Irresistible Revolution or unappealing mess?

After reading Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution, selling all my possessions and helping the poor doesn’t seem like a bad idea. In fact, it seems as if that dedication to the poor is just what Christians ought to have.

Claiborne himself lives out that kind of dedication and, in fact, calls himself an “ordinary radical who wants to get at the root of what it means to love, and…of what has made such a mess of our world,” according to his introduction.

An Eastern graduate, he and a group of friends have committed themselves to a counter-cultural lifestyle of living with and reaching out to the poor in the worst areas of Philadelphia. The community they founded there is called the Simple Way.

The story of his journey as an ordinary radical, from working in Calcutta with Mother Teresa, to protesting the war by going to Baghdad, to hanging out with the homeless in Philadelphia, is a powerful testimony to the revival he advocates among Christians.

It is the small things, however, that most stand out, like driving cars that run on vegetable oil, setting up a network of people who use their tithes to help the needy or feeding the hungry even when it was illegal.

These examples keep the book from becoming an idealistic manifesto and make it instead a passionate call to a way of life that might just be more faithful to how God wants His people to live.

Claiborne’s book is more than just stories, though. Like any radical, he wants change, and he claims that the small steps he and his friends are taking are actually part of a revolution God is working in a church gone astray.

“We are also picking up an irresistible revolution that the world is waiting for,” he says in his conclusion.

Claiborne uses his book to call for this change among Christians. And his engaging conversational style is peppered with a remarkable amount of Scripture to back him up.

Passages he discusses include the parable of the mustard seed, the adulterous woman, the sheep and the goats, Mark 10 and Micah 6:8. And all of them point to one thing: God wants His people to seek social justice.

Unfortunately, the attitude Shane takes at times toward those who do not follow his radical lifestyle is disappointing. He claims to desire unity with the church, but shows little respect for that church or contemporary evangelicals.

This critique is especially harsh toward the end of the book, when he calls the church a dysfunctional parent and urges radicals to still love her.

“…they have given us enough of the story that we have been able to stumble into God and community,” he says of the church.

Claiborne is frustrated with the church’s apathy and believes the community he has found to be a better embodiment of the church, but his condescending attitude toward the evangelical church is unwarranted.

Claiborne even criticizes charity because things like tithe and mission trips”…allow us to remain a safe distance from the poor.”

Such statements undermine not only the work the church is doing, but also the work of Christians who are sincerely trying to follow Jesus. The church may often be apathetic, but there are people who are sincere about helping the poor and do it through things like charities.

In fact, I have not met one Christian who went on a mission trip or aided a charity who was doing so as a way of separating from the poor rather than of fulfilling their obligation to the poor.

It is true, however, that the church needs a reminder of God’s call for justice to the poor. And Claiborne makes that point powerfully. No one can read his book without at least considering that maybe he is right.

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