sentence. He said he personally witnessed 55 executions, including that of a young boy named Ariel Lima. Estimates of the number of executions of political prisoners during the six months that Che Guevara was in charge of La Cabaña vary. Economist Armando Lago has compiled a list of 179 executions. Pedro Corzo, who is making a documentary about Che Guevara, puts the number at 200. Vilasuso told Vargas Llosa that 400 political prisoners were executed under Guevara’s command.

Whether Che Guevara executed 400 political prisoners or “only” 200, it’s hard to see how self-styled “progressives” can continue to justify their worship of the murderer. For those who refuse to blame the “idealistic” Che for these executions, which took place without regard for due process, Alvaro Vargas Llosa also notes Guevara’s Taliban-like rule of the city of Sancti Spiritus in 1958, his ordering of his men to rob banks during the revolution, his rationalization of the Guanahacabibes labor camp, his negotiation with Khrushchev to acquire 42 Soviet missiles, half of them armed with nuclear warheads, his destruction of the Cuban economy, and his reckless revolutionary sojourns throughout Latin America and to the Congo, spreading violence and fostering only more misery.

Those in search of a genuinely heroic Latin American reformer, Vargas Llosa notes, will find one in Juan Bautista Alberdi of 19th century Argentina. Alberdi helped depose Argentina’s tyrant of that era (Juan Manuel Rosas) and introduced his country to the ideas of constitutionalism, open trade, greater immigration, and secure property rights — which when implemented brought 70 years of prosperity to Argentina and did so without staining Alberdi’s hands with blood.

See “The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand,” by Alvaro Vargas Llosa (THE NEW REPUBLIC, 7/11 & 18, 2005) (Subscription required.)


SamChevre 06.06.07 at 5:01 pm

I’m aware of Shane Claiborne/Simple Way.

There are many different ways of being radical. I come out of a very different kind of radical Christianity than Mr Claiborne; the Plain tradition (Amish, Mennonite, Dunkard, Hutterite) has always opposed any involvement in politics. But there’s a very similar recognition, in many parts of that tradition, that Christianity is a radical belief, not a comfortable one. Look at the Hofer brothers for one of the well-remembered stories. Joseph Hofer died, after months of abuse, with his hands shackled to his cell bars, for refusing to wear a uniform–and was buried in the uniform he’d refused to wear while alive in one final piece of spite.


Russell Arben Fox 06.06.07 at 5:42 pm

“We live at a mile elevation with minimal precip so that some serious work has to be done to implement automated irrigation just to make a garden possible. Which we have done. This is not simple. But on the other hand, the garden and its bounty, shared, are the essence of community. Which we have done. So essentially we used the technological rat-race (want to see our 6 timed irrigation circuits?) to implement the communitarian grow it local thing. I don’t know how to resolve the dissonance.”

You touch on an important point, Russell: “simplicity” is rarely simple. We live in a complicated, layered, specialized world, with folks living in all sorts of different climes and with all sorts of different levels of training. “Renouncing” material distractions is often going to have to involve establishing a fair amount of material infrastructure in the first place! (We know: we bought a house last November, and have been astonished so far this spring and summer just how much work and equipment and upfront investment it takes to get a plot of land ready for vegatables.) There probably is no real “answer” to the dissonance; that’s just the way the world works, and to hope for otherwise is to set oneself up for the sort of disappointments that might lead to abandoning radical hopes entirely.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.06.07 at 6:32 pm

I haven’t read the book but wonder how this might compare to Catholic Worker communities (their website appears to be having problems). But consider, for example:

Coles, Robert. A Spectacle Unto the World: The Catholic Worker Movement. New York: Viking, 1973.

Coy, Patrick, ed. A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1988.

Piehl, Mel. Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker Movement and the Origins of Catholic Radicalism in America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1982.

Roberts, Nancy L. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.


harry b 06.06.07 at 6:41 pm

He does namecheck Dorothy Day (though not, I think, Michael Harrington – indeed he seems blissfully unaware of the small social democratic tradition in the US, which might be good or might be bad, I don’t know which!)

I didn’t say this in the post, but I have undergone a fairly radical change in view over the past decade myself, about “the communitarian thing”, partly prompted by the needling of one of my friends, partly by the experience of parenthood, but mostly by reading Fred Hirsch’s Social Limits to Growth! Prior to that I would probably have found Claiborne’s choices rather self-indulgent, if charming. I’m pretty sure I’d have been wrong.


Rich Puchalsky 06.06.07 at 6:43 pm

Before you get all excited about this, you might try reading Harold Bloom’s The American Religion. There is nothing so often done in the American context as a rediscovery of a primitive Christianity that never existed, leading into yet another varient of the Gnostic pseudo-Christianity that dominates the American scene.


Wade 06.06.07 at 7:24 pm

8: Bloom doesn’t cast any doubt as to the historical authenticity of that Christianity. Besides which, he thinks that practically all Americans ascribe to some variant or other of Gnosticism. (He calls himself a “Gnostic Jew.”) The American Religion is basically updated Voegelin, only cruder and less ambitious.


Randolph Fritz 06.06.07 at 8:41 pm

There’s a web site, btw.

Russell L. Carter, #2: I don’t think “simplicity” demands we abandon all technical means; it means being moderate in their application. And certainly from the viewpoint of impact on the planet and the lives of distant people, a few timers–even a lot of timers–is a lot less of a deal than shipping large quantities of artificially-fertilized vegetables around the world.


ozma 06.06.07 at 9:49 pm

“The existence of people like Paul Farmer is proof that all sorts of people (even atheists!) have a handle on what it takes to be a saintly person.”

Paul Farmer is an atheist? I thought he was Catholic. Could be wrong about that–He bases many of his arguments on liberation theology.

This post and the comments are kind of amusing–as if you guys don’t get out much. And the history of progressive and radical politics in the U.S. is littered with Christians. John Brown, anyone?


Russell L. Carter 06.06.07 at 10:03 pm

“Paul Farmer is an atheist? I thought he was Catholic. Could be wrong about that—He bases many of his arguments on liberation theology.”

I may have misread, but my intepretation of Mountains Beyond Mountains is that he views religion as a component of a healthy environment for poor people, if they choose to believe. But it is one factor among many. I don’t recall any indications that he viewed his own religious beliefs to be of much importance. I also don’t think I agree about the explicit liberation theology basis, my impression was that his philosophy is rooted in more basic notions of justice; the preferential option for the poor can be effectively implemented by Castro, for instance.

But I’m no Paul Farmer scholar, and who knows if Tracy Kidder got all the nuances right.


Randolph Fritz 06.06.07 at 10:11 pm

Rich P, #8: I don’t think these people are all that different from the pre-Nicean Christians hiding in Rome; I don’t understand your objection. And, for heaven’s sake, could we please stop throwing the word “gnostic” around?


Rich Puchalsky 06.06.07 at 11:57 pm

Wade, I don’t think that Bloom can really have updated Voegelin with a basically positive attitude towards Gnosticism rather than a negative one.

Randolph Fritz, your statement is exactly the kind of warrantless romantic identification that I find troubling about this syndrome. They aren’t that different from pre-Nicean Christians hiding in Rome? Really? In addition to the many, many other differences that I see, there is a certain basic one; everyone congratulates them on being Christian. Even atheists congratulate them for living up to the “Christian ideals” that they have imagined and that are so absent from the history of actual Christianity.


Randolph Fritz 06.07.07 at 12:26 am

Rich P, #14: on the other hand, they get small congratulations, and no little trouble, for the way they live–the Philadelphia police, though reformed since the MOVE disaster, are not exactly gentle people, and the radical right christians–not exactly a peaceable group–undoubtedly hate their guts.

And I honestly don’t understand why you call them “gnostic”; it seems more likely to create confusion and conflict than anything else.


lindsey 06.07.07 at 12:38 am

Shane’s book is about getting back to what Jesus originally called his followers to do. Christianity (in the US at least) is far too comfortable. We twist the gospel around to justify huge inequalities in wealth, discrimination, and what have you. Where Christianity is protected from persecution, it is most vulnerable to loosing touch with the orginial message of Christ. So Shane seems, to me, to be the voice in the wilderness for the states. As a Christian, I felt very uncomfortable when I read it. I am guilty of every single thing he warns his readers about (complacency, ignorance, indifference, selfishness, materialism, the list goes on). And not only was I guilty of all that, but I was just as guilty of making (Biblically based) excuses for it. He seems to get it when most of us don’t, and the book is a real eye opener. What Shane explictly says in the book (that he was uncomfortable writing, by the way, because he didn’t want the superstar thing to happen -he just wanted to spread the message as best he could) is that he wants people to dislike it. If they walk away from it feeling warm and fuzzy inside then he failed. But then again, he’s not unlike many messangers of God in that respect (the prophets didn’t exactly make friends well). In the US, Christians seem overly concerned with sexual purity and morality of that sort, but sex was never intended to be the focus of Christianity. Shane effectively points out where most Christians go astray in their efforts to live like Christ. It’s about giving your life to God, and taking care of your neighbors. That’s it. That’s all the book wants us to remember.

As much as the book convicted me (and, I admit, made me think Shane was really cool), I too am a reader who is a huge fan and a horrible imitator. But, every day I have a chance to try again, and all Shane asks is that Christians realize that it’s not too late to start living a life like Christ. He wants us to forget our excuses, pick up our cross, and get to work. If Christianity remains comfortable, we’re doing something wrong. Whenever we do follow Christ, we can expect hard times and persecution, but they are a small price to pay for being an instrument of God in this world.

Shane was also a part of the Democratic candadite forum on CNN the other night where Clinton, Edwards and Obama were asked a series of questions about how faith guided their moral compass (and how that in turn affected their politics). The forum was hosted by the group Soujouners and you can read the transcript of the discussion here if you’re interested.


Rich Puchalsky 06.07.07 at 1:01 am

lindsey: “Whenever we do follow Christ, we can expect hard times and persecution […]”

Can I point out, in the interest of some kind of accuracy, that Shane is a person who went to grad school at Princeton, has glamour shots on the Internet, trades on his internship with Mother Theresa, and is now basically slumming?

In the interest of fairness, I decided that I should read at least one page of the guy’s book. I immediately ran into the following:

“I was asked to speak at Eastern’s graduation ceremony,
and to the chagrin of the dean, I told the story of how some friends and I were busted for rappelling out of
the windows of one of the dorms. […]
So my graduation message, “Crawl through
the Window,” went something like this: The doors
of normalcy and conformity are dead. The time has
come to give up on the doors and find a window to
climb through. It’s a little more dangerous and may
get you into some trouble, but it is a heck of a lot more
fun. And the people who have changed the world have
always been the risk-takers who climb through win-
dows while the rest of the world just walks in and out
of doors.”

So he’s a brave risk-taker who goes outside the box. Is enjoying one’s conspicuous non-consumption while writing cliches really hard times and persecution?


Wade 06.07.07 at 1:59 am

Rich, I mean that Bloom follows Voegelin in thinking that Christianity has (in America) taken a generally Gnostic direction. It’s been a long time since I read the book, but IIRC Bloom says somewhere that this “Gnosticism” is incompatible with civic life, and Voegelin would agree with him there.


lindsey 06.07.07 at 2:48 am

I can’t say I have any authority to speak for Shane’s life, but then again neither do you. You have no idea what he goes through, and maybe he really has gone through (is going through) persecution. Even if he hasn’t, the point is that if we are truly living like Christ then the rest of the world will hate us. “Hate” can be anything from being mocked to being persecuted physically, anything other than acceptance. The only persecution I have personally gone through has been intellectually, not socially or physically. But, if I was really living like Christ, I should expect much more. Part of the reason American Christians aren’t really persecuted is that in the US Christianity has become the mainstream. But if you look elsewhere in the world (try, China), you’ll see Christians who really are suffering for the gospel. However, even in the US, the mainstream Christians have a hard time dealing with “ordinary radicals.” Even amongst Christians people are shunned (persecuted, if you will) for voicing dissident opinions. They shouldn’t be, but they are, and that’s because the truth is hard to swallow. It requires giving up control, and mainstream American Christians (myself included) don’t want to go there. So regardless of what you think about Shane, his message really is convicting for Christians. If you call yourself a Christian and you give a damn at all about the message of Christ, then after reading that book you’ll be awakened to how we are all falling disappointingly short. Who cares what Shane’s background is, the point is that he loves people and he’s spreading God’s love to his community. Something that Christians and non-Christians alike should be doing. Having a privileged background doesn’t exclude you from that duty, nor does it make your fulfilling that duty any less valuable in God’s eyes.


harry b 06.07.07 at 2:53 am

But rich, anyone who is articulate and successful in getting their message out is going to be, just about by definition, a capable person with lots of options. Its not at all clear to me that he is “trading” on an internship with Mother Teresa, except in the sense that, having had that experience he uses it in delivering his message. Its also clear (from the book) that, at times, he has taken serious risks. Maybe recklessly, rather than bravely, for sure. Its also, of course, true, that he is becoming a sort of star, and the test is how he handles it (we don’t know, and frankly I’m not that interested, because he interests me much less than the book does and, perhaps, than his unknown comrades).

Are you just trying to trash him because he’s a Christian, or would you be doing this if I’d written about some unkown but inspiring person who is, say, a lifelong socialist activist and a truck driver? (I have someone in mind (only one, though I could get you a bunch more if you wanted), but wouldn’t embarrass him here because he’s a close friend and hasn’t asked to be talked about). Your tenor (“oh you poor darlings who know nothing of the world, having the wool pulled over your eyes by this messianic upstart”) is not a little condescending, and assumes a lot about your interlocutors that I doubt is true.


Russell L. Carter 06.07.07 at 3:58 am

I have to say that I don’t think that Claiborne should be persecuted in the least, nor anyone who follows his particular sort of teachings. Teachings that so far seem eminently humane. I seem to be following a few of them myself. So Lindsey’s concern about the mandatory martyrdom she supposes ensues from a bit of hi fidelity focus of attention on the underlying reasons for the (ill)health of one’s neighbors and even the larger community seems a bit misplaced. Who would be the persecutors?

I think we know. It wouldn’t be me and the rest of the rabble of atheists.


lindsey 06.07.07 at 4:59 am

I suppose I made it sound like Christians should be persecuted, which of course I don’t believe. It’s just that we should expect it (or forms of it, and believe me, it happens even here) because our lives should be markedly different from everyone else. If we lived the same as the world, we wouldn’t really be the salt that sets an example of what God’s love is like. And the persecutors aren’t always athiests. In my experience, a lot persecution comes from within the church, but that’s another matter entirely. Hope that clarifies it.


Russell L. Carter 06.07.07 at 6:01 am


“And the persecutors aren’t always athiests.”

You can be forgiven (I suppose) for expressing a sort of surprise that not only atheists think mainstream industrial Christianity is corrupt beyond repair. There is an empirical basis: the US is a democracy, and the majority has seen fit to ensure that the President is a born again “Christian”, the “conservative” majority on the Supreme Court is solidly male-Catholic, and only one member of the legislative branch admits to being a lowly atheist. This puts all of the coercive power of the State in Christian hands. But not all of the persecutors are atheists!

“Hope that clarifies it.”

Nope it didn’t Lindsey, it did not. Muddled things up a bit, it did. You have confused two different sorts of people, and mapped the wrong ones onto the ills of your own sect.

Harry, are we really supposed to take this sort of belief as a force of good in the world as compared to somebody like Paul Farmer who actually accomplished some real results for the downtrodden before putting himself up for societal beatification? And then when it happened didn’t just cash in? I’m beginning to lean toward Rich P. on this.


lindsey 06.07.07 at 6:26 am

I wasn’t expressing surprise at all. I’m well aware of what goes on inside of the church, as I am a part of it. And I’m not surprised that within the church there are major problems, but I never expected it to be perfect either. I’m not trying to take blame away from the problems within the church, and I don’t think I’m confusing those problems with those orginiating from outside it.

Also, Shane isn’t cashing in on anything. All the proceeds from the book go to non-profit orgs (including his community in philly, but not limited to that). And that community does do wonderfull things to support each other that are real results. For example, they pool together their incomes (as varied as they are) and use some of that money to pay the community members’ healthcare costs. Most of the members are uninsured, but they have yet to meet a bill that they couldn’t pay because they supported each other…among other things.


Jim Gibbon 06.07.07 at 8:45 am

I haven’t read Shane’s book yet, but I did get to know him over a semester when we were both undergrads. He was as committed to the poor back then as he appears to be now and his attitude was infectious (Shane is perhaps more likely to inspire future Paul Farmers than Paul Farmer himself). Our religious beliefs are now light years apart, but I still have great respect for him and what he’s trying to do.

Shane was also a really funny, quirky guy who we welcomed enthusiastically into our campus “prank posse” — who could pass on someone with rappelling skills?


harry b 06.07.07 at 12:53 pm

Russell — I didn’t make any sort of comparative claim in the post or in my comment, and I (obviously, I hope?) see good, sometimes great good, in many different lives, including those of Muslims, Christians, atheists, socialists, etc. And, like lindsey and the rest of you, I can’t know that Shane is a fount of virtue — only his friends know that for sure (as I said, I found the video of him preaching somewhat reassuring on that count). And I am completely unsurprised, in one way, by his message, which is not just familiar from history, but from personal acquaintance with particular Christians over several decades. I brought attention to the book because it is interesting to me that his movement is creating a small stir among evangelical Christians, and is part, I suspect, of something bigger (as RAF says in #1) though, as RAF again says, not necessarily REALLY BIG. His message is not supposed (by me) to be uniquely Christian, or to be any kind of evidence that Christians are better than the rest of us, or that we should become Christians (I haven’t). But it is a message, and perhaps a life, that not only Christians can learn some good from. My question for rich was prompted by an inability to discern whether his comments are supposed to be saying “have no heroes” (fair enough, but I wasn’t presenting him as a hero) or saying “no Christians can be heroes” (trivially true, if the previous message is true, but only worth saying if you are simply trying to trash Christianity altogether). I’m familiar enough with the latter kind of message to realise it is a possibility.


Rich Puchalsky 06.07.07 at 1:17 pm

“Are you just trying to trash him because he’s a Christian, or would you be doing this if I’d written about some unkown but inspiring person who is, say, a lifelong socialist activist and a truck driver?”

His appeal to Christianity is not seperable from the rest of what he’s doing, Harry. Here’s a quote from the commitments on the Simple Way Web site:

“We believe that people are created in the image of God. We believe people are created to love and to be loved. We also believe that humanity is fallen, and Jesus died and rose in order to save humanity. Humans are incapable of holiness and perfect love without the sacrifice of Jesus.”

As a non-Christian, that denies my basic humanity. I see no reason why I should accept his evangelical propaganda of the deed and attempts at personal celebrity.

I know many people who are lifelong socialist activists. Many of them don’t write books about themselves. Those that do generally present their deeds as inspired by socialism. I don’t think that they thereby can escape confrontation with the actual history of socialism. In particular, the trope of a return to a sort of mythical “primitive socialism”, without serious examination of why previous attempts have gone wrong, has generally and rightly been laughed at.


Rich Puchalsky 06.07.07 at 1:24 pm

An addendum: I think that you’re neglecting the actual content of Christianity in this thread. Look at the Amazon comment from PK “Keith”, which you dismiss as a dislike of Shane bringing bad news and being too much like the Democratic Party. Here’s a quote from that Amazon review:

“He repeatedly states that this vision was the vision of the early church with no references or citations from the early fathers to justify his claim and conveniently ignores the fact that the Apostles of the New Testament era engaged in no social activism of the sort he routinely endorses. Jesus clearly warned us against the notion that the world is a perfectible place: at least apart from his return to establish the Kingdom. He warns against false messiahs who would claim to be able to save a deteriorating world (Matt. 24:4-14).”

That’s, as far as I can tell, closer to what early Christianity was really supposed to have been about than your view of what you’d like it to have been about.


harry b 06.07.07 at 1:33 pm

Actually, I didn’t talk about early Christianity in my post. I talked about “what Christianity demands”. There is, and has been for centuries, reasonable debate about whether Christianity demands social activism (me, I think its pretty clear what the moral core of Christianity demands in that respect, but of course I’m not a Christian, and do not believe in an afterlife, so it may be hard for me to appreciate what that moral core means in the context of that additional belief). There is much less about whether it demands following the examples set by the lives of Jesus and his disciples. That’s the bad news I was referring to (I can see how my parenthetical comment might have suggested otherwise). That most Christians have failed, and many haven’t tried, to do that, well, that may not be surprising.


Rich Puchalsky 06.07.07 at 1:46 pm

Well, I have a “comment awaiting moderation” (just before my comment which refers to itself as an addendum) which states in part why I don’t think the attempt to seperate out a moral core from historical religion is a good idea.


harry b 06.07.07 at 1:49 pm

will respond later, rich — the moderation issues have to do with our recent spam attacks, I presume (I’ve been being moderated too, for some reason).


George W 06.07.07 at 1:52 pm

My reading list grows and grows. One quick observation (without having read any of the texts mentioned): Protestantism itself (the nominal basis of most Christianity in America) was originally an attempt to move back to “what Jesus said,” yet contained these same tensions practically from day one.


Bill Gardner 06.07.07 at 3:36 pm

Russel L. Carter:

“Harry, are we really supposed to take this sort of belief as a force of good in the world as compared to somebody like Paul Farmer who actually accomplished some real results for the downtrodden before putting himself up for societal beatification?”

Did you mean to imply that Paul Farmer has “[put] himself up for social beatification?” I don’t know him personal, but I’m very familiar with his writings, and I don’t see it.


lindsey 06.07.07 at 4:22 pm

Shane’s book does have a Biblical basis for his understanding of the early church. If you look in Acts (whether or not you think the Bible is a good source doesn’t change the fact that Shane does take the Bible to be a reliable source) the description of how the early Christians formed a community is pretty clear:
“The believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:44)
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything.” (Acts 4:32)

And again in 2 Corinthians:
“Out of the most severe trial, their [the Macedonian church] overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own… Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.'” (2 Cor 8:3 &13-15 with reference to Exodus 16:18)

That’s, as far as I can tell, closer to what early Christianity was really supposed to have been about than your view of what you’d like it to have been about.

The church was revolutionary in social terms. They may not have been politically rebellious, but they didn’t wait for the government to take care of their neighbors. They did it themselves, and that’s what Shane is getting at.


anon 06.07.07 at 4:28 pm

I think Rich Puchalsky is missing the point. The historical-theological context he provides is noted, but if this group has any public significance, it is to be found in their experiential praxis. This praxis unites Claiborne’s group much more strongly to the anonymous socialist truck drivers mentioned upthread than Claiborne’s stated theology separates them from those truck drivers.

Also, it’s difficult to see how a community with a de facto vow of poverty could support itself without engaging in activities that can be defined as “social activism” — for example they can only afford to live in a place with lots of local homeless, and feeding the local homeless is an obvious strategy for maintaining good relations.

So I don’t think it’s fair to emphasize any theoretical tensions over the role of social activism in the Christian life being played out here. They could easily erupt and they probably will eventually, but they don’t seem to have done so yet.

Rich writes:

His appeal to Christianity is not separable from the rest of what he’s doing, Harry. Here’s a quote … “We believe that … Humans are incapable of holiness and perfect love without the sacrifice of Jesus.”

Yeah, well, whatever. Like Rich, I think that doctrine is frankly nonsense. However, if Claiborne doesn’t acknowledge it in that form, all the local churches will call his group a cult. His hands are tied. Finally, he’s not a theologian: he is a community organizer.

I have no information on the community other than the article above and the linked interview transcript, but I believe it would be foolish for anyone to dismiss the possibilities of this group out of hand.

Finally, some of the other comments above remind me of Soren Kierkegaard’s last book, “The Attack on Christendom”, whose ironic thesis was that SK didn’t want the Church of Denmark to change a single one of the wonderful things they were doing, he just wanted them to admit that none of it was Christianity. (If nothing else this should demonstrate that the recurrent idea of primitive Christianity is not simply a vernacular delusion. For all his quirks, I think SK counts as a theological heavyweight.)


lindsey 06.07.07 at 4:51 pm

Also, I think it’s important to remember that while Shane is endorsing the radical way of life that he has chosen, he is clear in the book that not everyone is called to live in communes. He talks about a suburban community outside philly where the neighbors don’t share income, but they do help each other out in big ways (sharing childcare responsibilites so parents don’t have to put their kids in daycare, for example). Shane doesn’t want a million Shanes out there, but he does want us to go back to Jesus’ command to love each other. If you love someone by taking care of their kid every now and then or by pooling resources or simply by being a friend, you are doing the work of God. The book was about inspiring individuals to be creative and active in their lives, within the specfic enviroment to which God has called them (while keeping in mind that God may call them to follow a different path).


harry b 06.07.07 at 7:23 pm

rich (responding to 27)
Just to repeat the offending quote:

“We believe that people are created in the image of God. We believe people are created to love and to be loved. We also believe that humanity is fallen, and Jesus died and rose in order to save humanity. Humans are incapable of holiness and perfect love without the sacrifice of Jesus.”

I don’t see this denying your humanity at all. It does not even claim that you have to share his belief in Jesus in order to be capable of holiness and perfect love (though they may well believe that, they don’t say it here). The quote acknowledges you as human and asserts that in one respect you are absolutely equal with every other (you are “fallen”) and makes a strong implicature that you are equal in another respect, that is, capable of holiness and perfect love.

Now, there’s no question that he, and his group, are evangelical, and that they want you to believe as they do. But the book (which is whatr my post was abouot) isn’t evangelical in that sense; its spoken to already-Christians, frequently holds up non-Christians as particular examples of good-doers. As for evangelism; well, the evangelicals precisely affirm our common humanity. Of course, you don’t have to accept their propaganda, whethe rof word or deed, and I didn’t imply that you should — that would be a very odd interpretation of the post, in which I state quite clearly that I, at least, don’t accept it. Still, I find much of the message, and the description of the life, admirable and worth learning from.

On “ecaping confrontation with the actual history of” socialism/Christianity: there is no sense in the book at all of trying to escape confrontation with the actual history. The actual history of any movement is complex, and riddled with problems. What he does is parallel with what a putative socialist might do, which is develop their practice within an understanding of what is (or what they regard as) right and admirable in the actual history of their movements, while acknowledging, and in many cases developing and extending, a critique of what is not.

“Attempts at personal celebrity”? He’s got a story to tell, and a message to deliver, and does both well; it would be wierd not to grab opportunities to spread a message in which one has conviction. He certainly is attaining some sort of celebrity in a certain part of the culture, though he doesn’t appear hungy for it (but, of course, that’s the point of the Bob Monkhouse quote!). Is everyone who succeeds in this respect suspect to you? Should I stop blogging? (maybe you shouldn’t answer that last question).


Russell L. Carter 06.08.07 at 1:30 am

Bill Gardner:

“Did you mean to imply that Paul Farmer has “[put] himself up for social beatification?” I don’t know him personal, but I’m very familiar with his writings, and I don’t see it.”

You are completely right. I apologize. In my defense I observe that his motives appear to be inscrutable to believers, of many stripes.



Rich Puchalsky 06.08.07 at 3:11 am

Harry, the quote indicates that they think that everyone starts out fallen — but of course there is a remedy for this, that of following Jesus. In other words, they think I’m going to Hell. The more liberal Christians do have some kind of belief that if you’re an especially good non-Christian, you may get by, through the virtue of Jesus’ sacrifice, without knowing it, a sort of spiritual Uncle Tom.

In Shane I see a fairly typical young activist, ambitious, charismatic, who has an unfortunate tendency to write in thinly veiled business cliche. There’s nothing unusual or particularly blameworthy about his publicity-seeking on his own behalf or his religion’s. It’s the reactions to it here that I find problematic. Christians in the U.S. really are not being persecuted, either by atheists or by less radical Christians. A small group of about four well-educated, slumming communitarians is not like the early Christian church in any significant sense. And, most important for your own (Harry’s) comments, there is no imagined commenality between Christian radicalism and socialism on the basis of practise, as if ideology is just unimportant. Saying that there is seems more condescending than anything I’ve said — it’s saying that the most important value that these people hold, their belief in Jesus, really isn’t of any importance compared to their actions.

And I don’t think that this book / example will have any good effect on other Christians either. Look at how it functions in this thread — as yet another saintly example that people know they are sort of supposed to be emulating and that maybe they’ll get to someday. All of actual Christianity lives in that space, the space in which their ideals are ever-so-high and their actions are not. The few people who become celebrities by doing something like it just reinforce the system.


lindsey 06.08.07 at 5:18 am

And I don’t think that this book / example will have any good effect on other Christians either. Look at how it functions in this thread—as yet another saintly example that people know they are sort of supposed to be emulating and that maybe they’ll get to someday. All of actual Christianity lives in that space, the space in which their ideals are ever-so-high and their actions are not.

I’m sorry you feel that way Rich. But I hope you really aren’t so quick to judge the intentions of Christians who do read this book. It really is a powerful wake-up call, and failing at it’s realization doesn’t mean we aren’t trying. We know we won’t be perfect, but the point is we are aware and mindful of what we need to be doing. Even if we aren’t doing a great job yet, that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying and it certainly doesn’t mean we are putting it off for another day. You must realize that truly putting the values of Christ first (love of neighbor, over thyself) is extremely difficult, and failing at it doesn’t mean that one isn’t trying to do one’s best. And I’m of the mind that God will empower those who have the hearts to serve. But I hope you won’t conclude that failure thus far is equivalent to a lack of effort or heart for God. We aren’t as horrible as you might think. In fact, we may even be on the same side as you if you give us a chance.


harry b 06.08.07 at 12:46 pm

The quote doesn’t say, nor does it strictly imply, that you and I are going to Hell. They may well believe that, but this quote doesn’t say it, and if SC says it in the book I missed it (that is not snarky — its entirely possible that he did and I missed it, and anyway as I said, the book is not addressed to non-believers).

there is no imagined commenality between Christian radicalism and socialism on the basis of practise, as if ideology is just unimportant. Saying that there is seems more condescending than anything I’ve said—it’s saying that the most important value that these people hold, their belief in Jesus, really isn’t of any importance compared to their actions

Well, where I come from it is very difficult to separate out socialism and Protestant Christianity, since the emergence of the first is completely intertwined with the values, practice, and development of the second. Ideology counts, but since socialist ideology takes so much from Protestant Christianity it seems natural to think of them in the same breath.

On condescention: yes, that’s interesting and I don’t know what to think. Maybe I am being condescending. (Lindsey?) I don’t judge people merely by their actions, but I certainly don’t judge them entirely on their own self-understanding. Suppose someone says that the only reason they have done something is because it accords with their understanding of what God’s will is. Suppose that what they have done is very good. Well, I’m strongly inclined to give them credit, regardless of the belief system. If they persistently do good, all the time appealing to God’s will, I’m inclined to judge them to be of good character. The reverse is also true — they persistently do bad, all the time appealing to God’s will, I’m inclined to judge them to be of bad character, and to be blameworthy for the ill they do. Is this condescending? Maybe it is — I am certainly discounting an important part of their own understanding of their motives and the structure of their moral agency. (There must be a literature about this….). Behind all this is the fact that I believe that some of the beliefs they hold which they take to be vitally important, are false; but beyond believing them to be false, I do not disrespect them for holding them. This is in part because I believe that in order to make sense of the moral universe it is necessary to accept some beliefs which we cannot publicly demonstrate to be true (eg, in my case, the basic equality of moral standing of all human beings). That’s not to say that I do not disrespect anyone for holding false beliefs; people who believe in the inferiority of other races, for example, forfeit respect. But maybe, still, all that is condescending: I don’t know what to think.


Rich Puchalsky 06.08.07 at 1:39 pm

But I don’t think that you can judge the actions of this small group of people purely by their actions alone when their actions are so clearly connected to propaganda in service of a larger belief structure. People should realize that the tension that Lindsey writes above a couple of comments above is not new; it’s not something that these people are introducing to Christianity for the first time. It’s something that Christians continually point to, even as at the current historical moment active Christians in the U.S. are the foremost electoral supporters of torture and aggressive war.

The belief in an impossibly high standard of behavior goes along with an appalling standard of actual behavior. The key is that it’s *impossibly* high, so why bother? But meanwhile it makes good propaganda to dwell on those few people who find that acting out a fantasy is personally rewarding. If Shane wasn’t a conspicuously non-consuming radical Christian, what would he be? A lawyer? But then no one would be admiring him and his book.

In short, belief in a saintly Christian ideal is like belief in American exceptionalism. (And the two often go together.) IF some exceptionally honorable-appearing American military officer wrote a book about his experiences in Iraq, and scolded the other officers for Abu Ghraib as if it was their personal and subcultural failing, the end result of people admiring this example would be to perpetuate the system that makes the next Abu Ghraib.


lindsey 06.08.07 at 1:49 pm

Condescending, no. Not for Christians anyway. When you try to evaluate what a particular Christian is like, you have to consider their professed beliefs alongside of their actions because the Bible makes it clear that, for us, our actions are an expression of what we truly believe (and not just what we say we believe). Here’s what the book of James has to say about it:
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (ch 2: 14-19)

It’s pretty clear throughout the Bible that believers are supposed to live their faith. So if an outsider judges the character of a Christian by their actions, and not just by their professed belief in God, then they are really judging the outward manifestation of that person’s faith. I don’t think it’s condescending to approve of a Christian’s actions and not of their beliefs, I just think it’s mistaken because the actions are (imo) a part of their beliefs. But you have to be careful too because someone can seem really good on the outside, and maybe they have always just been inclined to be the nice sort of person, and perhaps they aren’t really doing anything out of faith but rather out of natural tendency or something. God knows when a person is truly putting their faith into practice, and even if a person seems horrible from the outside and someone else seems perfect, they could be the exact opposite in God’s eyes. So I’m more inclined to think that judging anyone, period, is the condescending part because you presume some sort of authority or knowledge about their situation that you couldn’t possibly know.

So where it looks like there is condescension I’m inclined to think there’s just misunderstanding. If I approve of your actions (Harry) and don’t understand your specific morality (or foundation for it), that doesn’t entail that I think myself superior. It just means I don’t/can’t understand a certain part of you, but that’s bound to happen anyway. Thinking that a person’s belief is false doesn’t mean that you think you are better or somehow above that person, but it also doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing that. The point is, it doesn’t have to.


harry b 06.08.07 at 1:52 pm

So, I think we disagree about the “clearly” in your first sentence, as well as about exactly how to evaluate people’s actions (both of us thinking it’s quite complex, but I being inclined to judge people on what they do, especially when it is hard for them to judge exactly how their actions will play into the mix of the world. So, for example, I’m pretty non-judgmental about leftists who voted for Clinton in 1992, even though I thought at the time, and think that the events bore me out, that his victory would probably be very bad for the kinds of causes I and they hold dear; and I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to some very visible dissenters even though I believe the form of their dissent probably provokes a reaction that does more harm than good all-things-considered).

I agree that espousing what are for most people impossibly demanding standards of behaviour can be dangerous for the reasons you give. Interestingly, he does not say that all are called to the new monasticism, and proclaims a pluralism about how to live, with some fairly concrete suggestions about how to live more connected to the mainstream without abandoning the values he commits himself to. Of course, that’s not what everyone will take away from it.


lindsey 06.08.07 at 2:11 pm

Let’s say the standard isn’t perfection. Let’s say it is ‘somewhat good’ or something. Well, that means that the morally upright person is really equivalent to the person who is naturally inclined to be a somewhat good/nice/upstanding person. A person who is more inclined to be a jerk will have an unfair shot at reaching this threshold of goodness. If it’s impossible for everyone to reach it on their own, then all people will be judged on the level of effort they put in and not the level they can naturally attain. I feel like Kant now, but you have to realize that the internal effort is really important. That means that a Christian who believes that the standard is perfection, if they really believe the message of Christ, will continually try to attain that perfection (knowing full well that they can’t, on their own, hence Jesus). Believing it’s impossible to do on one’s own may lead some Christians to not bother at all, but that would just be a reflection on what they truly believed. If you walk in the darkness, you aren’t walking with God. If you don’t even bother, then your faith will be suspect. Christians believe that the impossible standard of goodness is achievable with God, and if they really believe that then they will act accordingly.

So Shane gets more attention because he’s not mainstream. So what? The approval of men is far from a good indicator of God’s approval. Maybe there’s some mainstream lawyer out there who’s quietly doing the work of God, and maybe no one here notices, but God does (Harry knows that’s what I hope to be someday, so your example made me smile). Only God knows if Shane is genuine. So it doesn’t really matter what you or I or anyone else thinks about him. Like Harry, I think his message is important, and he is only important in so far as his own actions align with his message. But even a message given by a hypocrite can be used by God to get Christians moving. Like it says in the book of Philippians:
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
(ch 1: 15-18)


Bill Gardner 06.08.07 at 4:04 pm

Russell @38:

Thanks for the clarification. (And thanks for not gloating at my ludicrous typo.)

“…his motives appear to be inscrutable to believers, of many stripes.”

I’d love to know more about how Christians see Farmer. By the way, it’s also true that Farmer’s public health views are controversial, specifically his insistence that there should be only one standard of health care (the one that the well-off members of the developed world receive). Others view that given limited resources avaiable for medical care in the underdeveloped world, health care dollars should be spent on only the most cost-effective interventions. Then much developed-world health care is priced out of the market. Farmer’s rejoinder is to contest the premise that resources are limited, because it is only a moral and political limit.


Rich Puchalsky 06.08.07 at 6:41 pm

Lindsay, I’m not really concerned with judging individuals. But I have to say that the Christian communities of America, as a group, are behaving very badly at this point in time. If I had to judge Christianity as a whole by its actions, I’d have to say that it does more evil than good. Non-Christians are more likely than Christians to be peacelovers.

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