When Clark said last week that “I think Joy is asking us to engage in some subversive imagining,” he was giving me more than my due. My actual aim was more modest: I simply wanted to consider how religious views support and feed the status quo, and vice versa.
But, in the funny way things work, Clark’s blog became my call to make his comment true: a call to actually try busting out of Bizlam and follow Jesus afresh.
I turned for inspiration to Shane Claiborne. If anyone has busted out of Bizlam, it’s him. Claiborne is the young, dreadlocked co-founder of The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community in a scrappy Philadelphia neighbourhood. Wanda and John E. had told me about him a couple of years ago. I’d seen a movie about him and was not impressed; heard him speak this fall and was impressed; and this week, borrowed his book Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and read it in a two-day gulp.
Claiborne’s revolution is hard to resist. While at university he broke out of his East Tennessee, suburban, Methodist upbringing and decided to act the way he saw Jesus act. He helped a bunch of squatters resist eviction from their homes in an abandoned church, and then moved with a group of friends into a house nearby. He worked with Mother Theresa and visited Iraq during the bombing.Through all this, it’s clear that he is having a ball. The pages are full of parties and pranks – throwing $20,000 in cash into Wall Street; breaking up a neighbourhood fight with juggling; murals, hugs, gardens, praying, drumming, summer camps, community theatre, and dozens of other life-giving things. (You can read more about these beautiful things at The Simple Way.)
Claiborne is not calling everyone to live the life he has chosen. But he is calling us ordinary Christians to stand out from the crowd. He notes that most people would be able to answer the question, “What do Christians believe?” but would be stumped by the question, “How do Christians live?” That’s because Christians live pretty much like everybody else, they “just sprinkle a little Jesus in along the way.”
Claiborne also talks about “creating a culture in which it is easier for people to be good.” I like that. He notes, for example, the problem is not that Christians don’t love the poor – they just don’t know them. It is by living together that the “rich and poor” stories become inter-twined and sharing stops being charity – a guilt-induced thing — but a natural part of living.
Yes, but . . .
I love what Claiborne is doing. But as I read his book, I contracted a bad case of “yes, but . . .”
Yes, I love the idea of rich and poor living together, and a big part of my work has been devoted to promoting mixed-income communities. But I’ve also read the research that shows that rich and poor may live next door to each other, but that doesn’t mean they talk to each other, or that poor people are better off. All we can confidently say is that social mixing is better than concentrated poverty. As one paper put it, “For the underprivileged, social mixing may not be a universal ‘good,’ but social segregation is definitely a universal ‘bad.’”
Yes, I love the Wednesday Night Suppers in the basement of Danforth Church. They allow me to meet people that I would never have the chance to know otherwise. But perhaps these same people would prefer to eat their dinners and leave, rather than suffer conversation with the likes of me.
Yes, as Claiborne accurately notes, charities and non-profit organizations serve to distance the rich from the poor. The poor get the cash or services. The rich assuage their guilt. But it’s not the way of Jesus, who touched, fed, washed and blessed people directly and individually.
But I also recall that a hundred years ago the poor were quite used to visits from the rich, who doled out advice along with their hampers. Myself, I rejoiced when yesterday’s Globe said that a Guaranteed Annual Income was once again under discussion. I think it will be a great day when low-income people can receive cheques in the mail without any intrusions from others.
The real question: do “the poor” want to be with me?
My “yes, buts” may just be a cop-out. But I don’t think so. I hear Jesus’ call to “be with the poor.” I want to respond. But I really have no confidence that “the poor” want to be with me, or people like me.
As I was preparing this blog, I googled Claiborne, and learned that in 2007 his home and the homes of six other families were completely destroyed by fire. In the story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a devastated mother and her daughter “turned tear-stained faces to the sky. They collapsed in grief. They shook with anger” at losing their home, clothes, car — even the daughter’s Dunkin’ Donuts uniform.
The Simple Way raised over $4,000 for fire relief. And Claiborne, who had also “lost everything but his white Apple laptop, which he kept tucked under his arm,” said “The most valuable things in life you can’t buy, sell or steal. . . People ask, ‘How does it feel to lose everything?’ I say, ‘I wouldn’t know. Everybody survived.’ ”
It’s an inspiring thought. I hope that if I am ever in the same position, I will feel the same way. But if I were that mother or her daughter in the article, I’m not sure I’d feel inspired. I think I’d feel shamed.
And that’s why I’m feeling a bit stuck.
Many of you have thought long and hard about the questions that I wrestle with, and have been wrestling with for the past 30 years. Tell us what you’ve been thinking.