So I have just finished reading Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution. It’s been popular for a while, especially in certain circles at UNC.
The book and author are the latest iteration of the stream of Christian theology which was known as the Progressive Gospel in the early 20th Century, Liberation Theology in the 1970s and 80s and the Social Gospel in the early 21st Century.
What these theological movements have in common is an emphasis on the church’s role in doing good works on the earth in the present as opposed to proclaiming the world to come. As Claiborne himself writes, “We can tell the world there is life after death, but the world really seems to be wondering if there is life before death.” In his view, the church’s goal is not so much to convert people to faith in Christ as much as it is to convert them to a better way of living. He argues that “conversion is not an event but a process, a process of slowly tearing ourselves from the clutches of the culture.” By practicing social justice, we are, in Claiborne’s words, “practicing resurrection.” The salvation of man’s soul through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ takes a secondary place to the salvation of man’s earthly body from poverty through following the earthly example of Christ. In short, we are to “believe so much in another world that [we] cannot help but begin enacting it now.”
Whatever else you can say about Claiborne, he does attempt to live out his philosophy. He lives in a communal house in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, where he ministers to the poor, homeless and drug-addicted. He lives a life of poverty and chastity, and his ministry (called The Simple Way) is run based on donations.
Part of the problem is, Claiborne’s proposals to enact heaven on earth are simplistic, naïve and juvenile. He advocates not only for the abolition of the death penalty but of the prison system as well. He dispenses with the nuclear family, saying that God has achieved “final triumph over patriarchy” and that fathers are no longer necessary because “only God is worthy to be seen as Father.”
He does not stop there. He calls for the abolition of money, because it encourages materialism and the unequal distribution of wealth. In its stead, he proposes replacing it with a system of bartering. He does not seem to recognize that bartering is simply a less complicated version of the materialism of monetary exchange. The underlying problem, as Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 6:10, is the love of money, not money itself. Replacing money with another form of wealth exchange will not change this.
But it’s not just money that Claiborne is after, it’s the entire system of market economics. In Claiborne’s ideal world, the free market will be replaced by sharing or bartering, and there will be what he calls “mystical multiplication” of resources. He remains hazy about what this means, which is easy to do when one’s economic model is reliant upon miracles to function.
Claiborne uses the event of Jesus feeding the 5,000 as an illustration of his economic model. He does not ever address the fact that this event was a miracle, and as such it was a singularity rather than an economic pattern. What’s more, the purpose of the miracle was surely not to provide an economic model, otherwise Jesus would have repeated it many times instead of only performing it twice. Rather, Jesus later explained (John 10:38) that the purpose of these miracles was so that “that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” Jesus performed miracles to show that he was God, not to provide examples for us to live by. It is not our job to take on the role of Christ and perform miracles.
But the biggest problems with Claiborne’s philosophy are not his proposals for social change but his theology.
Claiborne persist in perpetuating the idea that Jesus came as a social revolutionary. He goes so far as to write that “Jesus was crucified not for helping the poor but for joining them.” In portraying Jesus as an agent of class conflict, Claiborne conflates the Biblical idea of the poor with the Marxist concept of the proletariat. As Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in his 1984 pamphlet, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of ‘Theology of Liberation’“:
…The “theologies of liberation”, which reserve credit for restoring to a place of honor the great texts of the prophets and of the Gospel in defense of the poor, go on to a disastrous confusion between the poor of the Scripture and the proletariat of Marx. In this way they pervert the Christian meaning of the poor, and they transform the fight for the rights of the poor into a class fight within the ideological perspective of the class struggle. For them the Church of the poor signifies the Church of the class which has become aware of the requirements of the revolutionary struggle as a step toward liberation and which celebrates this liberation in its liturgy.
Claiborne also goes off the rails in his definition of faith and conversion. For Claiborne, “conversion is not an event but a process, a process of slowly tearing ourselves from the clutches of the culture” after which we begin “practicing resurrection” by enacting true biblical social justice.
This has no basis in scripture at all. Biblically, when a person comes to faith, they acknowledge Christ as their savior, and are, in Jesus’ words, “born again.” However, in Claiborne’s theology being converted means to tear yourself away from the dominant culture and begin enacting the process of cultural change Claiborne wants to see in the world. Rather than works becoming an expression of our faith, it appears that works become our faith. Claiborne’s view of a converted Christian is closer to Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky’s idea of the “New Man” than a Biblical view of salvation.
Likewise, his definition of faith has problems. “Faith is loyalty,” he writes. In fact, it isn’t. A precise definition is hard, but faith is trust would be the best I can come up with. You can be loyal to someone without trusting them. Claiborne argues that the early Christians were executed for their lack of faith in the state. This is only true if you define faith as loyalty. In fact, they were executed because their refusal to sacrifice to the cult of the emperor undermined the Roman civic religion. Roman civic religion was not about belief, it was about unifying the people around a common symbol. As Dr. Richard Talbert has taught me, Christianity introduced the idea of faith and belief. It was a concept which was foreign to Roman civic religion. After all, it was the Roman gods which Seneca was referring to when he wrote that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
But Claiborne’s biggest problem, and one that eclipses all the others, is his view of the role of good works in the world. Claiborne wants to see Jesus as a social revolutionary, a savior of men on earth rather than just of men’s eternal souls. By wanting people who “believe so much in another world that [we] cannot help but begin enacting it now,” he wants to bring heaven to earth. In the words of Josef Ratzinger, he wants a “temporal messianism” in which Christ’s church works not only to save people’s souls but to save their physical, material lives as well.
The problem is, this is a fallen, broken world full of imperfect people who cannot redeem themselves by their own efforts. Claiborne wants to bring to earth what is reserved only for heaven. Yet, no matter what people do, this broken world will remain broken. As Paul wrote (Romans 8:18-25):
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Creation is in a fallen state, and it will one day be liberated. We can do nothing about this. However, our present sufferings “are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed” in the future when all creation is set right after Christ’s Second Coming.
When Jesus was in Bethany two days before his crucifixion, a woman came to the house he was staying in and poured a jar of expensive perfume over his head. His disciples decried the waste, saying that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus replied by saying “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” Here, Jesus indicated that his spiritual ministry – his death and resurrection – was more important than his temporal ministry to the poor.
The primary role of the church is to reach the lost with the message of the gospel. This is a spiritual ministry, not a temporal one. Temporal ministries may be carried out by the church, but it is not the primary mission of the church. We are called by Jesus to be the “salt of the earth.” Salt is a preservative. It slows decay. It does not stop decay, only decreases it. It certainly has no restorative power. Likewise, we have no power to restore the earth, just to slow its decay.
Claiborne’s teachings are not only wrong, they are extremely dangerous. When people put their faith into an ideology which promises to save the world, they inevitably get their faith shattered when their ideology fails to deliver.
For many decades, communism was such an ideology. Utopia, it was believed, was right around the corner. Yet, in 1991 the system met its final collapse. It was shown once and for all to be practically and morally bankrupt. As a result, the masses lost any remaining faith in communism. The faith survives in a few scattered pockets left behind by modern society, but it is for all intents and purposes dead.
Likewise, suppose a large number of Christians someday put their faith in Claiborne’s ideology. Like all ideologies which promise to bring heaven to earth, it will someday catastrophically fail. Will this mean a mass exodus of Christians who leave the faith? This already happened in the 1940s, when the global horror of World War 2 showed that the Progressive Gospel rang hollow. As a result, Christianity declined, somewhat in the United States but especially so in Europe.
Temporal ministries to the physical needs of people are not wrong. But they are not redemptive. We can feed a hungry person, but we cannot end hunger. We can find a homeless man a home, but we cannot end homelessness. We can heal a sick person but we cannot end sickness. We can end a war, but we cannot end warfare. We can save a person’s life, but we cannot stop them from dying. Only Christ can do that, and it is not our job to attempt to take his place.