Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President. His forthcoming book, Executing Grace: Why It is Time to Put the Death Penalty to Death, comes out June 2016.
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'We set out to start a community, and now we have a village'
A SELF-PROCLAIMED “ordinary radical” from eastern Tennessee, Shane Claiborne is a founding member of the New Monasticism movement, which encourages a life of simplicity, nonviolence, community, and prayer. In 1997, along with fellow passionate friends from Eastern University, Shane co-founded The Simple Way—an intentional Christian community in inner-city North Philadelphia. His books include Jesus for President, Red Letter Revolution, Common Prayer, and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers. He’s been featured in films such as Another World is Possible and Ordinary Radicals. His forthcoming book, Executing Grace, calls Christians to advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty.
Shane’s first book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, quickly became a foundational text for many young, social justice-minded Christians. Now, 10 years later, he’s updating the world about what this revolution looks like today. Claiborne spoke with Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis by phone in November about what’s new—and what’s not—in his lifelong vocation to be part of the Jesus revolution.
Jim Wallis: This is the 10th anniversary of the publication of Irresistible Revolution, and you’ve just released an updated edition. What new insights can we expect in this version?
Shane Claiborne: After 20 years of living in North Philly, there are things you look back on and you think, wow, that looks different from what I thought it would. So it’s been a surprise and a gift to get to tweak the book a little bit. I wrote notes in the margins throughout the book. Some of them are fun and some of them are to be a little bit more accurate. Then I did a whole section of frequently asked questions. Those run the gambit of “How come you got married?” to “What do you do with ISIS?” I added an appendix, too, about the tradition of civil disobedience in the church. It was fun!
“The irresistible revolution,” you said in the first edition of the book, “isn’t just about going to heaven when you die, but bringing heaven down as you live. ... The revolution we are talking about begins inside each of us and extends to the ends of the earth.” Has that changed? No, I don’t think that has changed at all. What does change are the ways we live that out. When we started The Simple Way 20 years ago, there was the sense that everybody needs to leave everything behind and just live on the streets. What we’ve seen the Spirit doing is much more dynamic and spectacular than that—people are living out unique vocations. We have lawyers, doctors, plumbers, gardeners, or urban farmers—folks who are using their gifts for seeking first the kingdom of God and interrupting the patterns of injustice.
Why Philly Is the Perfect Place for the Pope to Denounce the Death Penalty
I can’t help but think old William Penn would be proud of Gov. Wolf earlier this year as he made his announcement to halt all executions. Penn was a pacifist and a serious skeptic of capital punishment. His Quaker heritage held that every human being carries the essence of God, and that no one should ever take the life of another, not even the state.
As Pope Francis leads worship on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the heart of Philadelphia, a statue of William Penn will be looking down on him from atop City Hall, and I can’t help but think our Quaker forefather will be smiling — especially as Pope Francis continues to insist that every person carries the image of God in them… and that no one is beyond redemption.
I look forward to the end of the death penalty, and I hope we get one step closer to it as the pope comes to the City of Brotherly Love.
What Do I Do With My Confederate Flag?
I own a Confederate flag. Growing up, the flag meant little more to me than school spirit, pep rallies, and Southern pride … until I left East Tennessee. I’ll never forget the moment things began to change. I moved into my college dorm room and established my new home at Eastern University in Philadelphia. I carefully set up my desk, put my posters on the wall, and displayed my high school yearbook — with a Confederate flag on the cover — proudly on my bookshelf.
Death Has Lost Its Sting: Conflicted Response to Tsarnaev's Death Sentence
His guilt is clear. He posted offensive, arrogant messages all over the Internet. He carved a manifesto of revenge into the boat where he hid as police captured him. He flipped a bird at the camera in his jail cell.
The evil he is responsible for is horrific. More than 250 people injured. Seventeen people lost their limbs. Four people died — one of them 8 years old.
It’s no surprise that a jury found him guilty, and still no surprise that they sentenced him to death.
What’s remarkable is the lack of enthusiasm that accompanied Tsarnaev’s death sentence. One person after another had mercy on their lips – from victims of the Boston bombing to the legendary Sr. Helen Prejean who met with Dzhokhar and spoke of his heartfelt remorse.
Holy Week in an Unholy World
We call it Holy Week. But it was a terrible week.
His trial reeked of injustice. His own disciple sold him out for a few pieces of silver, betrayed him with a kiss … and hung himself.
As he was arrested, one of his closest friends disregarded all his teaching on love, pulled out a knife, and cut a guy’s ear off. (Jesus called him out … and healed the other guy). A lot of the stuff that happened that first holy week was pretty unholy.
Once arrested, he was passed back and forth between politicians and bureaucrats. There was Caiaphas the priest, the Sanhedrin council, Pontius Pilate, the crowd — everyone seemed to want him dead, but no one wanted blood on their hands. Even Pilate washed his clean.
They had all kinds of accusations. Insurrection. Inciting a riot. Conspiracy. Terrorism (plotting to destroy the temple). Blasphemy.
But all he did was love. And heal. And give people hope.
Despite any substantial evidence, witnesses, or signs of any crime committed, he was pronounced guilty and sentenced to die.
As he awaited his fate, he was bullied, interrogated, harassed, tortured, beaten to a pulp. The authorities humiliated him and stripped him naked. They mocked the claims of his divinity, ramming a crown of thorns onto his head and wrapping him in a royal purple robe as they laughed.
And so it went. This man who many believe was the holy one that the prophets spoke of, the long-awaited Messiah, God incarnate, love with skin on— was executed, brutally. He died with his body convulsing as his lungs collapsed, with vultures swarming overhead, hoping to clean up after the execution. There is nothing more evil than what happened that “Good” Friday.
The Gospel of Kelly Gissendaner
Georgia clergy just delivered 500 signatures of faith leaders and 40 boxes of names from around the world — calling for a stop to tonight’s execution of Kelly Gissendaner. And there are more than 55,000 folks on the Groundswell petition that launched just yesterday, and more than 1,000 new names are coming in every hour.
But some suggest it is like speaking into thin air — that there is no chance the governor or the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole will listen. After all, Georgia has already executed two people this year, more than any state other than Texas.
But there’s a Georgia case that would suggest otherwise, that all this may not be in vain — that of Billy Moore.
After 17 years on death row for a murder he openly confessed to doing, Billy Moore’s execution was stopped — by a groundswell of support from faith leaders (including Mother Teresa), people of conscience, and even the victim’s family. And it was the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole that stopped his imminent execution. In fact, they eventually decided his rehabilitation was so complete and compelling that he was eligible for parole a year later.
So thousands of Georgia citizens and folks around the world are hopeful. Tonight there is an opportunity — not to be “soft on crime” or to ignore wrongdoing, but to bear witness that redemption is possible. Tonight Georgia leaders have a chance to recognize that people can be healed, rehabilitated, restored — and that they do not have to be forever held hostage and defined by the worst decision they made.
Interrupting Death: Women and Capital Punishment
Only 15 women have been executed in the U.S. since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. For two death penalty cases involving women to make the news in the same week is unprecedented – but it’s happening.
One is Jodi Arias, convicted of killing her ex-boyfriend in 2008, whose sentencing trial was this week. She could face the death penalty in Arizona.
The other is a lesser-known case in Georgia — Kelly Gissendaner, convicted in a 1997 Atlanta murder plot that targeted her husband. Though sentenced to death, it is clear that with a little better legal coaching, Ms. Gissendaner could have plea-bargained for her life. That’s exactly what her husband’s killer, Gregory Owens, did. And now he’s behind bars as she counts down the hours to her death. It just doesn’t feel like your life should depend on how well you play the legal cards, but it sure seems to.
Kelly Gissendaner was supposed to die Wednesday night — but there was an interruption.
Executions Are Down and Abolition May Not Be Far Behind
It looks like the death penalty may be on life support.
January was set to be the deadliest month for U.S. executions in 2015, but nine of the 15 executions were stopped. In an unprecedented wave, three of the deadliest states stopped executions planned for last month — Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. February has just begun, but nine of its 12 scheduled executions have been halted.
Last year was not a good year for the death penalty, either, as death sentences hit a 40-year low and executions were at a 20-year low.
There were botched executions such as that of Clayton Lockett, who writhed in pain for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack, with the Oklahoma prison warden calling it “a bloody mess.”
Then there were the exonerations, such as that of Ricky Jackson in Ohio, who spent 39 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, convicted solely on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who recanted.
Injustice Has Many Names
There is power in a name.
One of the things happening in our world right now is that people are “naming” injustice. No longer are we just talking about statistics, numbers and data. We are lifting up the names of the victims of a failed justice system. And there is something in a name that humanizes and personalizes the issue, and wakes us up: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice.
The numbers have names.
They remind us of the collateral damage of a failed system, and the urgency of this moment. We can’t make injustice history until we make injustice personal.
For many people of color, the victims of injustice have had names for a long time. Emmett Till helps us know how far we have come; Eric Garner reminds us how far we still have to go. But now these names are being talked about in homes and around dinner tables all over the world.
Every name of a life lost is an image of God. When we lost them, we lost a little piece of God’s image in the world. They are friends, sons, sisters, fathers and neighbors.
How to Build Authentic Community
I’ve often told young college shoppers: Don’t just consider how strong the academics are, or how good the football team is, or even how you like the campus or the town. All of those are good questions, but make sure you also ask: “What do you pay your housekeeping staff?”
One of the true tests of a good college is how they treat their workers, and certainly a decent indicator of that is how the lowest paid workers fare in contrast to the highest paid administrators. A good question of any college president is if he or she would be comfortable exchanging salaries for a year with the janitor. After all, both are just as valuable in the eyes of God.
So it was a great privilege this month to be invited to chapel at my alma mater, Eastern University, for “Housekeeper Appreciation Day.” Celebrating the unsung heroes of the campus is becoming a beloved tradition, and it is a wonderful one.
In the presence of the president, deans, administrators, and hundreds of students and faculty, dozens of campus workers were put into the spotlight and celebrated for their tireless work to keep the campus alive and beautiful. There was a genuine love thick in the room – hugs, tears, and I caught glimpse of a fist-pound or two. Then they were given a certificate of appreciation and a paid vacation day, because more than 200 students committed to pitch in so they could take off.
I had students tell me about how housekeeping staff tutor them in Spanish. And I had housekeeping staff tell me how students had been there for them during really hard times.
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