America is in Distress

Shane Claiborne: America is in Distress

on December 21, 2018

Evangelical Left activist Shane Claiborne warned the congregation at Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota’s Twin Cities region that America is in distress because Christians are too caught up in consumption, comfort, and violence to live like Christ. He gave their pastor a shirt with the American flag upside down as a sign of distress.

From its beliefs page, the non-denominational church seems to believe standard Baptist doctrines, with an emphasis on social activism. It also links to a page addressing controversial issues, which gives a small taste of the cornucopia of theological diversity available in America’s non-denominational churches. Among the more interesting, it seems they reject the doctrine of election as well as Pentecostal distinctives. They also leave room for disagreement over gender roles and God’s foreknowledge, encouraging “unity in the essential things, freedom in the non-essential things, and agape-love in all things.”

In his dire message, Claiborne lamented the commercialization of Christmas. “All of the clutter” makes us forget how Jesus came to earth, he said. “We get distracted by the shopping and the buying stuff.” He encouraged the audience to cut back on excessive gift-giving to “take Christmas back for compassion rather than consumption.” All this sounds like something straight from the book of James, but more on that later.

Claiborne also criticized American Christians for their obsession with comfort. Jesus, he said, was homeless, “because there was no room in the inn.” He also quoted Jesus from his period of ministry in Luke 9:58, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” While Jesus did enter homes at times (e.g., Matthew 2:11, Matthew 13:1,36, Matthew 26:6,18, and more), Claiborne’s point about Jesus sacrificing his own comfort is nevertheless true.

He continued, “during Jesus’ time on earth—from the moment he was born until the moment he was executed and humiliated on the cross—he was near to the suffering.” For Claiborne, the implication is clear: do what Jesus did. “I think Jesus could care less if we say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ if we still turn away immigrants and leave Jesus in the cold.” His argument strikingly parallels that of Paul in Philippians 2:4-8:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Claiborne insisted that Christians should engage in more compassion ministry themselves. He said that when people ask, “God, why don’t you do something?” sometimes God replies, “I did do something. I made you. Get down there.” He cited James 1:27, where the Holy Spirit says that true religion consists of caring for orphans and widows and keeping yourself from being polluted by the world.

Lastly, Claiborne tackled violence in the church. He invoked the powerful imagery of Isaiah 2:4,

“they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Strikingly, Claiborne shared how he and others were implementing this literally—bringing anvils to church and forging guns into garden tools. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but it seemed like was arguing that God’s people can put a stop to warfare and violence by unmaking all current weapons.

Based on the context, I interpret the causality of that verse in Isaiah in the opposite direction. The preceding verses say that when “all nations shall flow to” Zion to learn how to walk in the paths of the God of Jacob, then

“out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;”

So in the second coming when Christ reigns in Jerusalem, he will judge all nations with perfect justice so that warfare is no longer needed, and when warfare is no longer needed, then weapons will no longer have a use. Admittedly, Mr. Claiborne went to seminary, and I did not, but I believe my interpretation is the one most Christians have held throughout the centuries.

But Claiborne does not seem to be particularly concerned about the historicity of his Christianity so much as the love it shows. Claiborne explained that Christians should be pacifists. “You can’t carry a cross in one hand a gun in the other.” Does he believe all soldiers go to hell, then? The church has wrestled with that question for centuries, and as a result has developed a theory of just war that sets forth guidelines for the just use of force.

Even though I disagree, I’m encouraged to see a figure known for his involvement with the Red-Letter Christians wielding other Scriptures, like Isaiah and James. It seems that Claiborne does, in fact, believe that “all Scripture is… profitable.” But in some ways, he is right to say that America is “in distress” because it’s Christians have not been faithful to their calling.

I’m grateful to Mr. Claiborne for reminding us that Christ left the comforts of heaven to suffer and die for our sins. May we all, as Christians, American or not, always live our lives in light of Christ’s sacrifice.

  1. Comment by Luke on December 21, 2018 at 11:39 am

    I’m actually sympathetic to most of his arguments. Christianity obviously has a strong social justice tradition, and it’s refreshing to see someone try to wield that tradition legitimately rather than just use it as an excuse to baptize the present zeitgeist.

    I think one can be an orthodox Christian and disagree with other orthodox Christians about, for instance, the degree to which this world is perfectible by human hands. I think I probably take a graver view of original sin than Claiborne, but there’s room for that disagreement in the tradition.

  2. Comment by David on December 22, 2018 at 7:50 am

    “No room in the inn.” There was a documentary that described and showed the ruins of first century houses in Judea. Apparently, both people and animals lived under the same roof with a slightly higher area (“the inn”) being used for people and the lower one (“the stable”) for animals. Thus, it may likely had been that the Bethlehem Hilton was not overbooked, but that Joseph and Mary stayed in a private house perhaps belonging to friends or family. Living with animals may not be our idea of comfort, but in cold weather (mid 40s in Jerusalem), they were a source of heat. The Swiss used this idea with cows on the ground floor, people above, and the hayloft at the top to insulate the whole.

  3. Comment by Grevile Constantine on December 27, 2018 at 7:08 am

    Shane shows beyond any shadow of any doubt that there are many Liberal ,left leaning , Christians who genuinely do love the Lord, and who genuinely do believe they are in pursuit of God’s will and purpose for mankind, and the Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28. Whether they believe in LGBTQ rights & freedoms, or preserving a woman’s right to choose. Or encourage Premarital safe sex practices among teens. However, to call on Christians to be “Pacifists” goes against what Jesus said in Matthew that ,” the Kingdom of God is taken with VIOLENCE “. Meaning even Born again, Spirit led Christians can and should be ” Radical & passionate ” when it comes to standing for the truths of the Kingdom. As a private security officer for the past 22 years, I am licensed to carry a firearm to protect the people & property I am assigned to guard. There is no time to think about “What would Jesus do” in the middle of a life threatening situation where my life and the lives of the people I am assigned to protect lives & safety are at stake.

  4. Comment by Sam Carleton on May 8, 2019 at 9:11 am

    To your question “Does he believe all soldiers go to hell, then?”… if I was a betting man, which I am not, I would put my money on Shane actually takes Jesus seriously in what Jesus said in Matt 7:1-2, and simply does NOT have an opinion on that, leaving it to Jesus to judge.

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