Prophetic Imagination: An Interview with Shane Claiborne
Photos by Tim Landis
“To every man, in his acquaintance with new art, there comes a moment when that which before was meaningless first lifts, as it were, one corner of the curtain that hides its mystery, and reveals, in a burst of delight which later and fuller understanding can hardly ever equal, one glimpse of the indefinite possibilities within.”
– C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet
In the first book of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, a man named Ransom finds himself marooned on an unexplored planet. When he first encounters the ancient song of an alien tribe, Ransom is bewildered by the foreign sounds. Soon, however, his incomprehension turns to revelation as the beauty of this music reveals the universe’s boundless potential. It’s as if Ransom’s field of vision expands from a pinhole to a horizon of possibility. His encounter with imagination opens a space within him for hope to burgeon.
We often link imagination with juvenility and inexperience. Yet imagination produces strength, not naivety. It renders us resilient to the harsh dealings of time and disappointment; it preserves vigor, delight, and mystery within a jaded humanity. To see the holy hidden in the mundane alters our idea of what is possible.
We serve a limitless God whose imagination is unhindered and infinite. What would it look like to dream the way God does? And if we matched the trajectory of our lives with a Love that realizes those dreams, how far could restoration extend? Jesus loved in new, unheard of, imaginative ways, like dining with prostitutes, caring for lepers, and forgiving murderers. Those who witnessed these unprecedented acts glimpsed renewal and seized a hope unlike any they had seen before.
Our world is still in desperate want of this subversive love, and Jesus’ imagination is just as compelling today as it was to early Christians.
Author and activist Shane Claiborne possesses a prophetic and Gospel-driven imagination. Shane is a founding member of The Simple Way, a tight-knit community of ragtag Christians who live as modern monastics in the middle of urban Philadelphia. The Simple Way community collectively chooses to “love God, love people, and follow Jesus.” Shane has worked with Mother Teresa in India serving the destitute and dying. He has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan as an advocate for peace, and has initiated wild displays of generosity and peaceful protest in the United States. Yet Shane would call himself and others like him “ordinary radicals.” His way of life—of loving extraordinarily—is spectacular in light of our broken world, but normative in light of Jesus.
We asked Shane what shaped him into a modern reformer and how we can adopt habits of wholehearted discipleship to live as ordinary radicals ourselves. During our conversation, Shane illuminated the possibilities of a world filled with courageous, creative dreamers. He spoke of a team of brilliant robotics engineers who use their highly lucrative skills to develop technology to dismantle landmines, saving the lives of children in Afghanistan. He shared about a world-class lawyer who chooses to forgo a life of wealth to fight for people on death row and exonerate those wrongly convicted based on skin color. He referenced a Philadelphia church congregation who created a public installation to represent the city’s three hundred shooting victims that year, offering a place for lament and awareness of the gun violence epidemic. These brothers and sisters, Shane explained, are exercising their imaginations to the brink of the impossible because they have faith in a God who defies our notions of the conceivable.
The author of Hebrews speaks of the saints before us who “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar”—saints who sought “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-14). They re-imagined life’s possibilities while holding the potential of God’s infinite love in their hands. How can we be dreamers and doers of the same fiber?
Through both his life and words, Shane offers ways to adopt this kind of faithful nonconformity. Let us rally, strengthened with imagination, to tackle everything from the smallest of tasks to the white whales of our lives. Let us be part of satiating our hope-hungry world.
What led you and your friends to start The Simple Way?
I grew up in Tennessee in a fairly sheltered world—a pretty homogenous, but wonderful place. But I wouldn’t say I lived very near to the pain of the world. I’m sure it was there, but I was fairly insulated from [it]. I began to see that the world is a lot bigger than my small town in East Tennessee. I began to see later that racism is a deep disease and has left a residue from slavery and our racial history. I think seeing people on the streets, families with their kids, moms and kids sleeping in abandoned houses blew me away and it also stirred a fire in my bones: other people need to know this, we need to do something about this; this is not okay.
When I was in college there was a really catalytic event in Philly in which a group of homeless mothers [got] together and were living in an old church building. We got involved. [There were] dozens and dozens of homeless families, and that [was] eye opening. Why did we have so many abandoned buildings and families–3,000 families at the time–that were on the waiting list for housing? It questioned our faith. The families hung a banner that said “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?” That [solidified] the connection between Jesus and the question he raises, “What does it look like to love my neighbor as myself?” Especially if [your neighbor] is sleeping in a cardboard box or an abandoned building.
How and why have you decided to shape your life around a call to show mercy to “the least of these”?
I heard a pastor say if we find ourselves climbing the ladder of success, status, and upward mobility we better be careful or else on our way up we’ll pass Jesus on his way down. I really began to see that Jesus is saying if you want to be the greatest become the least, and that challenged a lot of my priorities and really the entire trajectory of my life.
Do you think downward mobility is a call for all Christians? Is it a lifestyle that is possible for everyone?
I think we are called to live with imagination. We’ve been given gifts for a reason—to use them in ways that liberate and speak life to other people, whether we’re a carpenter, schoolteacher, gardener, or nurse. I like how Frederick Buechner says we’ve got to take our deepest passions and connect them to the world’s deepest pains. Then we do what we love to do—what we’re good at, what we’re designed to do—and it gives life to other people. I think that’s also what it means to seek first the kingdom of God as Jesus talked about. We’re not just trying to find the job that pays the bills, but we’re actually trying to do something redemptive with our gifts and living for something that’s bigger than us. We’re all called to not conform to the patterns of the world. But nonconformity doesn’t mean uniformity.
[Downward mobility is] a call for us to move closer to the suffering of the world. One version of that is God put skin on and moved into the neighborhood, and not just any neighborhood. He came from a place where people said nothing good could come. He was born in an era where the powers that be were killing all the young boys throughout the land. I think [knowing] that causes us to think differently when we think about desperate people—when we think about refugees and immigrants—because we’re following one. We’re following a God who became one of us. That changes everything.
Can you explain the New Monasticism movement?
[New Monasticism] is this call to swim upstream. There’s actually a different gravity that pulls us into those forsaken places. [Our community] identified a dozen different things we think hold together this idea of Christian belief and practice. Essentially we are asking, “What does it look like to be Christian in the world?” Most people know what Christians believe and those things are important, but our great challenge is not this right thinking, but right living. Because when you ask the average non-Christian what Christians believe they can actually tell you most of the things Christians believe, but when you ask them how Christians live, their answers are not pretty.
What inspired you and your community, The Simple Way, to adopt a New Monastic lifestyle?
Hospitality is a value of ours, [as is] racial justice, prayer, proximity to each other, living together, caring for the earth, environmental responsibility. I think our list of twelve wasn’t exactly meant to be exhaustive, I think it was meant to put some teeth on what it looks like to be Christians. It raises the question, “What does Christianity look like?” And that’s exactly what everybody was fascinated by. We are strong believers that the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, spreads not by force but by fascination—by folks who love beautifully in the world. That’s exactly what Jesus said: “They will know you’re Christians by your love.”
Is there any practical advice you could give readers who want to grow in intimacy with Jesus and live with bold, faithful imagination?
This is where community becomes so important. We’re not just called to be individual radicals out there but we are actually called to be a part of a body—the body of Christ in the world. Community is about surrounding ourselves with people who look like the kind of person we want to be. It’s surrounding ourselves with people who look like Jesus and they rub off on us. I hear people say, “How can I be more courageous?” and the answer is you hang out with courageous people. Half of the things I’ve been able to do like going to Afghanistan and Iraq and these different places have been because I did them in the context of really courageous people who helped me overcome any of my fears or hesitations. We become like those that we love, including Jesus.
The second thing is we need some resources that can create holy habits for us because some of what we’re talking about is exercising our soul. At first it’s hard work, but [we] really need some structure and order to that. I think we need some of these really traditional spiritual disciplines like fasting. Going without food sometimes helps exercise muscles of compassion in us, helps us identify with those who go hungry often not by choice. And it helps us understand God’s hunger for justice when we give up things that we have easy access to.
In The Irresistible Revolution you wrote, “What the world needs is people who believe so much in another world that they cannot help but begin enacting it now.” How do you think we begin enacting it now?
That takes faith. It’s why we’re believing the world can be different than it is. And some days that’s really hard. A friend of mine says faith is believing despite the evidence, and watching the evidence change. Before almost every social movement in history—like the movement to abolish slavery—everybody said, “This is impossible.” After all these movements people look back and in hindsight they say, “That was inevitable.” I think we’re on the forefront of imagining a new world and sometimes we’re only paralyzed by the depth of our own imagination. Can we dream it? Can we dream with God? Because God’s dreams are bigger than our dreams. Can we refuse to accept as normative that there’s another unarmed black person killed by police? Can we refuse to accept as normative that eighty people own the same amount as 3.5 billion people? It doesn’t have to be that way, right?
We get a lot of inspiration from the Prophets. They refused to accept the world as it was and they provoked peoples’ hearts by doing weird things. Like Jeremiah wore a yoke on his back to show the depth of the captivity and oppression they experienced. Micah and Isaiah [had visions] of God’s people beating swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks: turning instruments that have brought death and reaping life. I think sometimes we’re waiting on God and God is waiting on us. You ask God to move a mountain and God hands you a shovel and says, “We’re going to do this together.”
Shane recommended the following resources for cultivating a deeper spiritual imagination. Our hope is that they bolster our understanding of Jesus and discipleship, and compel us to live as ordinary radicals.
- Common Prayer: A resource developed by Shane Claiborne and a team within the New Monastic community meant to connect worship to the world in a way that moves people into action through daily prayer and song. www.commonprayer.net
- The Apprentice Institute: An institute through Friends University that offers a spiritual formation degree program and seeks to equip students, churches, and communities with practical approaches to discipleship. www.apprenticeinstitute.org
- Renovaré: A nonprofit that offers print and online resources including books, articles, and podcasts. Renovaré organizes retreats and spiritual formation groups for communities seeking to become more like Jesus together. www.renovare.org
- Richard Rohr: As the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr promotes practices of contemplation and self-emptying to cultivate a compassionate, Gospel-centered life. Find Rohr’s books and other resources at www.cac.org.
Megan Sexton spends most of her time writing, playing music in her band The Brave Kind, and slinging beers at Topa Topa Brewing Company in Ventura, Ca. She hopes to tell stories that speak of the good, hard, hopeful, and true things of being human. In the process of learning how to be a real person herself, she believes a taco, a good book, and a plunge into the nearest body of water can bring refreshment to even the weariest of souls.
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