The way Shane Claiborne reads his Bible, a lot of Jesus Christ's acts cleverly lampooned and satirized the existing order in order to undermine and expose it.
Hence Jesus telling collectors to get his tax payment from the mouth of a fish they'd just pulled from the water. What's the victory in collecting taxes from the miscreant Jew when money's appearing in the mouths of fishes?
But Jesus fulfilled the letter of the law and never sought to overthrow Herod or Pilate. Just to make them occasionally look really silly to make a point.
It's called revolutionary subordination, and Claiborne does his best to follow suit.
So the day after Thanksgiving, he and his own small community in Philadelphia declared Buy Nothing Day at a local mall and passed out free pizzas.
Oh, and Claiborne also trained with the circus. It comes in handy: He says people will take anything you hand them, including flyers, when you're walking on 10-foot stilts. It got him arrested and permanently banned from the mall, but the clowning police mug shot is pretty funny.
When his community came into money, they gave most of it away and cashed the rest into small bills and coins that they then poured all over Wall Street in New York City to make a spectacular point about the distribution of wealth.
It's not all fun and stunts, of course. Claiborne traveled to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness and was in Baghdad when the U.S.-led coalition forces started bombing. The key for Claiborne is relationships. And some imagination.
The trip and the medicine smuggled into Iraq were illegal, of course. So Voices in the Wilderness paid its $20,000 fine in 10-year-old Iraqi dinar. Unfortunately for the U.S. government, today that's worth about $2, Claiborne says.
This past weekend Claiborne stood on the lawn of St. Bernard Catholic Church in Winton Place swaying his lanky frame, swinging dreds and entreating us with unironic and emphatic pumps of his clenched hand.
He talked about how little our American civil religion of state-sanctioned Christianity actually resembles the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. He seemed to be having a grand time.
He was smiling. Cracking jokes.
Claiborne's visit was the main attraction at St.
Bernard's weekend of festivities, which also included music, a picnic, Sunday morning mass and a pancake breakfast. Claiborne spoke to about 100 people, some of whom had traveled from Indiana and Michigan to see him.
A lot of the Christian activists that I know, seeing the same hypocrisy that Claiborne points out, are stridently angry, paralyzed by grief or simply no longer Christian. But Claiborne seeks to find the alternative.
His great gift is finding and embracing alternatives. Along with a disarming goofiness.
What he talks about is a shift from most of the local politicking that I see -- conducting blog flame wars, directing campaign staffers to release insulting and hyperbolic press releases and watching as time and time again upstart coalitions of political activists fracture along fissures of personality conflicts and petty infighting. And when we can't keep the churches and the ragamuffins they serve out of our back yards, either in Hyde Park or West End, we cry to zoning boards.
In the space between liberal and conservative, between such artificially-imposed polarities as pro-life and pro-choice, is the area that allows for imagination and freedom.
In that in-between space, real conversations can take place and relationships grow. Here's where people start acting a lot more like the strange bedfellows that made up Jesus' own ragtag tribe of followers.
I first heard Claiborne talk in his laconic Tennessee drawl on NPR's Speaking of Faith. He's part of a movement informally described as the New Monastics: people who are creating small communities where they trace Christianity back to its roots and live out a faith that more closely mirrors Jesus' gospel prescriptions.
And though he's effusive, he's not simplistic and he's not just breathing some newcomer's fire. It's been 10 years since he and a handful of fellow college students ventured into the heart of Philadelphia, much like their spiritual fathers and mothers went into the desert.
Claiborne and a few others made their home in the heroin-addled shell of a Philly neighborhood. They call the intentional community they created "A Simple Way" (thesimpleway.org) and gave it a simple mission: "To Love God. To Love People. To Follow People."
"We're giving that our best shot," adds a tagline, in an echo of Claiborne's folksy, conversational style.
There they take care of each other and their neighbors, working part-time to contribute $150 per month per person to the household. They plant urban gardens, help the neighborhood kids with homework, invite the hungry in for meals and give out clothes from the stockpile of a small thrift shop. When addicts come knocking, they don't just hand them referral slips; they walk with them to a neighboring recovery community with whom they've cultivated a deep relationship.
In every way they have learned to live more deeply, Claiborne says.
They aren't their own church; members attend local congregations of their choice. They simply choose to live simply, and together, and do the work they see Jesus doing in Scripture.
That's it. And that's a lot.
"For us, I think, community's been some of the hardest times and most beautiful times," Claiborne says.
He decries the God-laced nationalism and the myth of redemptive violence being played out through the Iraq War. But he also offers some pointed observations on detached progressives and militant protesters.
"There are plenty of liberals who talk about poverty and injustice but rarely encounter the poor, living detached lives of socially responsible but comfortable consumption," he says.
On the other hand, some protesters have spent so much time fighting the things they oppose that they can't remember what they're for. At worst, protesters can lend legitimacy to the current order with "carefully compartmentalized dissent," he says. "The real question is, what are the alternatives?"
Claiborne spent time with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, where he rolled cotton balls in the lepers' health clinic and tended to the dying. He made sure that all the shirts created for his recent visit to Cincinnati bore "Momma T's" famous line: "We can't do great things in this life. We can only do small things with great love."
CONTACT STEPHANIE DUNLAP: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the second issue of each month.