Katherine Maxwell-Cook recently chatted to the radical activist, Shane Claiborne, about pensions, tax, the US elections and how to make your own clothes.
Your new book, written with Tony Campolo is called Red Letter Christianity. Could you unpack that term?
There was a country music radio DJ down in Nashville that actually put language to what we were talking about. He was interviewing a friend of ours and said: “Yeah I’ve read the Bible and there is some stuff that I get and some stuff that is confusing, but I’ve always liked the stuff in red (referring to the words of Jesus, often marked in red). You guys seem to like the red stuff too, you should call yourselves red letter Christians.” We started to recognise that much of our Christianity doesn’t always look like Jesus.
So it’s a desire to draw people back to Jesus’ actual words?
Sadly, evangelical Christianity has kind of gained a reputation for being sexist, racist, anti-gay, pro-military and pro-death penalty. A recent study in the States by the border research group found that the top three perceptions of young non-Christians when they think of Christians is that they are anti-gay, judgemental and hypocritical. That breaks our hearts. We want to be known by our love. People didn’t walk away from Jesus and say: “Man, he sure doesn’t like gay folks, or he’s so judgemental or hypocritical, right?
Somehow, Jesus has survived the embarrassing things that we Christians have done in his name. When you ask young non-Christians what they think of Jesus the answer is very different to what they think of Christians – they often say very good things. People have so closely married America and Christianity that what has become at stake is not just the reputation of America but the reputation of Christianity. The headlines have been hijacked with hatred; burning the Qur’an and holding signs that say “God hates fags”.
In your book you write: “Once we’ve given to God what is God’s there is not a lot left over for Caesar.” What are your views on paying tax?
We’ve used a phrase of John Howard Yoder – revolutionary subordination. We are to be submitted to the authority of government but we’re also to transcend them and have an allegiance to God that everything else is subordinate to. We’re resident aliens with a citizenship and allegiance which runs deeper than just nationality. How does a Christian who is committed to the prince of peace live in a nation that spends $20,000 a second on militarism and war? Nearly half of our tax dollar is going towards militarism, so what does it mean to reserve the right not to kill? There’s a great precedent for a lot of Christians in the States that don’t make enough money to have a taxable income, a lot of monastic votes take a vow of poverty so they’re not on the state’s radar. Other folks have done some form of war-tax resistance. I donated the percentage of taxes that would’ve gone to war to the groups that were working for reconciliation and peace.
Do you vote? How do you view the elections?
You could look at my latest article on this. There’s a big question that we get to ask on election day: is there anything I can do that might move the world to something closer to what God wants for it? We vote every day with our lives, our money and the things that we align ourselves with. A great posture for Christians in a national election is rather than looking for the messianic hope, we’re looking to do damage control. George Bush said that: “The values of America are the light of the world and the darkness will not overcome it.” That’s a dangerous theology. Barack Obama said on the David Letterman show: “America is the last best hope on earth.” We’ve found the best hope on earth and it’s not Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, or even America – it’s Jesus.
My dad keeps telling me to get a pension but I don’t want one. What do you think about pensions?
My mum keeps saying that too! Jesus says that we’re not to store up for tomorrow and to pray, this day our daily bread – it flies in the face of retirement funds and pensions. We have an alternative security plan, that doesn’t rest in Wall Street and the banks. Our security plan is in a God that loves us and the whole world, who takes care of the lilies and sparrows, and has created a community where we can catch one another when we fall. We might not have medical insurance, but we have 20,000 brothers and sisters that are committed to pulling our money together to meet each other’s medical bills. We pour money together, like the early Church, and it’s given out to folks as they have medical needs.
Pensions and retirement plans fit a structure of: “I’ve got to take care of myself, or my family.” The gospel points us towards a very large family, where we can rest in the assurance that people will be there to take care of us when we die, and we will have folks who will carry the financial needs of each other.
We put some of your questions, posted to us on Twitter and Facebook, to Shane:
If you could force one law through government, what would it be?
The most important thing is love – and love is one of the only things you can’t legislate. Love can be protected and provoked. It wouldn’t be a law but an over-arching value of our culture. A consistent ethic of life which values very human being as created in the image of God and of infinite value. This should frame and affect how we think about social issues, abortion, immigration, poverty, the death penalty and war. We re-commit ourselves to protect life it all its forms.
Is an anarchist’s non-engagement with party politics not effectively good people letting injustice prosper?
I’m suspicious of labels, so I’ve never been a self-professed anarchist. I’m wary of anything that ends in –ist, capitalist, communist, anarchist. Jesus is calling us to be lovers of God and people, and that defies categories, camps and ideologies. Jacques Ellul does great work, in Anarchy and Christianity in describing how we’re pointed to a different ‘archy’ (like hierarchy) a different way of thinking about power, so rather than thinking that power comes from the top down, the model of Jesus is that it comes from the bottom up. God enters the world in the most vulnerable posture imaginable, a homeless baby refugee. Christianity offers a different ‘archy’ of power. It’s very counter-intuitive. We are called to align ourselves with those who are most marginalised, and those who are most stepped-upon. Jesus was very engaged in the issues of his time. Half of his parables are about day labourers, unjust judges, unfair wages, widows and orphans. We need to be deeply engaged with the social and political questions of our time but we also need to be very particular and not confine ourselves to any camp or party, or person other than Christ. Rather than endorsing politicians, we invite them to endorse the values of Christ.
Apparently, you make your own clothes. Do you have any dressmaking tips?
My wife would say that I make my own clothes with my mother’s help. Or my mother makes my clothes with a little help from me. She made my tuxedo for my wedding, each pocket had nine parts to it! The fun of making stuff is that you shouldn’t just read it on the internet or get a book, you need a teacher. I’m sure there are a lot of older folks who would love to pass on these endangered arts. It’s a beautiful thing that Jesus came into the world and was also a carpenter. I like making clothes with my mum, as it’s a good excuse to hang out and I can rest assured that my clothes aren’t made by a kid in a sweatshop somewhere. Gandhi’s spinning wheel was a symbol for him; we can make our own clothes, we can march to the sea and get our own salt. We want to know the invisible faces that are behind the way of life that we live and we may not be proud of how those people are treated so it forces us to want to do something to change their circumstances.
You’re a great voice for singleness in your book The Irresistible Revolution. How has your marriage changed things?
Both singleness and marriage have an incredible thing to offer the Church and the kingdom of God and we should celebrate both. We should never pressure people, either to be single or married. What is going to allow you to shine brighter for Jesus? I’m really grateful for what singleness has taught me, what single saints have taught me, like Mother Teresa and so many others, that we can be complete without another person, that we’re complete in Christ; that we can find deep love and intimacy in community. Likewise I’m thankful for what marriage is teaching me. The scriptures speak about this romance between God and humanity, with the Church as the bride of Christ. I think that a life-long covenant with another person can show us so much about God.
A lot of single people are dangerous if they try to get married and aren’t content being single, and a lot of people can hide in singleness as well. If we aren’t able to be really vulnerable and transparent with people, then we’re dangerous as singles, and if we’re not content being alone then we’re dangerous as married people.
What advice would you give godly Christian business leaders and bankers about how they can serve in their field?
In Romans, it says that we’re not to conform to the patterns of the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. The current patterns of this world are the masses; the 99 per cent and the one per cent. The masses of our world are living in poverty, so that a handful of people can live however they want. There is an invitation for us to interrupt the patterns of deep inequity between the super rich and the super poor. Some CEOs are making 400 times what their workers are making. These patterns are deeply out of line with the patterns of God’s kingdom, where it says the rich are sent away empty and the poor are filled with good things. Maybe some CEOs could switch salaries with their janitors for the year? When people encounter Jesus it changes the way they do economics. The early Christians would say, if we’ve got two coats we’ve stolen one, if we’ve got extra food in our closet while someone goes hungry, then we’re thieves.
What advice would you give to people trying to build community where they live?
We have to start slow by doing morning prayer, sharing a meal or some of our money. Maybe there are things we can get out of our life to open up space for community, so getting rid of television, or cutting down the amount of time that we’re on technologies, or working part time. Whatever those things are, they free up the space for community to even happen. Right now we’re some of the busiest people in the history of the world. We have to create space for community to flourish again.
How do you begin to address this addiction to consumerism which we seem to have?
Rather than figure out how do I accumulate more, we can ask how can I live off of less? Is there a way that a few friends can share a washer, a dryer or a car? We’ve been fed a way of living in a detached nuclear family, that is utterly unsustainable. The average north American is consuming the same amount as 500 Africans.
Some of the wealthiest corners of the world have the highest rates of loneliness, depression and suicide, because we no longer have community. In some of the toughest corners of the world, there is a deep sense of intimacy, connectivity, community and love – because that is how people have survived. Often in crisis, the community flourishes, because people need each other. When a hurricane hits, the whole place comes together. We don’t need to wait until a crisis to exercise the muscles for community. What we’ve got to do is turn off things where we’re being fed that happiness has to be purchased, where we’re constantly bombarded with the idea that we need the next iPhone or the next piece of technology to make us more efficient or more happy. Contentment and love are things that can’t be purchased.