Students Challenged to Be ‘Extremists for Love and Grace’

Post a Comment » Written on July 14th, 2009     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

KNOXVILLE, KY (July 14, 2009) – In a world scarred by hate, violence and disparity of wealth, Shane Claiborne called on the students at CHIC2009 to become “extremists for love and grace.”

Claiborne, co-founder of The Simple Way, an intentional community, and author of the widely acclaimed book The Irresistible Revolution, spoke to 5,500 students at the Thompson-Boling Assembly Center and Arena during the worship service Monday night. He appeared in his traditional cotton baggy pants, white T-shirt, and dreadlocks falling well beyond his shoulders. Click here to read a previous Covenant News Service interview with him.

A native of the Knoxville area, he told the crowd he was excited to be able to sleep in his own bed last night. He shared his journey of growing up as a nice, respectable Christian – “youth pastors and people in the church loved me into Jesus” – and later in life working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, fighting for change in his poverty-stricken Philadelphia neighborhood, and traveling to Iraq during the bombing so he could “be a voice of reconciliation and peace for Jesus, to be a witness for Christ.”

Claiborne recalled attending a large annual youth event while in the eighth grade – and he and his friends responding to an altar call to give their lives to Jesus. “Then the next year, it was so awesome we did it again. We’d go every year and get born again again.”

But Claiborne began to question whether there might be more to it than just repeatedly answering altar calls. “Then I did something kind of dangerous – I started reading my Bible,” he told the audience. “The things that Jesus talked about collided with so many of the things I was running after.”

God will be giving everyone a final test, but it won’t be doctrinal, asking about views on issues such as the virgin birth, Claiborne suggests. “The questions we’re asked is, ‘When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was thirsty, did you get me something to drink? When I was a prisoner, did you visit me? When I was a stranger did you welcome me in? How did you care for the least of these?’ ”

These were words that shook him. Claiborne said that contrary to his current appearance and lifestyle, at that time in his life he was part of the “in crowd.” He didn’t relate to stories of people who told how Jesus had saved them out of lives wrecked by drugs and alcohol.

“I’m like ‘God bless you.’ For me, I pretty much had it all together, and then I met Jesus and he … messed … me … up. I’m still recovering from my conversion.”

Claiborne’s work with Mother Teresa proved a formative experience, especially in nurturing within him the conviction that we are to give our best to the least.

When Claiborne and his friends left Calcutta, Mother Teresa told them, “By the way, Calcuttas are everywhere, if we’ll only have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta. The lepers, the untouchables, the marginalized, the lonely are all around us, if we’ll only have the eyes to see them.”

“I think a lot of the things we’re doing, the only reason they look right, is because of the encultured Christianity we’ve become accustomed to,” he observed. “The early Christians were so excited by this idea that we are born again. That messed with them. And they said, ‘That means if we really believe we are born again, if one person has two coats, then they’ve stolen one because we still have brothers and sisters who are cold.’ ”

After reading in Acts 2 how the church lived together with all things in common, he and his friends returned home to start The Simple Way, a “new monastic” community in a violence-ridden area of north Philadelphia. The relationship with the city has been strained at times.

Holding up the Bible, Claiborne said, “This book has gotten a lot of people in trouble.” That includes trouble with the law.

The city, which Claiborne says did not understand The Simple Way, took the group to court because more than four people lived together in one house. “The City of Philadelphia told us it was illegal for more than four people who are unrelated to be in one house.” He laughs. “The early Christians would have been in big trouble.”

The city told them they were breaking the brothel law. “We were the first Christian brothel in Philadelphia,” he joked.

The Simple Way practiced civil disobedience against new city laws that banned homeless people from sleeping in the parks or feeding them. The city arrested Claiborne and other community members when they fed the homeless and slept out with them.

“We were charged for disorderly conduct for sleeping,” he said, laughing. “Man, somebody must have been snoring.”

The judge, however, declared the laws unconstitutional, Claiborne quoted the judge as saying, “Let me remind the court that if it weren’t for people who broke the unjust laws, we wouldn’t have the freedom we have. That’s what this country is built on. These guys are not criminals; they’re freedom fighters, and I find them not guilty on every charge.”

The crowd responded with loud, sustained applause.

Claiborne quoted some of Christianity’s heaviest thinkers to the students:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “This love is not the sentimental love of fairy tales, but it is the harsh and dreadful love that keeps us up at night.”

C.S. Lewis: “Aslan (the Christ figure in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) isn’t safe, but he is good.”

“I have no idea how we Christians have become so normal in such a messed up world,” Claiborne said.

To a rising and sustained applause from the audience, Claiborne quoted French philosopher Jacque Ellul: “Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”

The gospel will continue to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, which will mean challenging commonly held beliefs, Claiborne suggests. “As we think about what it means to be peacemakers on the earth, it should disturb us, I think, that so many Christians have been beating the war drums. I think Christians should be the people who are the hardest to convince that violence is necessary in the world.”

If Christians want to see how perfect love combats violence, they should look at the cross from which Jesus forgave the people who were killing him, Claiborne said. “We have a God who loves evildoers so much – he died for them, for us.”

Claiborne added, “If we believe terrorists are beyond redemption, we should rip out half of the New Testament because it was written by one – this man Saul of Tarsus – who became an extremist for God’s love and grace.”

That extremism led Claiborne to Iraq – he was in the country during the bombing of Baghdad in the recent war. “My only goal in being there was to be a voice of reconciliation and peace for Jesus, to be a witness for Christ.”

He said that despite seeing horrifying results of violence, he also saw powerful moves of God’s grace. That grace was manifested as he worshiped nearly every night with Iraqi Christians from around the Mideast.

Claiborne quoted an Iraqi bishop who declared, “This cross doesn’t make any sense to the wisdom of this world or the smarts of smart bombs, but it is this cross that is the hope of the world.” Claiborne said he was so moved, “I was crying all over myself.”

The bishops also had put together a statement addressed to Muslims that read, “We want you to know that you are created from the same dirt that God breathed life into, that you are born in the same dysfunctional family of Abraham and Sarah.” Then they said, “We want you to know that we love you.”

Claiborne recalls telling the bishop that he had no idea there were so many Christians in Iraq. “He was very gentle with me but he looked at me and he goes, ‘Yes, son, this is where Christianity started.’ And he said, ‘That’s the Tigris River over there. And that’s the Euphrates. Have you heard of them? You didn’t invent Christianity in America, you only domesticated it.

“You go back to America and you tell them that the church in Iraq is praying for them to be the body of Christ.”

Editor’s note: To see additional photos from various CHIC activities, click here.

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