Book Review: The Irresistible Revolution, by Shane Claiborne


Shane Claiborne, the author of The Irresistible Revolution, is a man of great moral clarity and bravery. He not only espouses and evangelizes for communal living, public protest, and pacifism, he lives it.

He’s not just writing about an irresistible revolution, he’s trying to lead one. And while he is not a complete stranger to the radical chic lifestyle, he’s willing to poke fun at himself and others for resort conferences and self-absorbed navel gazing. He’s articulate, passionate, well educated, and widely read. Quoting with appreciation Che Guevara, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mama T (a.k.a. Mother Teresa), Jim Wallis, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, John Yoder, Bono, Bonheoffer, Rich Mullins, and the red-letter Christian brigade, he discloses his broad philosophical and theological influences. Tracing the potential trajectory of all these ideas is like observing a cognitive dissonance cluster bomb, and it led me to the conclusion that he truly believes what he teaches: that great social change can come through hokey street theater, the use of sidewalk chalk, and blowing bubbles at bemused police officers (189).

Moral Authority

After reading his report of funky antics as a “theological prankster” (281), it’s tempting to pat him on the head and tell him to grow up and buy a shirt with buttons. But this misses how deadly serious he is: he has spent time in jail, risked his life protesting the war in Iraq, and makes every attempt to live his life as consistently around his confused ideals as possible. This alone gives him a great deal of moral authority.

And we must not miss the other reason for his moral authority. Much of his critique of the American evangelical church is accurate. In general, we are fat, insulated, and isolated from the poor and disenfranchised. We have compromised with our culture on the issue of civic religion. Our churches are characterized by the market’s brand of statistically-driven pragmatism. And our theology and practice can be an incoherent mess. When our bright young people notice all this, they begin looking around for a way to follow Jesus that is less staid and less compromised, and Claiborne intends his autobiographical manifesto to be a how-to-guide for them.

The Major Problem

The major problem is the cluster bomb I mentioned above. His theology is an unbiblical and incoherent synthesis which might be described as popularized Christian anarchism for young, disaffected, middle-class Americans.

I don’t say this to be mean spirited. Claiborne has asked to be critiqued from a theological perspective. He writes, “the answer to bad theology is not no theology but good theology. So rather than distancing ourselves from religious language and biblical study, let’s dive into the Scripture together, correcting bad theology with good theology” (169). I agree. If he’s accurately following Scripture, we should follow him. If he’s not, then he needs to stop the “theatrics of counterterror” (188) and join us in a rather different task.

Warrior King Or Slaughtered Lamb?

To begin with, Claiborne calls Christians to correct our “distorted understandings of the warrior God by internalizing our allegiance to the slaughtered Lamb. . .” I am all for internalizing my allegiance to the warrior God, because he is the slaughtered Lamb. But that’s not what Claiborne means, he means something like, don’t understand Jesus Christ through the Old Testament’s descriptions of an angry God, because Jesus was a pacifist “Mediterranean peasant revolutionary” (112). This view squares badly with Revelation 6:15-17, where the kings, the generals, the poor, and the free all attempt to hide themselves from Jesus Christ while begging the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

The Bible teaches that Jesus came as the Suffering Servant the first time. When he returns the second time, he will come with his sword drawn as the Warrior God to tread “the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God” (Rev. 19:15). In Claiborne’s desire to correct one distortion, he introduces an opposite but equally distorted view. He wants us to exchange Christian militarism for Christian pacifism. But neither can bear the weight of the entire Word of God.

“Sell All” Or “Health and Wealth”?

Claiborne also calls the church to correct “the health-and-wealth gospel by following the Homeless Rabbi.” The “health-and-wealth gospel” is a pox on the church in all its variants. But Claiborne continues his theme by quoting Rich Mullins: “We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too” (98-99). A bit of head scratching is in due order when one reads such statements. How does one make the universal need of salvation identical to the particularized need of the rich young ruler? And how does one interpret the Gospels so that the redistribution of wealth is equated with salvation?

At some point while reading The Irresistible Revolution, the hermeneutic becomes clear: the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, are to be read “literally” (77) or radically—as long as they support modern liberalism. It’s only a literal reading of any passages that lead to something like Christianized socialism with a dash of anarchism. The cure for the “health-and-wealth gospel” appears to be a gospel that confuses salvation by faith alone with the redistribution of wealth to the poor.

But there is a second layer to Claiborne’s attempts to follow Jesus “literally.” He believes that much if not most of Jesus’ ministry can be summed up as prophetic street theater. In other words, Jesus wasn’t crucified for claiming to be God, rather, “Jesus was crucified not for helping poor people but for joining them” (144). Jesus’ example and actions were “like street theater at a protest” (f. 9, pg. 281) and the “dazzle of the resurrection” is described as the “theatrics of counterterror” (281-282).

Suddenly the bubbles and sidewalk chalk make sense. Shane Claiborne believes that he is literally following Jesus’ example by his “prophetic” protests which often unfold as passing out spare change on Wall Street, getting arrested for minor civic violations in support of the homeless, and shilling on behalf of Saddam Hussein. The irresistible revolution at its silliest is outdoor drama with a fancy name; at its most theologically serious, it fails to make distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving poor (as required by 2 Thes. 3:10), between the megalomaniac dictators and the management of Taco Bell, between Christians and non-Christians.

Not Really a Radical

Perhaps the most ironic issue is that Shane Claiborne has strait-jacketed himself into a theological paradigm that cannot escape the confines of popular Western culture. His avowed interest in the anti-establishment rock band Rage Against the Machine, with their two Grammy Awards and Sony corporation contract, may be entertaining, but it neither furthers the cause of Christ nor social justice. He might like to quote Che Guevara, but Che’s contribution to Communist thought amounts to having an iconic photo taken of himself (by Alberto Korda) and being shot by the C.I.A. while wearing two Rolexes. Clairborne’s moral earnestness and passion are exemplary, but street drama as theology hinders his ability to think carefully about complicated issues; instead he claims that Jesus’ teaching on paying the temple tax in Matthew 17:24-27 is illuminated by the statement “when the emperor passes, the peasant bows. . .and farts” (185, n. 12).

Since Claiborne has accepted the Christian Century crowd’s romanticism of popular leftists revolutionaries, he has missed the true radicals—like that Protestant scholastic who risked his life by sneaking into Catholic controlled Paris to share the true gospel with an arch-heretic; like the Covenanters who were burned at the stake for refusing to worship bits of bread during the masses that Claiborne enjoys attending (325); like Christian police officers and soldiers who have the challenge of simultaneously “loving their enemies” while also loving the people they protect; like Christian business men who provide millions of people with jobs and the dignity of supporting their families through the creation-mandated activity of work, and doing so with honesty and integrity in a fallen world.

The fundamental issue is not that Claiborne is too radical or even rebellious. No, it’s that he takes the easy way out. It’s hard to spend your money in a godly way and to give it to the poor wisely, so he scatters it on the ground as a “jubilee” and abrogates a responsibility given to him by God. It’s no fun to hold a job and legally purchase abandoned buildings for the homeless, so he “reclaims” them as a squatter. It’s difficult to be patient under the current regime of sin and death, and so Claiborne pretends that swords can be pounded into plowshares and poverty can be eliminated without the return of Christ.

In Shane Claiborne’s revolution, flatulence jokes become theological reflection, the crucifixion morphs to a lampoon, and prophetic preaching is reduced to heckling presidential candidates. It’s not much of a revolution, but perhaps it’s the revolution a compromised American Church deserves.

Shane Walker

Shane Walker is the preaching pastor of First Baptist Church in Watertown, Wisconsin.

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