Shane Claiborne was not a headline speaker at the Greenbelt Festival in England last month. However, when he appeared as part of a panel on new monasticism, the small, Methodist-hosted venue had to turn away hundreds.
Claiborne’s books have had a profound effect, particularly on a younger generation of what he likes to call “ordinary radicals,” people inspired by or sharing in the message of nonviolence, community and justice that he sees in Christ’s teachings.
Naturally, Claiborne rejects the suggestion that the crowds were there to see him, joking that they had mistakenly come to see a band, despite the long line of fans who queued up afterward to meet him.
“People are hungry to connect our faith to the world we live in,” he says. “The idea of marrying the things that we believe with real practices: that’s why I’m drawn to the monastic conversation.”
Claiborne’s understanding of the monastic may be different from what you’d expect.
His small community in Philadelphia, The Simple Way, is far from a cloistered community away from the world.
Living and working together in a dilapidated neighborhood for justice and nonviolence, his “new monasticism” may still focus on communal prayer and spiritual discipline, but it exists in the radical prophetic tradition of St. Francis more than a withdrawal from society.
“In my country,” he says, “we’re spending $250,000 a minute on war while the entire country goes bankrupt.
“To be a prophetic Christian witness into that, we have to be a gentle interruption, to make a call for that to conform to the norms of the kingdom of God.”
Claiborne himself does not align his views with any political party or ideology. In previous interviews, he has even referred to voting as “damage control,” rather than a panacea.
“To be nonpartisan does not mean being nonpolitical,” he says, “but we should be peculiar in how we are political, as Jesus was.”
What that looks like, Claiborne explains, is Christians aligning themselves with what moves us closer to God’s kingdom on earth.
“That is not blessing the already blessed and further taxing the poor,” he says.
So how does a prophet of simplicity deal with being the equivalent of a Christian rock star?
As with so many things, Claiborne believes the answer has its roots in community.
“Community keeps you pretty grounded,” he says. “I deliberately balance my time away with my time at home. And my community, including my wife, discerns my travel with me.
“And everywhere I travel, I take someone from the community with me so that if I tell a story and it’s wrong, they can correct me and say, ‘No, we didn’t raise two people from the dead.'”
His attitude to his “stardom” seems to be encapsulated in a saying he says he has affixed to his wall at home: “God forgive me for thinking too lowly of myself. God forgive me for thinking of myself so much.”
Claiborne does not take the impact he has had on people for granted, though. He tells the story of meeting a young man from America’s deep South, where he hails himself.
“This guy said to me: ‘I’m a gun-totin’, pick-up-truck drivin’, NRA-card carryin’ redneck. But I’ve been readin’ your stuff and it’s messed me up. I’m a recoverin’ redneck now.’ In the end, that’s the good news: We can all become a new creation.”
Claiborne’s own struggles with the racist context in which he grew up, the “ugly side of the South” that he says inculcated values in him that he had to “unlearn” has informed a surprisingly tolerant attitude to more conservative expressions of Christianity.
“In some ways, I’m a recovering redneck myself,” he says. “I’m grateful for the grace I’ve experienced and I hope that gives me grace with other folks that are working things out.”
His profile at Greenbelt this year has been surprisingly low, but fans or those curious about how “new monasticism” relates to local justice, homelessness and working for peace in dangerous places need not fret.
Claiborne revealed that he will be speaking at Greenbelt 2012, undoubtedly on a larger platform.