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Many of us wonder how to think about and act on issues of life and death beyond abortion and the death penalty–yet the heated debates in our churches and the confusion of our own hearts sometimes feel overwhelming. What does a balanced, Christian view of what it means to be “pro-life” really look like?
Combining stories, theological reflection, and a little wit with a Southern accent, activist Shane Claiborne explores the battle between life and death that goes back to the Garden of Eden. Shane draws on his childhood growing up in the Bible Belt, his own change of perspective on how to advocate for life, and his years of working on behalf of all people.
Shane’s new book Rethinking Life creates a larger framework for thinking about God’s love and our faith as we embrace a consistent ethic that values human life from womb to tomb.
Connect with Shane Claiborne:
Connect with special guest host Rod Tucker:
Episode 849: Shane Claiborne – It’s Time to Rethink Life and Embrace the Sacredness of Every Person
Shaun Tabatt: It's time for another episode of the Shaun Tabatt Show, a podcast where I connect you with thought leaders from across the globe. Digging into some of my favorite topics like personal development, marketing, spirituality, and pretty much any other shiny object that happens to catch my attention. Today our special guest is Shane Claiborne, and we're going to be talking about his latest book, Rethinking Life: Embracing the Sacredness of Every Person. Shane, it is truly an honor, sir. Welcome to the show.
Shane Claiborne: Yeah, man, I've been looking forward to it. Thank you.
Shaun Tabatt: Truly, truly my pleasure. And we also have a special guest host. Rod, I'm trying to remember, you hosted episode 500 of my show. You and a couple of other guys interviewed me to look back on what I learned in 500 episodes of podcasting, but I'm always down to do any kind of content I can with you because you're one of my best friends and favorite people in the world. Rod, welcome to the show as well.
Rod Tucker: I'm excited to be part of this interview. Shane is everyone's favorite.
Shaun Tabatt: I don't know if he's everyone's favorite. I know some people who probably are uncomfortable with some of what he talks about in some of his books, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. I always like to kick these off, Shane, with sort of an origin story question and I love that you opened in the introduction to the book kind of talking about how you were this normal evangelical kid and then you had to start wrestling with things as you grew up and saw more of things. So in terms of the person, this is the very first time they're meeting you. Just give them a little bit of context for your journey and how you saw that you had to start wrestling with some of these more difficult topics in culture.
Shane Claiborne: Well, I can't hide my southern accent. I grew up in the hills of east Tennessee and that's where I fell in love with Jesus. I mean, I grew up kind of in the Bible belt there, but my folks are hill folks, Shaun. I was just in Atlanta and it was just an incredible weekend with Dr. King's family and his daughter Bernice. But they were honoring different folks and Dolly Parton and I both received an award and I was like, we grew up in the same mountains. So I can remember my family talking about when she used to play on the front porch and literally it probably would've been my great grandparents and her grandparents were on that same hill. And apparently Shaun, some of my cousins have a moonshine show. But anyway, we won't talk about all that. But yeah, I fell in love with Jesus.
And it's interesting though because I kept reading the Sermon on the Mount and the gospels and feeling like it was such a radical countercultural call. And I mean, I was involved in Young Life. I sometimes confess that I was prom king in my high school, and it only goes to show you what a small town that I was from, but I was trying to figure out how to do the least amount of work and make the most money and go snowboarding as much as I could. And then Jesus. That's why I say there are people that I meet that they're like, my life was such a mess and then I met Jesus. And I'm like, well, God bless you. For me, my life was pretty together and then I met Jesus and he messed me up and I've been trying to figure out what the implications of all this are for the last 20 or 30 years.
So I came to Philly to go to college. Part of that was I wanted to get outside of that sort of little world. As much as I love it, I wanted to live near a big city. I wanted to meet folks that maybe saw and experienced life a little differently from me. And I went to this wonderful school, Eastern University, and ended up studying sociology, which I love how Karl Barth said, we need to read the Bible in one hand, but we need to read the newspaper in the other so that our faith doesn't just become a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the hurting world around us, but our faith should actually compel us to care about the injustices of this world and as Jesus said, to seek the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. So I really began to see my faith not just as a part of going up when we die, but bringing God's dream down on earth and what does that mean?
What does that look like? So I still very much believe in personal salvation and Jesus is my savior. And I also believe that my faith calls me to care about the things that are crushing other people's dignity and hope. And that sometimes it's hard to stay convinced that there's a loving God if you really don't feel that love and dignity in real-time. So yeah, we've been out of college, we started the Simple Way on the north side of Philly. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary of this community that's now turned into a village. We've got community gardens and we were just talking about our backyard chickens. We got murals, we've got all kinds of stuff. Affordable housing that we're creating, but we're a quarter of a century old brother.
Rod Tucker: I love hearing specifically about the simple way because for me, when I mean years ago getting connected with Tony Campolo and then seeing your connection and then having the opportunity to interview Don Golden and just having my mind blown by you all saying, we're here to take the words of Jesus seriously. My wife and I started a church that's trying to model very similar stuff helping first-generation homeowners own homes, beautifying parks, and places of high gun violence because we know what beautification does. Working with innovators who are willing to do chess clubs in urban settings to help people get off the street and begin to learn there are better ways. And so all these innovations that come from people in my circle and the church we're doing are directly correlated to the inspiration that came from you, from Don, from Tony being willing to say, we're going to take the words of Jesus seriously no matter what kind of pushback we get.
And that came during a time when preachers were almost honored for straddling the fence. And so in this book, I mean I just celebrate it all the time that people went before me and showed me a model and a way to do it. And right now we're brainstorming how do we do monastic living in our little urban south side of Kalamazoo and how do we help people form intentional community? And we have models that have gone before us. So when I'm looking at your most recent book and you get to chapters four, five, and six where you're saying God is like Jesus, Jesus died to save us from death and the early church was a force of life. I'm wondering what your thoughts are in regard to the direction church is headed and how we're going to get back to the simplistic way of Jesus. And I know that's kind of an open question, but I just would love to hear you talk about it.
Shane Claiborne: Yeah, well, I guess it's been about 10 years since we first started using the language Red Letter Christians, which probably not everybody's heard of, but the old Bibles, a lot of 'em, some of the Bibles, new Bibles have the words of Jesus highlighted in red, and that's where we get our name from. But it originally came when a friend of mine was being interviewed by a Nashville DJ and the DJ didn't seem to have much to do with Christianity, but he said, I've read the Bible. There are parts of it that I love. There are parts of it, if I'm honest, I find 'em kind of confusing or troubling. And he said, but I've always liked the stuff in red. And he said you should call yourself Red Letter Christians because you seem to be about that stuff. And I've often resonated with Gandhi when he was asked about Christianity and he said, I love Jesus.
I just wish the Christians acted more like him. For me, I began to see that one of the obstacles to our faith is Christians that have all the bumper stickers and t-shirts, but we don't always have the love. There are contradictions. I saw it in my own faith journey. Things like we said, I said I'm pro-life, but I had so narrowly defined what that meant to one issue, that abortion, that I began to go, wow, isn't this confusing that you can say you can be pro-guns, pro-military, pro-death penalty and still say you're pro-life. And we would be more accurate to say sometimes that we're anti-abortion or we're pro-birth, and I really began to embrace and seek a more comprehensive value for life to say that I still care deeply about abortion. So I'm not dissing that, but I'm just saying let's extend that value and passion for life to other things.
And Rod, in my last couple of books, they've been a little bit more particular. I wrote Executing Grace because I was troubled that Christians are the biggest supporters of the death penalty in America. The Bible belt is the death belt. 90% of executions are happening in the Bible belt. In states like Tennessee where I grew up, we still have the electric chair. And so Jesus saying, blessed are the merciful, I didn't come for the healthy but for the sick. I mean, it raised some serious questions about not just the political issue of the death penalty, but about redemption and grace. Is anybody beyond redemption? And likewise with guns. I wrote Beating Guns because I saw that the biggest demographic of gun owners in America and gun supporters, gun enthusiasts are Christians. And that really wouldn't have startled me too much. I grew up with guns hunting in east Tennessee.
But then when you begin to look at the loss of life in our country right now, 110 lives are lost every single day, and 40,000 lives every year. In the pandemic just over the last couple of years, gun violence became the number one cause of death of all children in America. So more than car accidents or cancer. And you start to go, wow, if we're really pro-life we better be concerned about this one too. And so that really was what started this new book, Rethinking Life. Let's, let's look back as we move forward and look at the early church and how robust and comprehensive their advocacy for life was. Let's look at Jesus and ask, how does our commitment to Jesus influence how we think about some of these other social issues? Yeah, man, it was a very holy project this new book, and I kind of feel like it's one of my most important books because it's not just about one issue, but it's trying to build a really comprehensive value for life across the board.
Shaun Tabatt: One of the challenges I've seen across culture and especially in the past few years is a lot of us wrestle with, what is my problem? Is this my responsibility? Or if somebody else is going to deal with that, maybe I shouldn't have to deal with that. Talk to us a little bit of wrestling with that age-old question of who is my neighbor. I feel like we're still asking that same question. And oddly, I think we're in this time where we can't avoid what's happening around us or on the other side of the country or even across the globe. All these things are being put in front of us on a scale that was unthinkable years ago. So as we're exposed to the world and yet in so many ways the world's at our doorstep, how do we answer that question of who's my neighbor right now?
Shane Claiborne: Yeah, Shaun. It's an interesting question and it occurs to me that that's the exact question as we look at the story of the Good Samaritan and the gospel, it's this guy that's questioning Jesus. And he asked that question, that very question, who is my neighbor? And it, also occurs to me that anytime we're asking who is my neighbor, we're probably also asking, who's not my neighbor, right? And who do I really have to care about and who's kind of peripheral to that? And yet Jesus' response by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, I mean, wow. I mean you talk about a scandal, a story. And we often think about it's all the religious folks, the Levite and the priest that pass by and they don't do anything about the suffering of the man in the ditch. And the Samaritan does the most unlikely hero is a very scandalous story.
I love preaching on it. But what's interesting though too is that the person in the ditch we don't know much about. And if you look closely at that Good Samaritan story, scholars say that was part of the point is that the two main ways you would be able to identify someone were stripped away from them. They're left unconscious and naked in the ditch. So you couldn't tell by their accent or dialect or where they were from, you couldn't tell by what they were wearing, what region they were from. And maybe that's part of the point, right, is that we don't know much about the person in the ditch. We don't know who they were, where they were from, or their sexual orientation or what political party or affiliation. All that we know is that they are a child of God made in the image of God that their life matters.
And I think it's also kind of an invitation to think about who are the folks that are suffering today that we might be walking on the other side of the street to avoid. And so that all-encompassing love is what we're after. And I think that we're all good at loving the people who are like us and that are comfortable to love. But that story is an invitation to love beyond our comfort zones. And as Dr. King said the folks that the religious folks were concerned about what would happen to them if they stopped because this was a dangerous road. And he said, but the Samaritan was concerned about what would happen to the man in the ditch if he didn't stop. And that's really, I think what we're invited to do right now, especially at this particular time in history, is there's a place to be interrupted. And that story is about interruption. It's about one person's suffering calling us to put aside our daytimers and our schedules, and people get beat up at really inconvenient times. And that's the point. So I think that story has so many implications on how we live today and who our neighbor is because our neighbors, not just the folks that we are comfortable around, the people that are living right beside us, but it's the folks that are getting beat up and maybe nobody knows their name.
Rod Tucker: So a couple of months ago, I had a young man get shot in my front yard. Luckily he survived. But what stood out to me was in all the work that we're doing in this neighborhood, oftentimes the rest of the city and most of the church that has moved out to the suburbs because where they can find financial sustainability didn't know what happened, didn't bat an eye and responded in fear by saying, that's why we don't get proximate to those spaces because it would feel dangerous for us. But in your book, you talk about, it made me smile so big. You talk about midwives of a better world and what does it look like if we're people who want to follow Jesus to step into places where we can become proximate, but then at the same time transform into midwives of a better world and partner with what Jesus is up to?
Shane Claiborne: Yeah. Well, I want to start with that proximity because I think that is the gospel. God got proximate. One preacher said it's a good thing that Jesus wasn't too worried about his comfort or he would've never left heaven. God leaves all the comfort of heaven to come on earth and to be born among us, and doesn't just come in any fashion, but comes in the body of a brown-skinned Palestinian Jewish refugee baby born in a manger because there's no room in the inn. Coming from a town that people said nothing good could come in every way stigmatized and leaning into the suffering in the margins all the way through his life to the point that he's executed on the cross. You know, think of Philippians as it says that he didn't take the character of God something to be exploited, but emptied himself that was born in the form of that baby refugee and executed on the cross.
So that is who Jesus was and is to us. And that redefines everything. Like the gravity of our culture, our dominant culture is to move away from suffering, to move away from neighborhoods where there's high crime. Frankly, to move off the streets where people get beat up. It was Derek Webb that wrote that song. He said God's been good. I've finally been able to move out of Jesus' neighborhood. I mean, he's singing that ironically. But the truth is that a lot of Christians are moving out of the neighborhoods that Jesus is moving into and that Jesus is in. So I think of proximity and it makes all the difference in the world. Where we sit determines what we see. And that's what put a fire in my bones for gun violence is like you Rod, I saw too many kids that their lives were cut short.
I mean one of them was a 19-year-old that was shot on my front step and I held his hand, and sadly he passed away, but then after Papito, that was his name, after he died, that's when the words of Dr. King really, they resonated in my soul when he said, we're all called to be the good Samaritan and lift our neighbor out of the ditch. But after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say, maybe we need to rethink the whole road to Jericho. We got to do something about why keep people keep ending up in the ditch. So that proximity makes all the, I mean, I keep all around me, things that remind me of the urgency of these issues, that these are not just vague political issues, but I've got on my desk here, a butterfly origami.
I know this is a podcast so people can't see it, but I'm holding it in my hand. One of the guys that I got to know on death row was facing execution. And I was asking him, Shaun, I was like, could I send you some prayer books? I'm thinking if I literally had days to live, I probably. And he said, no, no. John said, I've got enough prayer books and I love them, but I've been learning origami. could you send me an origami book? And I mean, I'm getting choked up. But I look at that every day and I think, what a defiant kind of hope to say, I have an execution date, but I'm going to learn to make origami. And he sent me that right before he was executed. So I think that's one of the things that I mentioned in Rethinking Life, is that just as God became proximate in Jesus and leaned into the suffering showed us this act of divine solidarity with all of the suffering of the world, that's really our model.
So now our inertia, the gravity of the gospel should pull us towards the suffering rather than away from it. And I think that's the beginning Rod of that idea that we do want to give birth to a better, more beautiful world. But I think it starts with proximity. It starts with feeling the pain. And I think of those folks that have many marching in the streets that have held pictures of Jesus on the cross that say I can't breathe. Those are the words of George Floyd and Eric Garner and they're also the words of this suffering savior that entered into the pain of the world. So I think what many people are doing in our streets right now is saying we're hurting. The whole Black Lives Matter movement is an invitation to recognize the humanity and the dignity of folks who have been dehumanized over and over historically.
It's saying, do I matter to you? And there's this moment right now, I think of the book of Romans where it says the entire creation is groaning and it says it's groaning like the pains of childbirth. And then it goes on to say that we are groaning with it, that we're aching for the full revelation of God's kingdom to come. And if we believe that that's happening, it's also an invitation not just to be passive, but just like when you give birth the expectation of a new child has implications. You know, you eat healthy, you start to get the room ready, you know, you do all kinds of things. And yet it is a painful process. It's about sweat and blood and tears, but then there's new life. And I kind of feel like that's the moment that our country is in, maybe even our world is in where God's doing something new.
And as you know, I end the book Rethinking Life. Well, I won't do the spoiler alert, but Valerie Kaur who's a wonderful lawyer and activist, she says this current darkness, she kind of invites us to say, is this the darkness of the womb or the darkness of the tomb? Is America dying or is America actually being born? And I think that's a beautiful question. This is a moment where we get to be midwives. We get to participate in something new that God is doing in the world. And I believe part of that is a new and more beautiful version of Christianity that believes both in personal salvation and social transformation that believes that we can do the work of compassion and love, but we can also do the work of justice, of trying to do something about why people end up in the ditch.
Shaun Tabatt: Well, for the person watching this or listening to this who's like, man, I don't even know where to start. So on the one hand, for somebody who's wondering, they're feeling provoked and they know they should do something, how do they get started? And then the other question is, I mean you just said celebrating 25 years, I know Rod's family has been embedded in the Edison neighborhood for a long time. Also being willing to run the race, that transforming deep-set issues. It doesn't happen in a day. It doesn't happen because you met with somebody five times or whatever it might be. It's like it's a journey. It might be a decades-long journey to see the kind of change that needs to happen. So for the person who wants to, knows they need to do something, how do they get started? But also being willing to count the cost of the time that is necessary to see the change that needs to happen.
Shane Claiborne: Well, a couple of things I'd say that for me have been important and one of those is that proximity. I think let's find ways that we can intersect our lives with those who have been impacted by injustice. I mean, one of the things that really started our community in Philadelphia was when a group of very courageous homeless mothers moved into an abandoned church building and started living there. That's what started everything, was I was a student 30 minutes away. And we came in and saw these families that hung a banner on the front of the cathedral that said, how can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday? And we're like, our heads are spinning. I hadn't really thought about Jesus like that before. So it's been said the hardest part about running a marathon is not the finish line, but it's getting to the starting line.
And I think that's where we've got to come alongside people who are already visiting folks in prison or on death row. That's how I got started visiting. And now my mom's been with me to death row. My wife's been, a lot of my friends have visited Tennessee's death row and other facilities with me. With folks on the street, it's the same way experiencing people who have had different life experiences than us. And all of us are better off because of it. So I think we're all most comfortable around people who are like us. And yet I think that's why Jesus is so hard on, he talks about family and you see him really challenging the boundaries that we put around love and going, unless you denounce your own family, unless you're born again, you love bigger than biology, then you're not ready to be my disciple.
And in fact, Matthew 25, when Jesus talks about the least of these, I mean, this is God's final account of judgment. And it's apparently not just a theology test where we'll be asked virgin birth, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree? But we're going to be asked when I was in prison, did you visit me? When I was a refugee, did you welcome me in? When I was sick, did you take care of me? The real test of our faith is how it matters to the most vulnerable people in our society. And I always say, I'm always careful to say our works don't earn our salvation, but they demonstrate our salvation. So if we aren't caring for the folks on the street and the naked and visiting the incarcerated, are we really followers of Jesus? Or maybe we're just believers on Sunday morning, we got to keep extending that faith to be more than just a kind of doctrine on paper.
So I think that's part of it, is to get into those spaces where immigrants are not just something we hear people talking about on tv, but they're people that we know their names and their stories, and that changes everything. I think part of what's troubling in our country is that people are very good at talking about people they don't know. Mother Teresa said it can be very fashionable to talk about the poor, but not as fashionable to talk to them. If we really care about the poor, we know their names. If we really care about immigrants, we know their names. So I think that's one of the places. And then I think we've got to do some better theology. That's why my book is I think a lot of times, I don't know, don't many people, Shaun, that change their mind because they lose an argument.
But I think people's hearts change and their heads often follow. But we've got to address, I think some of the questions theologically that have undermined the kind of cracks in the foundation of life when it comes to things like war, our infatuation with guns. Some of the other ways that we aren't as consistent with our passion for life, why abortion became the eclipsing issue to where it's sometimes the only thing that people want to talk about. So how can we care about abortion but also care about some of these other issues too? And that's where some of the portions of the book are about people who have been impacted by abortion because I found that I had really big opinions on it and I didn't even know that my mom had had one. I didn't know that one in four women have had an abortion. And that in some of these things that I've had very big opinions on our opinions can actually get in the way of love if we're not careful and as passionate as I am about some of these things. I think it's not just important to be right, but it's also important to be kind and loving as we talk about these things.
Shaun Tabatt: Rod, I want to let you have a chance for one last question before we wrap up, buddy, so go.
Rod Tucker: My final question is a short one but before I say that, I just want to encourage all the people, especially in my circles who are deconstructing, who've run away from it all because they don't think it looks like Jesus anymore. I want to encourage you to listen to these words that Shane shared and realize that Jesus is up to stuff still and we can be part of it and get online and even if you have to start with Under the Overpass, like read some stuff from this man's experience and challenge yourself to take the words of Jesus seriously because it will move you into a place where you start to become passionate about the things that Jesus is about and it will completely change your life. And if you want to see miracles and if you want to see life transformation and if you want to actually see that stuff, then listen to his words to get proximate. And so my final question, Shane, thank you for spending time with us. It means the world. Shaun, thanks for having me. If you were going to say, dear church anything. What would you say today?
Shane Claiborne: I would say, please don't give up on Jesus because of the embarrassing things that Christians keep doing in His name. And part of why I wrote Rethinking Life is because I wanted to show that this is centuries old. Christians doing really terrible things in the name of Jesus and doing really beautiful things in the name of Jesus, that there are these competing narratives and Christians have done, I mean, Adolf Hitler had the Bible in his hand as he was doing some of the most atrocious things that we've ever seen. He said, just as Jesus drove the Jews from the temple, I'm ridding the world of them. I mean, it was horrible, twisted theology, thick, deadly theology. And there are all kinds of things that disgrace Jesus that are done in the name of Jesus. So I guess that's what I would say. And isn't it interesting that Jesus's harshest words were for religious people who were disgracing the heart of their faith?
I mean, he said to the religious folks, not people on the fringes of the faith, but at the center of the faith that you are a brood of vipers. He said, you go across land and sea to make a single convert, and then you make them twice the sons of hell that you are. Whoa, like there we go. But Jesus said I've not come for the healthy but for the sick, not for the righteous, but for the sinners. So I want to say, keep leaning into Jesus and don't let the haters hijack our faith. Some of those with the loudest voices with the biggest megaphones have not always been the most beautiful or faithful expressions of our faith. And there are all kinds of things that are happening outside of that kind of toxic evangelicalism that some people have experienced. So it allows the most toxic voices to kind of colonize the narrative if we aren't careful. But boy, there is a vast landscape of what the Spirit's doing in the historic black church in the Pentecostal, like Liberation Church and all over the place. So just because you go to a bad concert, you don't give up all music.
Shaun Tabatt: I love that. I can't title this episode, don't let the haters hijack our faith, but I think I'm going to have to use that somewhere. I really like that. Shane, Rod, awesome conversation. I know folks in my audience, some are going to love this conversation. Some are going to be really frustrated by this conversation because we've kind of poked some of your golden calves or things that you don't want to even look at or consider. And that was the whole point of the conversation was to provoke you to think and wrestle. And so I hope that's what's going to happen as you watch or listen to this conversation. Shane, in terms of folks connecting with you, finding out about your books, and the work that you guys are doing, what are the best places for us to discover you on the web?
Shane Claiborne: Yeah, man. Well, folks can go to my website. It's just my name ShaneClaiborne.com and they can find out a whole bunch of beautiful things happening at RedLetterChristians.org. I'm also on social media, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. It's just my name. Thanks, man. Yeah, it's been a great conversation.
Shaun Tabatt: Oh man, this has been so fantastic. Rod, in terms of, I know many in my audience have met you a number of times, but I want to give them a chance to find out about the work you guys are doing in the Edison neighborhood. So if folks want to connect with you, where do they find you on the web, man?
Rod Tucker: Probably the same, I don't know. EdisonChapel.com. Edison Initiatives is our housing development. Give us a bunch of money so we can help first-generation homeowners own homes and buy all of Shane's books.
Shaun Tabatt: Awesome. Well like we do with every episode, we're going to make it easy. I'll have links in the show notes for places where you connect with Shane, places where you connect with Rod, and places where you can pick up your very own copy of Shane's brand-new book. It's time to ring this episode of the Shaun Tabatt Show to a close. Many thanks for being a part of our conversation with Shane Claiborne. Once again, our book today was Rethinking Life: Embracing the Sacredness of Every Person. And Shane, I want to say thank you so much for sharing with us today. It's been such an honor and a pleasure to have you on the show.
Shane Claiborne: Thank you, my brother. Let's do it again.