BECKY: Shane, I’m interested in what you had to say in your book about the difference between normal and ordinary. It seems as though you make a distinction between the two, identifying normalcy as something that is not revolutionary, and ordinary as actually being something extraordinary. Can you explain this?
SHANE: Well, the subtitle to my book is “living as an ordinary radical.”1 The thing that I think is so important is to put those words together—ordinary and radical—because that’s what I see happening all over the planet. You know, radical in the truest sense, that it means getting at the root of something.2 Getting at the root of poverty and violence, getting at the root of what it means to be Christian.
It’s not a radical that’s reserved just for saints and prophets. It’s for ordinary folks that are doing beautiful things with their lives, and that’s what I think we’re seeing all over the place—folks that are, as Dr. King says, “radical non-conformists.” That’s where it becomes “not normal” to just live a life within the patterns of the world’s consumption and redemptive violence, and all these things that are happening in the global community.
That’s what I would say is the tragedy—that Christians have become so normal in the sense that we do just sort of look like everybody else. Christians throughout history have been peculiar oddities, you know? But they’re not superhuman; they are ordinary people that have been transformed by an extraordinary God. That’s what I see the Spirit doing all over the place.
I think that’s why people can identify with my story. I’m not a superhuman somebody. I’m from East Tennessee. I have had a journey and people can often find themselves somewhere along that. It gives me a lot of grace with other people, too. A lot of times people ask, “Why aren’t you more judgmental?” and I say, “My gosh, because I can see myself in people that frustrate me.” The most troubling contradictions I recognize because I can see them in myself. I can see them in where I come from. I’m so grateful for the people who have shown me grace as a recovering East Tennessean.
BECKY: You ask a question in your book, “What do we do when we are the ones who’ve gone sane in a crazy world?”3 It is striking to think that much of the way that the world is structured is actually a type of madness. You talk about being an oddity and the delightful way that what is foolish is used to show the madness of the world. Can you talk more about the idea that what seems like folly is often the deepest wisdom?
SHANE: Yes, well that’s the story of our faith. The scriptures say that God uses the foolish things to shame the wise, and the weak things to shame the strong. That’s what God seems to be good at, and the people who God uses throughout history are not the most highly noble and powerful. It’s often the most subtle and the most unlikely people and places that God uses. And, particularly in our world, I think that’s really important.
We live in a world that uses language like “smart bombs,” and to a lot of us, they don’t seem too smart. (laughs) Maybe there’s a wisdom of the cross that, as the scriptures say “is foolishness to the wisdom of the world.” The ideas of grace and love are scandalous. The way that the Amish reacted to the school shooting, for example—that’s not people’s knee-jerk reaction necessarily, but the Amish have cultivated a spirit of reconciliation and peacemaking that the world is mesmerized by.
A few friends and I are writing a book right now called Jesus for President and we have a section called “The Amish for Homeland Security.” We ask: what would the world look like if we reacted to violence in that way? Really, it makes more sense—it’s more healing; it’s more redemptive. It would create a better world than what we see with this idea that violence can bring peace, and what a nightmare that is. You know?
It was Peter Moyer who said something like what you’re alluding to. People would always call him crazy because he’s sort of the street-preacher type. He was part of the Catholic Worker Movement and he said, “If I’m crazy, it’s because I refuse to be crazy in the same way that the world has gone crazy.”
It’s brilliant, because if you particularly look at our world, it definitely, to many of us, looks crazy. Really, what we’re doing in our community in Philadelphia is living in ways that make more sense.4 What’s crazier—spending billions of dollars on a defense shield, or sharing our billions of dollars so we don’t have to protect as much? (laughs)
What’s crazy? And what’s normal? Right now, what’s normal is that the average U.S. citizen consumes something like over what 500 Africans collectively consume. Why does that seem to be normal? Why does that make sense? Why does it make sense that half of our clean drinking water is flushed down the toilet while 1.2 billion people are thirsting to death?
So our community is doing simple things, things like flushing our toilets off of dirty sink water. It’s very strange, you know, but people see it and say, “It makes so much sense!” And there’s something so magnetic about that.
A lot of times, the pattern we get into is so seductive that we have a sort of paralysis of imagination. But when you see something like the sink draining into the toilet, it makes sense. It makes sense to flush your poop down with dirty water. It makes sense, but we almost need permission to think outside the box.
JON: One of the things I appreciate is when you spoke about someone calling you on something and opening you up to a way that you could be more creative. It seems like, if we’re going to have imagination and accountability and open each other up to new ideas, it requires a letting go of the idea that we have it all together and opening up to how we can be more creative. How do we cultivate that? How do we respond to others calling us to be accountable without being defensive, and with humility? How does one become able to hear those things and respond to them?
SHANE: I think, first of all, that when it comes to humility, the community keeps your feet on the ground. Community keeps you accountable. You see each other at your best and at your worst. Community is good at lowering the mountains and lifting the valleys. We make sure that everyone gets celebrated in our community. And that’s part of why I travel in pairs, you know—it affects the way that you share a story when someone from your community is with you. They could say, “Well, that’s not really what happened,” or “Well, what about this?” And so I like that accountability. I think that Jesus lived like that and said, “Go out in pairs,” so that’s a big part of it—being submitted to other people.
I’m thankful for people that allow me to do that, and that love me unconditionally and remind me that I’m better than the worst things that I do. So community to me is also where I’m surrounded by people who are like the person I want to become. It pushes me to risk a little bit more.
As to the issue of how we’re constantly changing, I’m so thankful for people that have helped me to become who I am. Whatever I am is because of other people that have opened my eyes up to what that can look like, you know, which is why it’s not a strange thing to give away the money I’ve made on my book. You know, it just makes sense to share it with people who have been a part of that journey.
What I don’t have a ton of energy for is people that just critique, but don’t offer any sort of constructive program. That’s what I love about so much of what’s happening right now is that people have alternatives. It isn’t just people saying, “don’t travel,” but rather people saying, “let’s be more creative than just riding a plane somewhere. Let’s figure that out together.”
My friend Will, who works at Geez Magazine,5 got to a conference and he was just a mess, all red and chapped, and I said, “What happened?” And he said, “I just rode my bike 1,000 miles to get here.” He didn’t do that out of arrogance; he did it out of trying to do something that made sense. (laughs)
I think that type of integrity and the integrity of other people that I really respect pushes you a little further. It’s also life-giving. It’s life-giving to travel and stay in peoples’ homes. It’s not just that I hate hotels (although I don’t like hotels much) but it’s not something noble for me; staying in peoples’ homes just gives me life. And I can’t speak with any integrity if I’m going back to the Hyatt tonight. I’m not dissing other people, but I just completely get leveled and feel tongue-twisted if my needs and my ends don’t meet up. I think we’re trying to get there, but that’s where I’m really thankful for other people who are doing creative things and inviting other people to do those things as well.
That’s part of what we do—we talk about not just protesting, but “protestifying.” Let’s show something different if we’re going to critique. Let’s show an alternative.
BECKY: As I’m listening, one thing that strikes me as true, not in a super-human way, but as true in a very ordinary way that is inspiring, is how you talk about creativity. It’s very energizing because all of us have the innate capacity to be creative. You are critiquing and criticizing a lot of things, but you keep coming back to the idea of cultivating imagination, and of finding new ways of doing things. You’re not just deconstructing everything that we are doing wrong and then leaving us with a pile of rubble.
It’s easy at forums and conferences that are focused around issues of justice, to come away feeling pulled down, motivated by guilt and a weighted conscience for awhile, but you seem to be steering toward a more hopeful, uplifting way of movement that is tied to imagination. And imagination is something that all of us were born with and that all of us have the ability, as people created by a creative God (if you believe that), to nurture and grow.
That’s where I really hear the hope of what you’re saying—you are doing some tearing down, but you’re putting an imaginative structure in place, where the scaffolding might be made of something whimsical and nourishing and sustainable, instead of a resource that’s quickly available but ultimately destructive. It’s something different and unusual. That’s the hopefulness and the ordinariness of what you seem to be saying. It’s creative and yet it’s also accessible to all of us.
Can you talk about these differences in motivation—guilt verses imagination—and the effects of such motivation in your experience?
SHANE: Well, I think that guilt is a good indicator, but it’s not a good motivator. Many significant movements start with at least one sense of “Wow, that’s not right. Why are we doing that?” So there’s sort of a healthy conviction that comes with that, but then, that doesn’t sustain any transformation or change and it’s not very magnetic or compelling I think.
What we do is more fun and it brings me to life. At home, I get up every day and almost feel selfish sometimes that we have so much fun in our neighborhood and in what we do. Yet there are those who uphold us as though we were a sort of sacrificial people—like we’ve had to give up so much!
We see people coming to life in imagination everywhere. Not out of guilt, but out of a realization like “Wow, this is great! Why would I ever settle for a Porsche when I can ride a bike?” I met a guy who was saying, “Why do I drive an SUV to work and then drive it home and then drive it to work out at a place where I pay for a membership? Why don’t I just ride a bike?” And then he did.
You know, it’s crazy to stay in the pattern that so many people find themselves in. We’ve been sold the American Dream and we buy into it, and it ends up just being an empty, lonely nightmare of isolating ourselves from community and other people and imagination and life all so that we can be the wealthiest, most miserable, medicated, depressed people in the world. (laughs)
JON: Bob Dylan and Bono are both figures that the Christian community, particularly the evangelical community in America, have been highly attracted to. But then, once more of a relationship develops, the community seems to kill its prophet. There’s an attraction to Dylan and Bono, two people out there in the world, critiquing society and doing something different, but then at some point, the community requires that they become more “mainstream”—to drop what they’re doing—or else it becomes death to the prophet.
Have you felt that at all, or have you felt the freedom to continue to really be who you are? To be true to yourself and to your community?
SHANE: It seems that you’re implicitly comparing me to those two figures… (laughs) But I don’t pay too much attention to all that. In fact, it was definitely a part of my Lenten journey (and I’m continuing it now) to wean myself off of anything that I’d get too narcissistic or too absorbed in, in critique or thoughts of what people were saying.
I take what people say fairly seriously, especially when people write letters that they’re angry. I tell them to call me and we’ll hang out or whatever. But I’ve actually been amazed at how receptive people have been to their own capacity to change. I’m not claiming to be anyone’s direct influence or anything. But, to me, there are neat signs of humility that we’re all a work in process.
I think it’s important not to react to criticism in a way that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think Bono has a healthy number of influences around him within the church and outside of the church. It’s important not to polarize ourselves, but instead we need to call each other to the best that the Spirit wants for us.
I’m really careful about that art, and it is an art, a delicate integration and balance of how much you call or push people to. Wherever we’re at on a journey, a baby step is a step we celebrate. What might be really extreme for one person might be a no-brainer for someone else. But you kind of keep pushing each other a little bit or inviting people into that.
I’m really, really careful not to end up preaching to the choir, which is part of why I write with Zondervan, and I go to speak at the stewardship retreats of a mega-church. If they invite me, I’m there. I want to be engaged and not end up marginalizing myself. That’s why I’m also very careful politically, definitely in how I articulate things, but also with the friendships that we have. I don’t want to get boxed in.
So I’m careful with my language and in the circles that I would put my stamp on, you know. I think a lot of people are in that place where they’re really careful with that. There are a lot of people creating a really healthy conversation and a harmony of voices without repeating patterns of political polarities and things like that.
That’s part of the purpose of our book, Jesus for President. We want it to provoke the Christian political imagination to kind of think outside of the box on these things and to ask, how can we have a life and witness that is radically political, but just as much radically nonpartisan and transcending a lot of the categories that we have for everything?
I think that Jesus was not a reformist—he wasn’t trying to make a better Rome. He was establishing a completely new way of living together, you know?
JON: In our latest issue of The Other Journal, we focus on “Pop Revolutions.” You’ve talked about being wary of revolutions that are commodified within a consumer-capitalist system. How do you discern that—encouraging a revolution while we live in a culture that wants to commodify revolutions?
SHANE: It’s very tricky. There’s a great book by Herbert Marcuse called One Dimensional Man.6 It talks about how the dominant culture and pattern is able to absorb anything and that revolutions have become a sort of appendage. And so when you have thousands and thousands of protestors that show up to the Republican Convention, it only shows the power of the Republican Conventions, especially in the newsstands.
I always think that it won’t be long before you can buy gas-masks for protests that are made by Lockheed-Martin, so that everything is able to find it’s place and to be consumed and marketed within the larger culture. You know, the picture of the rebel sells. The picture of Che Guevara on the front of a coffee-cup.
But I think that it’s one of those things where you have to be wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove. For instance, there was one article about us in the New York Times that they called “Rebels With a Cross,” and so we’ve had that kind of a danger for ourselves. And we’ve had Time Magazine, ABC Nightline, all these sleek people that want to do stories.
We’re very careful about that—we discern it together and rarely do we do much of that anymore with all the hype. We’re careful that we tell the story ourselves. Usually the story that they want is about this privileged group of people who have moved into a poor neighborhood and are doing all this great work for the neighborhood. And that can be very disempowering to our neighbors who have lived and survived and who are caring for each other. So we just have to be careful about that.
I think we’ve learned a lot from watching other groups, like Emergent.7 One of my critiques of Emergent would be that it’s become incredibly narcissistic, and so you just end up talking about talking. It’s one thing to say, “Life happens when we sit around a bar and talk theology.” It’s another thing to sit at a bar and talk about sitting at a bar talking about theology. You know? And so you can end up really sucking the life out of a movement.
This is why I’m not too excited to do conferences and workshops on New Monasticism or the Movement, or things like that. Wendell Berry wrote a great article called “In Distrust of Movements” where he kind of gets at that;8 he warns not to fall in love with some big vision but to pay attention to the ingredients of it, like life together.
Bonhoeffer says it really well: “If we’re in love with our vision of community, we’ll destroy it, but if we really love the people around us, we’ll create community.” That’s been really important.
I’ve seen that in church growth movement, where you can really rip the congregation apart trying to build your seven-point strategy for church growth. Or within a progressive activist community, people can just tear each other apart with their “vision for a better world” and can be very, very aggressive and judgmental and hurtful to each other. I have seen the faces that this takes everywhere.
I wrote an article on our website in reaction to some of that. It’s called “The Marketable Revolution,” and it talks about the dangers of that.9 It’s a temptation of Jesus to be culturally relevant. Most of the people I really admire within the Church’s history have actually called into question everything that was relevant in the culture and also many of the really ugly things that Christianity developed in the quest to be relevant to the culture.
BECKY: What you’re saying about your community’s effort to tell your own story and to avoid marketable hype seems to draw a parallel to Jesus’ whole ministry where he doesn’t want people to know that he is the Son of God. He calls himself the Son of Man instead, which is a much more down-to-earth, mortal, humble title.
Many of the people that I most admire have been the reluctant prophets, the folks who had the ability to speak and articulate but didn’t necessarily want to because they weren’t interested in hearing the sound of their own voices or in being well known.
And so instead, the voices that get heard most frequently are the ones that, as you say, are just talking about talking. But the voices that are especially needed, it seems, are those that maybe aren’t trying to be heard above the throng, but are the voices of people who are actually out moving around and doing the good work. It seems like it’s also the unsafe work—doing instead of just talking.
I wonder, are you ever scared or frightened by living out and acting on this sort of radical faith, this type of Christianity that you talk about?
SHANE: The only thing that frightens me is when people look at us like we’re saints, because I think that such an infatuation is only indicative of how far we’ve come from the heart of Jesus and what true Christianity has been, you know? The fact that what we’re doing looks radical is an indictment on the kind of Christianity that we’ve become accustomed to. It’s just marked by what it believes and not how it looks. That’s where it’s really, really dangerous.
We always try not to react to that, because on the one end you can think too highly of yourself, and on the other hand you can think too lowly of yourself, and all the time you’re thinking of yourself. How do you get out of that and be freed up to do things that bring people closer to God and God’s dream for the world? That’s what we’re working faithfully to do.
When people come up to me and say, “Man, you’re awesome!” it’s because they either don’t know me or because they don’t know God—there are lots of things that are awesome. That’s the only thing that I worry about.
But for myself, I’m not really frightened of anything—it feels good to have a community and to do life together. I don’t know what else to be scared of.
BEN: Some of us are starting a community here, and something that has come up is that it seems like there is a vulnerability that is required to build very real relationships. One of my fears is how far vulnerability is extended to people you meet in the context of that community.
SHANE: One of my housemates and friends says about living in community that it’s like standing before a mirror naked, because you see yourself in a very real and vulnerable way.
The community is a choice to look deeper. You laugh harder, you cry harder, you hurt each other more because you know each other better, you know, a lot like any deep relationship—a family, a partner or someone you’re married to. But you grow into that.
Community is organic—you don’t jump through a lot of hoops to get there, but you grow into it. For us, we’ve created some things that articulate how that works pretty well, at least for us over ten years. You know, the mistakes we’ve made, things that have worked for us. We describe it actually organically like an onion, you know. And so we look at the layers within our community and try to figure out what are appropriate expectations and sharing, transparency and all that stuff that we have at each of those layers within our community.
And there are commitments that we make. When there are people that visit, we don’t expect them to be Christians or anything at all, really. But if people want to live with us for different amounts of time, then they make different sorts of commitments to that and we have different expectations. You know, we don’t pour our whole selves out to people who are just coming for a week. Because community can also be—especially for us right now—very parasitical where people come and they take from your community and they leave and we end up feeling malnourished. We’ve had to really figure out how to do that. We’ve had up to twenty people a day calling that want to visit, so we do it differently now.
Part of what we do now is that we have a community every month that hosts what we call “Schools for Conversions: Learning to Live Differently”10 that gives exposure to a bunch of different communities all around the country. Those are all linked up to our website and that’s how we integrate other people into our community.
Some of the other things that we have that have kept constant over the years are, for instance, something that we call “straight talk,” which is the idea that you don’t talk around someone, but that you talk directly to them if you’re hurt or offended or if you’ve done something that you want to confess. We protect that. If Zach doesn’t do his dishes, you don’t complain to someone else, you talk to Zach about it. Talking to someone else won’t resolve it anyway, you know? But we’ve made a commitment to do that, and to protect that environment.
You know, community can also attract really broken, needy people. So we have to create a culture within it that is healing and that brings the best out of people and that doesn’t do the opposite of bringing the community into one person or everyone’s unhealthiness or revolve everyone around one specific need.
We describe a lot of the things that we’ve built to create that as a trellis of a garden. You want enough structure within the community so that things aren’t rotten on the ground but if you have too much structure, it does the opposite of creating life and suffocates and doesn’t allow things to be free and natural. It’s a delicate thing.
BECKY: And does your community have a garden?
SHANE: Oh yeah. We have a bunch of gardens. It’s one of the places we have a lot of fun. We actually have a gardener on our block, Dominic, who we’ve been able to create an income for this year, so he is our part-time gardener. And we all garden together too. Actually, the Camden Community across the river has a big ol’ greenhouse and a natural bread oven they bake pizzas and bread in and they call themselves urban gardeners.
BECKY: In relation to gardening, you talk about the Latin meaning of the word radical, which is radix, meaning rooted-ness. What is it that most makes you feel rooted?
SHANE: Well, again, I think it’s choosing a group of people that you decide to do life together with. That takes many different forms, but for me it helps to have roots in a neighborhood that I love. That’s part of why I’m going home tomorrow morning after I just got here today (for a conference)—I love being here, but I also want to be in my neighborhood, you know.
And of course, I think growing roots into who Jesus is and trying to be those things that Jesus is. That kind of gets rooted into who we are, you know? Those are all things that I’m excited about. Those are what keep me rooted and anchored in reality.
1. Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living As an Ordinary Radical. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
2. The word “radical” is from the Latin word radix, meaning root.
3. Claiborne, p. 21.
4. The community in which Shane lives in Pennsylvania is called The Simple Way (www.thesimpleway.org).
6. Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.
7. “The emerging church movement” or “conversation” is defined by Wikipedia as: “a controversial 21st century Christian movement whose participants seek to engage postmodern people, especially the unchurched and post-churched. To accomplish this, ’emerging Christians’ or ’emergents’ seek to deconstruct and reconstruct Christian beliefs, standards, and methods to fit in the postmodern mold. Proponents of this movement call it a ‘conversation’ to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emerging_church_movement).
8. Berry, Wendell. “In Distrust of Movements.” Resurgence, no. 198 (Jan/Feb 2000).
9. The Simple Way’s March newsletter, accessed at http://www.thesimpleway.org/mailings/Marchnewsletter.pdf.
10. Schools for Conversion, accessed at http://www.newmonasticism.org/sfc/.