A former prom king, visiting lecturer Shane Claiborne says he had his life together until “Jesus messed it up.”
By Renée Olson
“It’s easier to get a gun in our neighborhood than a good salad,” said Shane Claiborne with a sigh of disbelief, relating an observation made by a teen in his rough North Philadelphia neighborhood. The dreadlocked paterfamilias of an alternative Christian community there called The Simple Way, Claiborne finds much in modern life that baffles him: “ugly laws” that make it illegal to be homeless in Philly; an “epidemic of ‘misconsumption’” amid world starvation; a 5-year-old neighbor who, without health insurance, dies from an asthma attack.
Speaking with a Tennessee drawl that often erupted into a cackling laugh, Claiborne, a 2011 Communities of Shalom Prophetic Speaker in Residence sponsored by the Jessie Ball du Pont Fund, urged his Craig Chapel audience to reject a society that promotes material success over love and compassion for one’s neighbors, rich or poor. “We’re not crazy for imaging a different pattern,” said Claiborne. “And if I’m crazy, then we’re not alone.”
A sackcloth-clad rock star in the evangelical world, Claiborne didn’t grow up particularly religious. Nor does he share the experiences of people—say, with drug problems—who find Jesus later in life. “That’s fine, if that’s your story,” he said. “I pretty much had my life together, and Jesus messed it up.”
With Jesus at his back, Claiborne sees ways to “create a hiccup in the pattern of the world.” Though he’s spread his message of social justice in places as far-flung as India and Iraq, it may be Philadelphia where Claiborne’s activism gets the most traction.
After his community pooled funds to buy a row house in Philly’s Kensington neighborhood, zoning officials arrived en masse on their doorstep. “You’re breaking a law,” the officials said. “What law?” they asked. “The brothel law.” To which Claiborne replied with a chuckle, “That makes us the first Christian brothel ever.” Ultimately, they were given a zoning variance and allowed to stay.
“We don’t know what you’re doing,” Claiborne said officials told them. “But it seems your neighbors like you.”