An evangelical who preaches a different sermon

Shane Claiborne says evangelical Christianity should be more concerned with social justice than just personal salvation
Evangelical activist Shane Claiborne.

A gun fancier we know often quotes the Bible when he says Jesus Christ supported arming citizens.

Jesus, he says, told his disciples, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”

We also know evangelical preachers who also cite the passage as an argument to own guns.

Evangelical activist Shane Claiborne sees it differently.

“I think it’s a very important passage,” Claiborne says, “because it does get used often to argue that Jesus was encouraging an armed rebellion, which is exactly the opposite of what I think Jesus was doing.”

Instead, Claiborne says, Christ was “trying to air the dirty laundry and the weapons out there and, ultimately, to triumph over the idea that violence is the kind of change that we want to see.”

He adds that a passage that follows the “sell your cloak and buy” a sword tells the true story about his beliefs.

“So what happens right after that Gospel reading that you cited is that Peter actually draws his sword, when the soldiers come to get Jesus, and he injures one of them,” he says. “Jesus’ response is stunning. He scolds Peter and says, ‘Put your sword away. You don’t get it. If you pick up the sword, you die by the sword.’ And then Jesus heals the man that Peter wounded.

“When Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed every one of us. Because if there was ever a case for standing our ground, or using violence to protect the innocent, Peter had the case.”

The Washington Post Magazine profiled Claiborne this past weekend. It notes:

This brief exchange captured Claiborne’s dynamic with the Christian right at large — which is to say, with most of his fellow white evangelicals. He believes that as a group, they’ve lost their bearings, and for 16 years, he’s been trying to get them back on course, by calling constant attention to the example of Christ. “Shane is that rare evangelical who challenges the status quo but does so with the Bible as his foundation,” says Karen Swallow Prior, a literature professor at Liberty University who has herself been a powerful voice for reform in the Southern Baptist Convention. She credits Claiborne for modeling “the ways in which Christianity is countercultural,” and for encouraging young Christians to ask “deep, difficult questions” — “because that’s what Jesus did.”

By and large, mainstream evangelical leaders have opted to ignore Claiborne. In 2018, for instance, his team organized a “revival” in Lynchburg, Va., where Liberty University is located, and Claiborne invited the president — Jerry Falwell Jr., one of the Christian right’s chief spokesmen — to join him in prayer. Falwell responded by saying he’d have Claiborne arrested if he set foot on the campus. (Falwell’s statements have time and again landed him in public controversy. Last year, he told the New York Times that he doesn’t “look to the teachings of Jesus for what my political beliefs should be.” One recent news report quoted emails in which he called a Liberty student “physically retarded” and described the school’s then-police chief as “a half-wit and easy to manipulate.”)

Getting on the wrong side of Jerry Falwell Jr. is a big plus in my book. Falwell, like his father, is a practitioner of religious hypocrisy and we see it daily in his steadfast of Donald Trump, the moral values-challenged president.

Christian sociologist Tony Compolo says Claiborne is an important voice in the evangelical movement.

“With young people, he’s like a rock star,”  says Campolo, Claiborne’s 84-year-old mentor, who has often toured alongside him. “I don’t know how else to describe him. Wherever he goes, they flock to him.”

No figure on the Christian right can claim such a youthful following, the Post says of Claiborne in its profile.

The Post adds:

This is all happening against the backdrop of rapidly declining church attendance, particularly among young people. The Southern Baptist Convention alone has lost 1 million members in the past decade. Some of this reflects generational trends — millennials and Gen-Zers are shaping up to be the least religious generations in American history — and some of it, in evangelical churches, is a direct backlash against the leadership’s longtime alliance with the Republican Party. Both these trends help explain Claiborne’s popularity. With his outsider status, the stark moral clarity of his message and his concern for the downtrodden, he’s tapped into the spiritual sensibilities of the younger generations. In this way, an anarchist may actually represent a new hope for white evangelicals’ future.

Claiborne is a product of Maryville, Tenn, a Smoky Mountain town of about 15,000.

“We’re hill people,” he says.

He grew up in the traditionally conservative area, he went to theologically conservative Eastern University near Philadelphia, where social activism also thrived and Compolo taught sociology.

“Shane came with a heart for the poor and the oppressed,” Campolo told the Post. “What sociology did for him was make him aware that there were fundamental changes that had to take place in society to deal with problems of the poor and the oppressed.”

Claiborne spent a summer volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and worked with terminally ill hospice patients in the hospice. Then he spent his final weeks there working in a leper colony.

After college, stayed in Philadelphia, started a foundation to help the poor and hopeless, called “The Simple Way,” wrote books, spent time helping the poor in Iraq, and preaches at some of the 120 churches that comprise the Red Letter Christians, a network of like-minded religious communities that he founded with Compolo.

Citing a passage from the Book of Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” Claiborne co-wrote “Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence,” a book that promotes the belief that evangelical Christianity should be more concerned with social justice than just personal salvation.

He says his goal is “getting Christians to connect their faith to issue that I think matter to God and are affecting our neighbors.”

To prove his point, he carries a couple of garden tools that were once guns on the streets of Philadelphia.

“We have, in the U.S., about 5 percent of the world’s population — but almost half of the world’s guns,” he says. “We also know that the lives lost every day are over 100 — close to 109! In two decades, domestically, in the U.S., we have lost more lives to guns than in 250 years of foreign wars!”

That, we say, deserves an “amen.”

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