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Shane Claiborne 2One of my Facebook friends shared this letter from Shane Claiborne, which was recently published in Esquire magazine. Claiborne is a thirty-something Christian who is a leading figure in the New Monasticism movement. He is the author of the Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. He also dresses weird. But I was struck by a line in this letter where he says that the Christian gospel is “not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s kingdom down.”

I like that.

Read the letter. You may not like all of it, but I think you’ll find some things here that could be useful to people trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and especially to those they are trying to reach who have been put off by “Christians.”

Take it away, Shane:

———————————————-

To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

The other night I headed into downtown Philly for a stroll with some friends from out of town. We walked down to Penn’s Landing along the river, where there are street performers, artists, musicians. We passed a great magician who did some pretty sweet tricks like pour change out of his iPhone, and then there was a preacher. He wasn’t quite as captivating as the magician. He stood on a box, yelling into a microphone, and beside him was a coffin with a fake dead body inside. He talked about how we are all going to die and go to hell if we don’t know Jesus.

Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. All I could do was think to myself, I want to jump up on a box beside him and yell at the top of my lungs, “God is not a monster.” Maybe next time I will.

The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.

At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, “I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.” A recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. So what we have here is a bit of an image crisis, and much of that reputation is well deserved. That’s the ugly stuff. And that’s why I begin by saying that I’m sorry.

Now for the good news.

I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter. (If there is anything I have learned from liberals and conservatives, it’s that you can have great answers and still be mean… and that just as important as being right is being nice.)

The Bible that I read says that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it… it was because “God so loved the world.” That is the God I know, and I long for others to know. I did not choose to devote my life to Jesus because I was scared to death of hell or because I wanted crowns in heaven… but because he is good. For those of you who are on a sincere spiritual journey, I hope that you do not reject Christ because of Christians. We have always been a messed-up bunch, and somehow God has survived the embarrassing things we do in His name. At the core of our “Gospel” is the message that Jesus came “not [for] the healthy… but the sick.” And if you choose Jesus, may it not be simply because of a fear of hell or hope for mansions in heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the afterlife, but too often all the church has done is promise the world that there is life after death and use it as a ticket to ignore the hells around us. I am convinced that the Christian Gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and that the message of that Gospel is not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s Kingdom down. It was Jesus who taught us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth.

One of Jesus’ most scandalous stories is the story of the Good Samaritan. As sentimental as we may have made it, the original story was about a man who gets beat up and left on the side of the road. A priest passes by. A Levite, the quintessential religious guy, also passes by on the other side (perhaps late for a meeting at church). And then comes the Samaritan… you can almost imagine a snicker in the Jewish crowd. Jews did not talk to Samaritans, or even walk through Samaria. But the Samaritan stops and takes care of the guy in the ditch and is lifted up as the hero of the story. I’m sure some of the listeners were ticked. According to the religious elite, Samaritans did not keep the right rules, and they did not have sound doctrine… but Jesus shows that true faith has to work itself out in a way that is Good News to the most bruised and broken person lying in the ditch.

It is so simple, but the pious forget this lesson constantly. God may indeed be evident in a priest, but God is just as likely to be at work through a Samaritan or a prostitute. In fact the Scripture is brimful of God using folks like a lying prostitute named Rahab, an adulterous king named David… at one point God even speaks to a guy named Balaam through his donkey. Some say God spoke to Balaam through his ass and has been speaking through asses ever since. So if God should choose to use us, then we should be grateful but not think too highly of ourselves. And if upon meeting someone we think God could never use, we should think again.

After all, Jesus says to the religious elite who looked down on everybody else: “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of you.” And we wonder what got him killed?

I have a friend in the UK who talks about “dirty theology” — that we have a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption, a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. After all, the whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. At one point, Jesus takes some mud, spits in it, and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes to heal him. (The priests and producers of anointing oil were not happy that day.)

In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay “out there” but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, “Nothing good could come.” It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.

It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors… a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.

In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.

Your brother,

Shane

Read more: Shane Claiborne – Letter to Non-Believers by Shane Claiborne – Esquire http://www.esquire.com/features/best-and-brightest-2009/shane-claiborne-1209#ixzz2MxEvkeCS

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whichgod2I’m still reading Unchristian: what a new generation really thinks about Christianity…and why it matters.  It’s not that I’m such a slow reader; it’s that I have other things to do.  Today, for instance, I have to write a sermon about Jesus taking on the scribes and Pharisees over the issue of ritual handwashing (Mark 7:1-23), a topic not completely unrelated to the way many outsiders view the religious traditions of Christians. 

Anyway, I thought I would give you a brief excerpt from Unchristian to keep the conversation going, because it’s a good one, and the comments I have received have been both thoughtful and provocative.  I hope you will add to the conversation by clicking the word comments at the bottom of this post and telling me what you think.

In the chapter on Christians being “too judgmental” David Kinnaman writes: “Have you ever heard the Christian mantra, ‘Hate the sin, but love the sinner’?  It is not a direct quote from the Bible, but it reflects the ideal most Christ followers embrace.  They would like to extend grace and love toward others (the sinner), while firmly rejecting those attitudes and behaviors that contradict God’s standards (the sin).  The problem is outsiders don’t think we are honest with ourselves.  One of our interviews was with Jeff, a twenty-five-year-old agnostic from Oklahoma.  He actually mentioned the catchphrase in the conversation: ‘Christians talk about hating sin and loving sinners, but the way they go about things, they might as well call it what it is.  They hate the sin and the sinner.'” 

Kinnaman goes on to say, “If our primary fixation is on the sin, it is virtually impossible to demonstrate love to an individual.  Think of it: many outsiders, the broken people who need Jesus most, picture Christians as haters.”

Ouch.

What do you think?  Is Kinnaman right?  Do people outside the faith really think of us that way?

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3d_unchristian_cover“Christianity has an image problem.”

That’s the first sentence in David Kinnaman’s book Unchristian: what a new generation really thinks about Christianity…and why it matters (Baker Books, 2007).

Kinnaman is the president of the Barna Research Group, and he bases that conclusion on interviews conducted with thousands of young people across the country.  He notes that their responses are not only neutral, but in many cases negative.  Their complaints against Christianity—and the Christians and churches that have shaped their views—is that it is:

1. Hypocritical.  Outsiders consider us hypocritical—saying one thing and doing another—and they are skeptical of our morally superior attitudes.  They say Christians pretend to be something unreal, conveying a polished image that is not accurate.  Christians think the church is only a place for virtuous and morally pure people.

2. Too focused on getting converts.  Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them.  They feel like targets rather than people.  They question our motives when we try to help them “get saved,” despite the fact that many of them have already “tried” Jesus and experienced church before.

3. Antihomosexual.  Outsiders say that Christians are bigoted and show disdain for gays and lesbians.  They say Christians are fixated on curing homosexuals and on leveraging political solutions against them. 

4. Sheltered.  Christians are thought of as old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality.  Outsiders say we do not respond to reality in appropriately complex ways, preferring simplistic solutions and answers.  We are not willing to deal with the grit and grime of people’s lives.

5. Too political.  Another common perception of Christians is that we are overly motivated by a political agenda, that we promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues.  Conservative Christians are often thought of as right-wingers.

6. Judgmental.  Outsiders think of Christians as quick to judge others.  They say we are not honest about our attitudes and perspectives about other people.  They doubt that we really love people as we say we do.

Kinnaman looks at each of these perceptions in depth over the next six chapters of his book, before concluding with a chapter on how we might make the move from unchristian to Christian: that is, how we might become more authentically Christian in order to change the perceptions of young people who think we are too political, hypocritical, sheltered, judgmental, conversion-happy, and antihomosexual. 

I haven’t finished the book yet, but the chapter on hypocrisy—just as an example—makes some good points.  Kinnaman says that, based on his research, there is shockingly little difference between the behavior of born-again Christians and everybody else.  And yet when you ask these Christians what their priorities are they say, “doing the right thing, being good, not sinning.”  I’m sure there are shining examples of virtue among us, but when we say that our priorities are doing the right thing, being good, and not sinning, and then do the wrong thing, behave badly, and sin freely—that’s hypocrisy. 

In what other ways might those young people be right about Christianity…and what will we do to change their perceptions?

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