Review of Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution”
One of the best books on Kingdom living I’ve read in the last year’s is Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. I heartily recommend reading it. This young man has got the vision and is living it out in a community he started in the Philadelphia area called “The Simple Way.” The book basically tells his story – which is, I must say, beautifully radical. Also, Shane is a superb writer.
Let me just say this about the specifics of the book—I found myself saying a hearty “Amen” to about 93% of the book (which is not typical for me). I even said “Amen” to things I’m not yet living—which means I was convicted. (You will be too. Believe me). But what I like most about the book is the 7% I find myself disagreeing with (this is typical for me).
Here’s my area of disagreement in a nutshell. While Shane is very clear on how the Kingdom of God is distinct from all forms of the kingdom of the world, and while he is admirably critical of people on both the political right and left who think they’re more righteous because of how they vote and who have too much buy-in on the political machinery, Shane is nevertheless big on staging political protests. Indeed, this is one of the major things Shane does, and he’s gotten himself arrested numerous times.
Now, I think this is perfectly fine and cool. But what’s challenging is that Shane seems to think this form of protest is an essential aspect of his Kingdom activism. His disclaimers not withstanding, at several points it seemed to me (I could be wrong) that he thought this was a rather unambiguous way for a follower of Jesus to weigh in on political issues. I’m not sure Shane fully appreciates the complex ambiguity that is involved in all politics.
For example, toward the end of his book Shane tells the story of how he sat toward the front of the 2004 Republican convention and then, when G.W. Bush stood up to speak, he took off his Republican-looking suit and exposed a shirt with writing on the front and back saying things like “Woe to the Rich…and Blessed are the Poor.” He then began to shout these verses while President Bush tried to speak.
Not surprisingly, he was removed by security guards. He avoided being arrested because, when they asked if he was a protester (which is not allowed) he responded, “No, I’m a prophet.” They didn’t know what to do with this, probably thought he was a flake, and so they mercifully let him go. (What’s odd is that Shane elsewhere has some negative – and insightful – things to say about political protesters [see chapter 11]. I found this confusing.)
Now, I’m personally not a super huge fan of the Bush administration, and I’m totally okay with people publicly saying whatever is on their mind at any national convention. Have at it. But is this really Kingdom activism? Did Jesus ever do anything like this? Isn’t this form of protest giving the political enterprise a bit too much credit? Should Kingdom people really expect government to care about what the Bible says, or what some heckler in the front row says the Bible says? Couldn’t this sort of violation of proper etiquette be considered arrogant and rude – something Paul says love never is (I Cor. 13)? Would Shane have done this at a Democratic convention? If not, does this mean Shane thinks the Democrats care more about the poor than Republicans?
In any event, it seems to me the New Testament presents a bleaker picture of government than what a protest would presuppose. All governments are viewed as part of the kingdom of Satan – the Babylon of the Book of Revelation (e.g. Lk. 4:5-6; Rev. 13; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; I Jn 5:19). We are to revolt against this, of course. But I’m not sure Shane’s way, in this instance, is a Christ-like way.
At the same time, Shane’s book was a strong challenge for Kingdom people to enter into solidarity with the poor. (This, in fact, is the book’s strongest point). And it got me to thinking that there may be a viable form of Kingdom protest built into this solidarity. Without claiming any superior wisdom or moral insight into how to run the world, when people are going hungry we simply identify with them and scream “we are hungry.” We help give a voice to those whose voices are easily ignored – because we’ve now made their voice our voice and vice versa.
Jesus never heckled Caesar, nor did he try to tweak his program in any other way. His Kingdom is not of this world. But he did expose the ugly injustice of the world simply by virtue of the way he identified with those crushed by the world’s system.
That, I think, is a viable form of Kingdom protest. And I thank Shane for helping me think this through.
Long live the Revolution!