When I opened Shane Claiborne’s new book, I rolled my eyes and sighed.
Claiborne’s book, Rethinking Life: Embracing the Sacredness of Every Person, was dedicated to “all the women of faith over the centuries, the midwives of a better world, and to the two most significant women in my life—my mom, Patricia, and my wife, Katie Jo.”
Dedicating the book, released on Feb. 7, to all the women of faith seemed too simple, and for a book pitched as a reframe of abortion politics, it felt cliché to dedicate it to his mom and his wife. But by the time I finished Claiborne’s chapter on abortion, I found myself less cynical.
Claiborne, a Christian activist and author, writes about his mom sharing her abortion story with him, the impact that it had, and how he came to recognize the deep pain that Christian politics had inflicted on people who seek abortions. He also shares that Katie Jo had an abortion; but instead of telling her story, Shane hands the page to her.
“Any time I reflect on that day or find myself in a discussion about abortion,” Katie Jo writes, “the one thing I almost never feel is love.”
The book is, however, about more than just abortion; it’s Claiborne’s attempt to expand the scope of “pro-life” issues. He writes about Christian antisemitism, gun violence, the death penalty, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and more. The book cites a host of scholars and spiritual leaders: James Cone, Howard Thurman, Katey Zeh, Mark Charles, and Randall Balmer.
In our interview, I wanted to push Claiborne to be more explicit about his positions, the policy he supports, and why.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: What did your preparation and study for this book look like?
Shane Claiborne: It started with reading and researching and trying to think through some of the really complicated issues and themes in the book.
I have on my shelf a pile of books that I used for Rethinking Life, starting with Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts, and I’m building on the work of a lot of friends: Soong-Chan Rah, Mark Charles, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Lisa Sharon Harper, and David Gushee.
So, it felt like a really holy project. It felt like this has been a work in progress, beginning with addressing some of the real inconsistencies in the value for life among my fellow Christians, especially on the death penalty and gun violence. But it kind of felt like you gotta keep going deeper. These are issues that have a deeper foundation that’s cracked. So that’s why this book I feel like is so important; it’s kind of a bigger project.
In the book you write about the importance of proximity to oppressed and suffering people, and the power that proximity has to transform our lives. But you also note people who had proximity and were not changed — enslavers, for example. What needs to be added to proximity for it to have a transformative value in our lives?
Proximity’s been a real passion of mine. Friends of mine, like Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative, always talk about the importance of proximity. And I think it’s deeply theological: In Christ, God gets proximate to suffering in a real human way.
But there is some real truth that geographical proximity alone is not enough. Howard Thurman says — and we see all through the struggle for racial justice in America — that white folks and Black folks can occupy the same space without white folks holding equity and respect for Black folks. You can’t just expect living near each other to humanize each other because there’s a lot of ways that we can still insulate ourselves from what love requires of us.
That’s the reverberating question in the book: What does love require of us? So, I think proximity with the quest to love our neighbor as ourselves.
You write about a time that you were arrested during an immigration reform protest, and you write that one of the arresting officers quietly told you he was with you and thanked you for what you were doing. What did you say back to him?
“If you’re with us, then why are you arresting us?” [laughs]
What did he say to that?
He laughed. And they were very kind, but I was serious too. I might have smiled, but I didn’t laugh. I told him all of us have a role to play with our conscience and moral witness. Risk looks different, courage looks different [for each of us], but we are each doing our part.
At one point the police said, “We wish there were more of you” and we said, “We do too! Maybe get on the other side of this thing and take the handcuffs off and kneel down in the Capitol with us.” And we’ve had similar conversations when we were arrested around gun violence. We were calling for a ban on assault rifles, and the police officers said to us, “We’re with you; those same guns take our lives too.”
On the one hand, it’s encouraging to break down the “us and them” and see that there is solidarity from folks within the system, but there’s also disappointment. There are people against the death penalty that still carry out executions. If every person, in whatever capacity they had, could show some courage, stand up for life, and become a wrench in the system of death, it would be a lot harder for more lives to be taken.
The book is framed around issues of life, not just abortion, but abortion is undeniably at the center of the book. Does this book represent a change in how you approach abortion? Have you evolved on this?
I think I’ve deepened my thinking on it. Even in the last year or two, all of us have probably become more aware of the way we can be held hostage to ideology. There are many people who say that they are pro-life; they’re in the streets in the March for Life, protesting Planned Parenthood, but then they’re also opposing the policies that would actually reduce the number of abortions.
The more I read and researched, the more I found that one of the biggest reasons listed for having an abortion is a lack of financial viability. How do we address that? Well, with things like health care, and child care, and parental leave, and a living wage. Folks that say they are pro-life have not always been champions of many of those policies.
A lot of the people I’m in conversation with are uncomfortable with the labels “Left,” and “Right,” “progressive,” and “conservative.” Many of them would resonate with the language that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, and they want to make it rarer and rarer. So, a question I’m reflecting on in the book isn’t “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” But “How are you proactive?” What does it really look like to advocate for life on the issue of abortion, both for the life of the parents and of the unborn?
I do want to ask you about policy: When in a pregnancy do you think an abortion should be legal? When should it be illegal?
In the movement to address gun violence, we talk about common sense laws, and I think that we could have some similar framework for thinking about abortion laws. And I’m thinking beyond my own personal convictions. While I’m not a handgun owner, I still believe others have the right to own guns, but with some limitations.
On abortion, in the later part of pregnancy — which as I mentioned in the book is just a very small percentage of the abortions that take place, and in every single case I’ve ever seen the life of the parent or the unborn child was at risk — why can’t we just say explicitly that there’s no abortions in the last trimester unless someone’s life is at stake?
Given our history of regulating women’s bodies, and the delicate intersection between the rights of the unborn and the rights of a person to make their own choices with their body, there’s a really difficult line. Morally, I would come down believing abortion is not the right decision or the best decision in most circumstances, but I also believe that other people should have the right to make that decision in the early stages of pregnancy.
I’m pro-life, but I have many friends who would say that you can be pro-life and believe in someone’s right to choose. We can have some commonsense laws. To me, the broad framework for that is for abortion to be legal and safe, and for us to work to make it rarer and rarer, and to limit abortion in the later term.
But you correctly point out that late-term abortions are already sought in cases where the life of the parent or unborn child is at risk. So, why get the state involved at all? Why not let that be the decision of the pregnant person?
I understand that view, and I have some serious anarchistic tendencies. I come out of the tradition of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, Leo Tolstoy, and Jacques Ellul. I believe that our primary role as the church is to be the conscience of our nation, and not to look to the state to solve everything. But I think the role of government is to create some guardrails and reasonable boundaries to protect life.
On abortion, there are some boundaries that are needed, both federally and statewide, in order to protect life. I don’t think this is something that’s impossible for us to figure out, but I do think that we haven’t given a lot of generative energy towards that because we’ve been so, so stuck in the culture wars, digging our heels in, and refusing concessions to the “other side.”
For a long time, “safe, legal, rare,” would’ve been the slogan of those who called themselves pro-choice. And it sounds like you do want there to be some choice. Why do you still call yourself pro-life?
I’m just not willing to concede my love for the sacredness of life to folks who have a narrower vision of what that means. It’s also true that I still call myself a Christian, even though a lot of people have kind of abandoned that word. I mean, we do kind of distinguish ourselves saying we’re “Red Letter Christians” — but yeah, pro-life… I really believe that’s something I want to reclaim rather than relinquish. One, it’s true that I am for life and that I want to expand, rather than narrow, what that looks like. Two, I think that the pro-life language can still be a helpful framework for inviting other people to think beyond abortion. And I see that happen all the time on the death penalty and immigration and gun violence.
Do you feel like you contributed to any of the culture wars that you are lamenting in this book? Do you have any regrets over ways that you approached abortion, guns, or the death penalty in the past?
One of my friends says that he’s always been passionate, even when he’s been wrong. And there are things that I was passionately wrong about, like the death penalty. I defended the death penalty when I was growing up.
When it comes to abortion, I have tread very lightly on it because I knew enough people that had been impacted that I wanted to listen more than I spoke, I wanted to learn more than I preached on it. I knew that it was a complicated issue, and the more I learned about it, the more complicated it became.
The book has a chapter on Israel and Palestine and includes a footnote that reads, “[T]he state of Israel has created one of the largest separation walls ever built, and one many consider the most sophisticated apartheid system the world has ever seen.”
That’s an interesting way to phrase it, to couch it in “many consider.” Do you think Israel is an apartheid state?
First of all, I think it’s really important to distinguish between the state of Israel and Jewish people — and often what Christians refer to as “Israel” is different from the policies of the nation-state of Israel right now — but there’s no doubt.
I mean, the wall is just a physical manifestation of some of the most oppressive policies happening in the entire world in our lifetime. I saw that everywhere I went. From access to water, to health care, education, and just the human dignity of recognizing that life matters and is sacred.
Those voices that say, “We’re pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli, pro-peace,” are so critical. And that means challenging the current policies that are so dehumanizing and the violence that often erupts because of the suffocating oppression that’s happening. It breaks my heart every time I’m in the Holy Land to see such unholy things happening to folks, and many of them are Palestinian friends of mine.
I understand the distinction between the people who live in Israel and the nation of Israel — and I’m hesitant to make comparisons — but would you have said you were “Pro-Alabaman” during the civil rights movement? And if you think Israel is an apartheid state, then why not write that in the book?
So, when I say that I’m “pro-Palestinian pro-Israeli,” that is affirming the dignity of the people there, but certainly not an affirmation of the policies.
That’s the framework that I’m suggesting in the book. The book is about life and the dignity of every person, and my point in writing about that was to emphasize that, if you live on the Israeli side of the wall, it probably means affirming the sacredness of the people living in the West Bank or Gaza. And if you live on the Palestinian side of the wall, it means affirming the dignity — while also probably opposing the policies of — the people living in Israel.
Do you worry about false equivalencies?
I am more concerned with affirming the equality and sacredness of the other person. And I’m certainly unashamed in trying to call out oppressive policies and to call out violence that destroys other people. I think I’m pretty careful not to falsely equate. You know, some of these battles are sort of like David and Goliath.
So, while I stand against all violence, I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not talking about equal power or resources in this situation. I would never equate the things that Israel and Palestine are doing as the same thing. I mean, Israel has the power in this situation. You can’t go to the West Bank without seeing that, you know?
I think your point about Alabama is a really good one. But the thing is, when I look at Martin Luther King Jr., I imagine King saying “I love the people of Alabama, and I just hate what they’re doing. I hate what the governor’s doing. I hate what the people with the power are doing.”
So, is a state more than its policies? How do you affirm what people could be while calling out what they are doing right now? That’s a really tricky thing.