Shane Claiborne –  The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Zondervan, 2006)

Shane Claiborne grew up in the American Bible Belt but saw something very wrong in the way the church around him and he himself had responded to Jesus’ teaching. In particular, he found that the church was accepting unquestioningly the materialism of the wider culture and isolating itself from the poor in a way that ran right in the face of Jesus’ words and actions. Looking for something different Claiborne travelled to India to work with Mother Teresa and then co-founded a community in the slums of Philadelphia where he could live a life that seemed more authentic to what he read in the Gospels. Largely biographical, The Irresistible Revolution presents his vision for what the Christian life should look like.

Claiborne is challenging and some form of his message is much needed. He makes many valuable criticisms and endeavours to do so in a manner that is gentle and loving. However, there are aspects of The Irresistible Revolution which are quite troubling.

Firstly, Claiborne’s soteriology is not Christocentric – he seems to believe that the gospel is foremost about how we save rather than how Jesus saves. I’m sure he does believe Jesus saves, but he preaches activism, before he preaches the acts of Christ and, for him, the mark of the Christian is in the extent to which they are actively saving others. So, he says that he had never met a ‘real Christian’ until he went to work with Mother Teresa in India. One result of this is that, at times, he falls into self-promotion.

Secondly, he claims to be an evangelical even though he isn’t. Part of this is just him wanting to reclaim the word ‘evangelical’ (Greek root ευαγγελιον = gospel/good news) to mean something more broad, but there is also a part of him that wants to stick with his evangelical roots. Doctrine is not a focus of the book and it is hard to tell where Claiborne would stand on issues like the authority of Scripture and role of the cross in salvation, but it is pretty clear that even a ‘generous orthodoxy’ would place him on the outer limits of evangelicalism. He talks up the work of John Dominic Crossan – a liberal scholar who denies the resurrection and other fundamental doctrines – and the Jesus Seminar. And he promotes Gandhi’s teachings on spiritual as well as political issues.

And thirdly, I find Claiborne’s brand of activism problematic. It is anti-authority and he boasts about the many times it has led to him being arrested. In some cases his Gandhi-inspired form of non-cooperation has seemed justified (such as when confronting a series of anti-homelessness laws in Philly that proscribed the distribution of food to the poor) but not always. I think he would do well to also look to the likes of abolitionist William Wilberforce as a model of activism and consider more closely what is demanded by the time and the place.

In case I give the wrong impression, this book was really beneficial for me. Chiefly, I felt the challenge to not leave charity as our response to the poor. We don’t need to all live amongst the poor as Claiborne chose to do, but we need to be finding ways to respond personally, not just financially (though that can be a good start).

For anyone wanting to think through social justice from a Christian perspective I would suggest Tim Keller’s Generous Justice.