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Meet Shane Claiborne: a not so ordinary radical

US Christian activist Shane Claiborne looks, speaks, and dresses like an Old Testament prophet.  Photo by
He makes his own clothes, has long dreadlocks and looks for all the world like a 1970s hippy drop-out, but he’s been on a stage near you talking with Uniting Church young people and firing them up with some very radical ideas.

Shane Claiborne looks, speaks, and dresses like an Old Testament prophet or John the Baptist, and he makes the same sort of crazy sense.

Like WWJD writ large, Claiborne describes himself as a “Red Letter Christian” who tries to take the words of Jesus seriously.

“Somehow Jesus has survived all the embarrassing things Christians have done in his name…and young people in particular are reading the words of Jesus and asking, ‘What if he meant it?'”

Tall, gaunt and decidedly weird looking he moves comfortably among the Billabong generation with their middle class upbringing and materialistic value system.

At only 33 years of age, Claiborne is young to be on the guru youth speaker circuit but he’s currently flavour of the month, speaking this year in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as his home USA.

It’s not hard to see why this basically quietly spoken young man has achieved such notoriety and significant book sales – he walks the talk.

His impressive CV includes time working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, a peace mission to war torn Bagdad (during the war), and being a founder of “The Simple Way” community in downtown Philadelphia which has as its mission: to love God, to love people and to follow Jesus.

“I feel sorry that so many of us have settled for a lonely world of independence and riches when we could all experience the fullness of life in community and interdependence,” Claiborne said.

“Why would I want a fancy car when I can ride a bike or a TV when I can play outside with sidewalk chalk?”

More than believing

Claiborne talks winsomely about radical community life and the young Aussie adults applaud his stories.

“We reclaim abandoned lots and make gardens amid the concrete wreckage around us. We plant flowers inside old TV screens and computer monitors on our roof.

“We see our friends waste away from drug addiction, and on a good day, someone is set free.

From a conservative Christian origins, Claiborne is a harsh critic of contemporary Christian life.

“Many spiritual seekers have not been able to hear the words of Christians because the lives of Christians have been making so much horrible noise.”

Claiborne sees himself as theologically orthodox but believes it is hard to hear the gentle whisper of the Spirit amid the noise of Christendom and pushes for a more radically activist faith.

“You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemas.

“But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too.”

A really ‘rad’ guy

So how do middle-class young people respond to Claiborne’s message?

They are intrigued, a little unnerved but tentatively interested.

Volunteer youth worker Crystal Pritchard (19) was blown away by Claiborne’s passion and energy. “He was amazing, a really ‘rad’ guy.”

But she didn’t feel she had to give up everything and go and live with the poor, just more motivated to do better where she is.

“A lot of people were kind of shocked with how he’s actually lived but were inspired by him and want to start making a difference in their world,” said Crystal.

Like a true prophet Claiborne is not phased by the potential gulf between his radical worldview and the socially conservative consumerist youth culture he speaks to.

“This generation is very aware that the world that we’ve been handed from our parents is very fragile and needs to be re-imagined.

“Young people are very hungry to live for something bigger than themselves.”

Claiborne seems almost naive about the radical nature of his message and the potential impact of his call to downward mobility.

“I’m pretty gentle and I don’t tell people what to do but I kind of stir up the right questions and it’s a very natural conversation and invites people to think through their own lives.”

A new monasticism

People have described as Claiborne’s community approach as a “new monasticism” and he believes their lifestyle is both disciplined and accountable to the larger church.

“We tend to be very immersed in the larger body of Christ and in our local congregations in the neighbourhood.”

It’s an integrity that’s endearing and there is a steady stream of guest and visitors line up to experience life at Claiborne’s Simple Way community.

“Sometimes we have evangelicals (usually from the suburbs) who pretentiously ask how we ‘evangelize people.’

“I usually tell them that we bring folks like them here to learn the kingdom of God from the poor, and then send them out to tell the rich and powerful there is another way of life being born in the margins.

“For Jesus did not seek out the rich and powerful in order to trickle down his kingdom.

“Rather, he joined those at the bottom – the outcasts and undesirables and everyone was attracted to his love for people on the margins.”

Photo : US Christian activist Shane Claiborne looks, speaks, and dresses like an Old Testament prophet. Photo by