Tired of excuses: A conversation with Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is a Christian activist and author of many books. He is also the founder of the nonprofit organization The Simple Way in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and known for his time spent in India with Mother Theresa and in Iraq during the Iraq War. Chimes is grateful to Lauren Holwerda for arranging this conversation and Project Neighborhood for hosting it.

Chimes: You are someone whose life has gone in a lot of different directions. What draws you to each new thing?

Claiborne: Constant curiosity, I guess. I mean, that’s how I got started on a lot of the things that have shaped and formed me. I grew up in a little town in East Tennessee, and I love East Tennessee, but I also was curious about the world outside of that. In particular, growing up in a pretty segregated town, I wanted to get outside of that space. [That was] part of what drew me to a big city — Philadelphia — and also intrigued me to study sociology (what I studied in undergrad) and I think there’s a youthfulness about a lot of what we do, that is kind of like “nothing’s impossible,” you know? … It was being 20 years old, and feeling like a lot of the excuses that we’ve been told about why things can’t change — we were tired of those, and we still believe God is active in the world, and that we’re left on earth not just to wait until heaven, but that we were to do something meaningful while we’re here.

Chimes: Here at Calvin we talk a lot about vocation. As someone who hasn’t followed a traditional life path, what advice or encouragement might you have for students who are feeling a lot of pressure to have it all figured out?

Claiborne: I do love the idea of vocation. What I would say is there’s a beautiful line from Frederick Buechner, where he said [that] we got to connect our passions to the world’s pain, essentially. And I mean, when we connect our passions — the things we’re learning, the things that we’re wired in, that give us joy — with the struggles of other people, than I think that’s where we find a vocation and a sense that we’re doing things that we love and are made for, but we’re also doing those with a purpose and within part of a broader story of God healing and redeeming the world.

So that’s why part of my message tonight is that what’s important is not just are you going to be a teacher or a doctor or lawyer or farmer, but what kind of teacher or doctor or lawyer or farmer? How do we connect that to the struggling and liberation of other people?

I meet folks all the time that are doing really creative work with the things that they’ve been trained on. I think that’s kind of the difference to me between a vocation and just a job that pays the bills or even a career: It’s not just about yourself, but it’s about contributing to something bigger than yourself.

As far as God’s plan for our lives, I believe that we are co-collaborators with the spirit of God and that there’s a fair amount of creative license that God gives us to make choices. So a lot of how I’ve found my way is not because I’ve heard this clear voice of God say, “Go to visit death row.” But I see Jesus saying, “When I was in prison, did you visit me?” And there’s this compelling gravity of Jesus towards the pain of the world and towards the forsaken people of the world. And that kind of is what sort of draws me in.

Chimes: You strike me as someone who doesn’t fit very neatly into a political category. So how do you go about coalition building? When there’s an issue you’re very passionate about, like the death penalty, for instance, how do you decide who you can work with?

Claiborne: It’s a really important question, because there is a lot of digging in our heels these days and silos and echo chambers in the social media and political paralysis. And there’s a part of it that is practical. I think if we’re going to move the needle on some of these things, we’ve got to use the Evangelical in me — we’ve got to convert people to believing differently on these things. Or we’ve got to find a way to connect with their own concerns. The biggest supporters of the death penalty are Christians. So I want to engage scripture, I want to talk about Jesus, I want to talk about the people that are there.

I also think that we need humility. I think self-righteousness is really toxic, and it’s not partisan. There’s a Conservative kind of purity culture, Evangelical self-righteousness that I grew up with. It’s familiar to me. But there’s another version of that in social justice circles that has a sort of moral superiority over others, a policing of its own — cancel culture — and they kind of mirror each other, in some ways, a theological and political policing that is on the left and right.

I think that really contradicts the things that Jesus said. He spoke out so powerfully against self-righteousness and moral superiority, and it was more about not just being right, but being alive, and it’s not just about keeping the rules but about living a life of love. On a lot of these issues that I’m so passionate about, I argued the other side of those issues for a lot of my life … so it gives me patience to hear someone else out and to engage them.