Practice what you preach about poverty


Claiborne cares for the poor and shuns comfortable consumption

by Robert White

Some people hear a sermon about helping the poor and wish they had the faith or guts to do something about it. Shane Claiborne lives that sermon.

As a student at Eastern University—where Tony Campolo taught—Claiborne began ministering to and connecting with the poor when he and some fellow students formed YACHT (Youth Against Complacency and Homelessness Today).  In time, Claiborne stopped visiting Philadelphia’s inner city. He moved there to help found The Simple Way, a faith community where members live among the poorest of the poor, sharing their lives, their resources and their faith.

The more contact Claiborne had with the poor, the more he saw the disconnect between what churches preached and what Christians did. A 10-week stint working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, three weeks in Baghdad with the Iraq Peace Team and a year serving at the Willow Creek megachurch just outside Chicago confirmed that disconnect. He wrote The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical to challenge modern-day disciples to rediscover the spirit of the early Church by living a life that cares for the poor and shuns comfortable consumption.

“A lot of what we’ve settled for in the church is distant acts of charity or short term missions trips where you clock in and out of experiences,” says Claiborne. “Missions is very compartmentalized. You don’t have generative community where rich and poor are learning from each other and mutually transformed through that.”

Without a connection to the poor, the “distant acts of charity” often lead to incidents like a church sending a box of donations “for the homeless,” writes Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution. Opening a box of microwave popcorn, his first instinct was to laugh because “we barely had electricity, much less a microwave.” His second instinct was to cry because “of how far the Church had become removed from the poor.”

The solution: for the rich and the poor to build relationships. How? Claiborne says the question itself is about mission. “Jesus isn’t saying to the poor ‘come and find the Church.’ He’s saying to us ‘Go into the world.’ Everyone is called to be in relationship to the poor, the hurting and the suffering.”

Claiborne encourages people to be creative in finding out how that calling looks in their lives. “There’s not a cookie cutter mold of what it means,” he says, giving the example of two tax collectors in the Bible: Matthew, who left all he had to follow Jesus and Zacchaeus, who sold half of what he had, gave it to the poor and paid others back four times what they were owed. “Both are kind of radical non-conformists, but that doesn’t mean they look exactly alike.

“I love to see business folks doing creative and missional business; seeing students thinking about how the things they’re learning can impact the needs of the world and to live outside themselves,” says Claiborne.

“A lot of the stories I tell are about folks who have rethought their vocations. Around the corner from us are a group of doctors and nurses that saw 48 million people in the US that don’t have medical coverage—so they opened a free clinic. That’s what they live for.”

Once relationships are created, true community can begin where rich and poor can equally share their resources—financial, physical and spiritual. “What was so radical in the early Church is that you see this connection between loving God and loving people and that affects your economics,” says Claiborne. “The early Christians would say if you have two coats, you’ve stolen one because there are still people who are cold. Basil the Great said if someone starves while the Christians have extra food, then we are guilty. Redistribution of resources is only meaningful when it’s rooted in relationship.”

Which brings up the question, now asked by many North Americans in a floundering economy: How much is enough? For Claiborne that question is “totally framed by the question: Who is my neighbour?

“There are plenty of liberals who talk about poverty and injustice but rarely encounter the poor, living detached lives of socially responsible but comfortable consumption. And there are plenty of Christians who talk about how much God cares for the poor but don’t know any poor folks.”
–Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution

“If your neighbour’s got four cars, then two cars are not too much. If your neighbour doesn’t have a car at all, two cars is too much. The fundamental question is ‘how do I love my neighbour as myself?’

“The deepest disconnect is this idea that we don’t know our neighbour. As Scripture says: how can we pass by our neighbour who is in need and say the love of God is in us if we don’t have compassion on them?” asks Claiborne. “I love the quote: Once we’ve discovered how to love our neighbour as ourself, capitalism won’t be possible and Marxism won’t be necessary.’

“It’s not a system. It’s radical love.”

Robert White is editor of ChristianWeek Ontario and prepares the PULSE department for SEVEN. He interviewed Shane at the Promise Keepers event in Mississauga in November 2008.

The article above was featured in the January 2009 issue of SEVEN magazine.