In a recent “letter” published in Esquire, Philadelphia hippie-evangelical and advocate for the poor Shane Claiborne apologizes for the behavior of many Christians. Citing a survey that notes the top three opinions of Christians as antigay, judgmental, and hypocritical, Claiborne makes a strong case for a Christianity that has the bulk of its activity outside the church walls and that has the greatest effect on those beyond the church rolls. Claiborne seems to suggest that he’d love to see that survey change so that people see Christians as loving, caring, and compassionate.
In reading this and a couple of Claiborne’s books, The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President, I find a dedicated Christian writer who lets his rhetoric get away from him in much the way that various pundits–think Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olberman–do. Do Christians often prove more of a stumbling block than a help to those who might come to Christ? Undoubtedly. Should Christians demonstrate Christ’s love more intentionally and dramatically than they–than we do? Almost certainly. As generous as evangelicals are when it comes to providing for hunger and disaster relief–and we are generous–when you see us driving in our $40,000 SUVs from our $300,000 houses to our $30 million megachurches, you have to wonder if we have our priorities straight.
The problem I have with Shane Claiborne–and it’s a problem that I’m perfectly glad to live with if that means keeping his challenging voice speaking–is that in the process of being anti-antigay, anti-judgmental, and anti-hypocritical, he runs the risk of falling into the sort of social gospel thinking that eviscerated many mainline denominations through the 20th century. His Esquire letter contains passages that seem to suggest universalism. If that’s where his theology is drifting, then I’d suggest that in the process of going the right way, he’s gone too far. If the cross is simply a moral exemplar, if Jesus didn’t really mean it when he said, “You must be born again,” if that whole rich man-Lazarus parable is meaningless, then Christianity is reduced to a Rodney-King, “Can’t we all just get along” state.
Hopefully that’s not where Shane Claiborne’s faith is leading him. If it is, then he’ll provide a lot of comfort and sustenance for a lot of poor and homeless only to leave them defenseless in the end. I don’t believe that’s where he is, but the fact that I can ask the question shows what happens when a good writer with powerful feelings allows his rhetoric to travel too far ahead.