Shane Claiborne "Lives of Love & Justice" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now, and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings that Henri Nouwen or perhaps even a recording from Henri Nouwen himself. This week, we’re returning to chat with a dear friend. Shane Claiborne. Shane is known as a Christian activist. Twenty-five years ago Shane helped found a community in Philadelphia called The Simple Way. He also teamed up with Tony Campolo to create a movement called Red Letter Christians. Shane is a Christian leader who is willing to speak truth to power. Recently he participated in the Walk the Walk 2020 march on Washington. Shane and his group went from Charleston, Virginia to Washington, a hundred and thirty miles. Shane, what was that all about and why did you do it?
Shane Claiborne: Absolutely. Yeah, well this is one of those times where I think we will look back and our children and grandchildren will ask us, ‘What were you doing back then?’ And I don’t want to look back and regret having not done more to resist what I think are some deep-rooted principalities and powers that are surfacing in our country. And honestly I do think that one of the elders in the civil rights movement of the sixties said, if a lot of people look back with nostalgia thinking, ‘If I were only alive with Dr. King…’ But, whatever you are doing now is exactly what you would’ve been doing then. And so we wanted to do something — and I mean, these are very challenging times with a pandemic alongside this moment of racial reckoning in our country — and so we wanted to do something that those of us who could be out in the open could do responsibly together. So we marched 130 miles from Charlottesville to Washington DC. And the reason we did that on this Walk the Walk 2020 was Charlottesville has a history. I mean, it’s actually a long history. More recently many of us remember the white supremacists who gathered, hundreds of them, in Charlottesville and the centerpiece of that was a Confederate monument that’s still there. But as we saw, Heather Heyer was a young woman who was killed during that gathering by those white supremacists as they drove a car into the crowd of nonviolent protestors. It was the anniversary of that gathering. It was also the anniversary a week later when we arrived in DC, of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, where he gave his iconic, ”I have a dream” speech. And some folks don’t know, but that was also the anniversary of Emmett Till’s lynching.
So I think what we just realized is there’s this entire history of racism and injustice –400 years of it– that is the backdrop of some of what we see happening in our streets today. I mean, even when we were in Charlottesville, we remembered Heather Heyer’s death. There’s an entire street named after her now and a memorial to her. But we also stood on the corner where black bodies were auctioned off in the town square. And we gathered at a site of a historic lynching in the Charlottesville community there. So all of that I think and you see these competing narratives around how we remember history. And even in Charlottesville, there’s still these Confederate monuments that are there. And you think how we remember history is important. You don’t go to Germany and see monuments to the Nazis. You see monuments to all of the lives who were victims of Nazi Germany. And you don’t remember 9/11 by putting up monuments to the terrorists. We remember the 3,000 lives that were lost on 9/11. So somehow with our racial history we really get it wrong. We put up monuments to many of the Confederate generals and the folks that were on the wrong side of that history. So as we marched we held signs that said Black Lives Matter. And many of the folks in this particular march were white clergy. And we kind of were one stream that was coming into Washington DC. We had other folks that are not white, but we really felt like many of our black and brown brothers and sisters were saying we need white folks to really keep reaching out to their community as well, because you’ve got a role to play in this current moment.
So I’ve still got the blisters to show it Karen but it was an amazing walk. And we were met with a lot of love and a fair amount of hostility. One of the most telling things that we encountered as we walked over 10 miles a day, most of the days there was people would reply to our Black Lives Matter signs by saying all lives matter. And then one person even saw our Black Lives Matter and yelled out the window, “white lives matter more.” And I think what’s happening in our country is that a lot of our brothers and sisters of color are asking us to affirm what 400 years of history has negated, which is that their lives matter. In our country we called black folks three-fifths human. We, in the Dred Scott case, ruled that black folks don’t have any rights that white people have to acknowledge. And so that history I think now is something that many folks are reckoning with. What does it mean to really affirm that our African American brothers and sisters are made in the image of God and their lives matter? And I heard one comedian was saying, ‘if your wife comes up to you, if your spouse comes up to you and says, baby, do you love me? You don’t reply by saying, honey, I love everybody.’ And there is something specific in particular about saying that Black Lives Matter, and it certainly doesn’t mean white lives don’t matter, but it’s just affirming something that so much of our history has really denied. So that’s what we’ve been doing, doing our little part to try to raise our voice at such a time as this.
Karen: You know, what I find so very moving about this time is that it’s not just America, it’s global, it’s almost like something burst. And we see it reflected globally. We certainly see it across Canada. I also hear very clearly as well, Indigenous lives matter too. And yes, we can say all lives matter, but this is a time of, as you called it, reckoning. I mean it’s a time that’s critical for us to find the new way to go forward and to be part of that. I think I can’t speak for Henri he’s been dead for almost 25 years, but I was always so very moved by the fact that there as a Dutch priest, when he came to America, he was so moved by what he saw happening with Martin Luther King, that he wanted to be part of that. And when Martin Luther King called for the pastors to come and walk to Montgomery with him, he came and then of course he was there at Martin Luther King’s funeral. He wanted to be part of that and there’s some very moving things that came from Henri about what that meant to him. And I don’t know where he would be today – I think he would be right in the midst of this. I think he’d be cheering you on Shane.
And I wanted to talk with you just to know who participated. I’m delighted to hear that it was a lot of white pastors entering into saying, we’ve got to make. By the way you introduced me to, I think it’s Daniel Hill, the book White Awake, and I have really been enjoying that. That’s been a blessing to me to read that book, particularly to, in a sense, understand white privilege. It wasn’t in my vocabulary in the same way that it is now that I understand. That’s something that I have to understand in order to be part of bringing change. I loved a line I came across: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” What do you think?
Shane: Yeah, absolutely. Incidentally, that was one of the last social media posts that was posted by Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed in Charlottesville. And I think what a lot of folks are realizing is that this idea of race is certainly a social construct that has created a whole mythology of racial superiority based on the color of your skin. And you know, I think quickly, a lot of folks just want to say all this happened a long time ago. We are color blind, all lives matter. You know I don’t see black and white, I just see human. And it ignores the fact that those 400 years or more of history still have a residue. They still leave a mark on our social structures, like our police, our criminal justice system, even hiring practices.
It was Freakonomics, I think, that did a study where they sent resumes to CEOs of companies, to the executives of companies, and the resumes for these jobs were the exact same resumes except for the name. And interestingly enough, the name of the white-sounding person–it was like Shannon and Shinqua or Jason in Jaquille, Matthew and Mohamed– and over and over the name that would be most associated with the white kind of dominant culture was the person that was selected over and over for the job. So I think that has many different manifestations in our society. And in some ways, privilege is being able to choose which issues we care about and which ones we don’t. Privilege is being able to opt out of things that affect other people’s lives, but may not seem like they directly affect ours. So I think wrestling with that is so important. I heard someone say some of us were born on third base, but we act like we hit a triple.
Karen: That does sum it up, doesn’t it? Oh my goodness.
Shane: Yeah. So certainly today– I mean, this is the other thing, Karen, that I think so important is that– I think white folks and especially white folks and black folks are experiencing a different America and maybe that’s true in Canada and other places as well. But they’re literally experiencing the world through different social locations. And being one that’s lived in different environments, it gives me a little bit of a lens through which to appreciate that. I mean, I grew up in the south in Tennessee. That’s why I’ve got the charming accent as you know. But when I was in middle school if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve said a police officer at one point. Because so many of the stories I heard of police officers were heroic stories like our firefighters, of the things that they had done, and many of those were true stories. But then when I came to Philadelphia, I experienced a really different environment. Some of the scariest memories I have of the last 25 years in Philadelphia have involved the police really acting in ways that would’ve stunned me a couple of decades ago. Police officers telling one of my homeless friends that I won’t say it on your podcast, but even using horrific words and saying he deserved to die in the gutter. A police officer that took someone’s shoe as they were arresting them for a minor charge. And it was in the snow and they threw the shoe over a fence, laughing that when he was released from jail, he would have to walk home in the snow with one bare foot. I mean, those are things that I just would’ve never thought of. But I think what’s happening is racism isn’t getting worse. It’s getting revealed, exposed. People are catching it on their cameras and you can’t like not respond to George Floyd, having the life sucked out of him for eight minutes and 40 some seconds. Like it just causes you to react. So, yeah.
And I’m so grateful for your work with Henri because I was thinking about this as we were going to talk. I knew we would talk about Henri and I was thinking, what would Henri Nouwen be saying right now? And what I thought of Karen is I thought Henri Nouwen would be listening right now. So many of us white folks in particular — white men in particular– are very used to speaking. We’re quick to speak, but slow to listen. And I think part of what we need to do right now is listen to the pain of our brothers and sisters, especially our black and brown and indigenous brothers and sisters who are in the streets, by the thousands saying we can’t breathe. And Dr. Martin Luther King said riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that we’re not listening to? When people are not heard, they shout louder and I certainly believe in nonviolent protests. And yet I’m deeply grieved by a country that seems to often care more about property damage than the damage to black lives. You know, we’re better at protecting Confederate statues than black bodies. And I think that’s part of what is getting really named in our country. So I think Henri Nouwen was such a good listener, but he did show up and he named that it’s so important.
You know, Dr. King also said that one of the things that’s so heartbreaking is not the hatred of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. And I think in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, and so many other places, he points out that there are always going to be people who are filled with racism and hatred. But sometimes what just really grieves your heart is the silence of that sort of majority of people that have a voice, but they might not be using it right now to speak against the kind of injustices that we see sweeping our country.
Karen: Well, I certainly know that I’ve found it inspiring to be following this over the last – I’ve found it particularly inspiring in the midst of COVID. Here we have this explosion of something so important and with the potential to change our future. And I really am excited about that. And I’ve been inspired by the daring. I’ve been inspired by the consistency. The fact that people night after night after night are saying this isn’t going away, I’m going to be part of this. And yes, I appreciate you saying that we lend our voices. We who have privilege, who recognize we have privilege, not to be silent, but to be part of the vocal, part of the welcome, part of the determination, that things will be different.
Shane: Yeah. And I think we need to be reading and listening to those voices that have suffered the brunt of this history. You know, we, all of us can survey the books we’ve read over the last year and think how many of those are by African women? You know, African American women, Canadian women, indigenous women, how many of them are by white men? You know, and because I think some of those voices, they shape who we are in our social location. Our worldview is often shaped by what we see out the window. I got on my desk here Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts. It’s a book that we’re reading, I’m reading with a bunch of my mostly male friends to think about reproductive rights and what it means to be for life and the role that race has played in how we think about black bodies and whose lives matter and whose don’t. And so on the March from Charlottesville we read White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy [in American Christianity] by Robert Jones. And so I think we gotta kind of keep understanding that because there’s a lot of folks that would say, well, these are political issues. But I think as we see that the word politics, it comes from the same root as citizens, right? Like to love our neighbor as ourself means to care about the policies that are affecting their lives. It means that we – people said the same thing about racism and to Dr. King that’s political don’t talk about it from the pulpit. But Dr. King and so many others, they were really clear that many of these issues are social, political and they’re spiritual. These are really, really deeply spiritual things that we’re talking about. So I’m grateful all over our country leaders, faith leaders have risen up: Traci Blackman in Ferguson and Reverend Barbara in North Carolina and Michael Waters in Dallas and Leslie Callahan in Philly. And I mean Alexia Salvatierra out in California. I mean, just all over our country, there are leaders that their faith compels them to do justice right now. So a lot of us are just trying to stand in solidarity as best we can right now and not be a voice for people, but be a voice with them, alongside of them. And rather than speaking for people to actually hold the mic so they can speak for themselves.
Karen: You know, one of the things that happened in the midst of all of this is we lost one of the great treasured leaders, John Lewis. And it was interesting listening to interviews with him, the spiritual, the political, the social came together in a really beautiful way. It was not separable I felt as I heard so much from him. I found it really inspiring.
Shane: Yes. And he knew that this is also disruptive. When you’re talking about justice you’re often talking about things that challenge the status quo and Dr. King was very unpopular at the end of his life. John Lewis went to jail and was beaten. And so I think that we need to cause that ‘good trouble’, as John Lewis said. But you know, as we do it, we’re trying to win the hearts and minds of people. And I literally think that scripture that “perfect love casts out fear” is really the decision we get to choose right now, – is are we going to choose love or fear? And I think love and fear are like opposing magnets, they just can’t occupy the same space. And it’s no coincidence that all of this is happening on the back of our first black President. You know, the Black Lives Matter movement. And there is a sort of white fragility and fear and anxiety in our country that folks that have held the power see the changing demographics of America, the changing demographics of Congress and white folks are very concerned, I think. And yet, it’s so interesting when many people say ‘Make America Great Again’, they’re really saying, make America white again. And as we think about immigration and how we can welcome people that are fleeing persecution and horrendous things in our country, all of these things are deeply spiritual. I mean, it couldn’t be more clear than when Jesus says when you welcome the stranger you welcome me. Yeah. So that’s what we’re after.
Karen: Well, it’s funny when you raise the issue of fear and it is so central to all of us and it’s so to the core. It’s actually one of the reasons I think so many people are ministered to by Henri Nouwen is that he looks on the heart and the issues of the heart and the whole issue of when we are driven by fear instead of loving trust. And it is an amazing release to have that opened up to us that there’s something better than that to live by.
Let me ask you, how’s it going with the pandemic in your neck of the woods? I mean here we are. I think you and I talked kind of at the beginning of that, but here we are down the road six months and it’s everywhere, it’s worldwide and probably in place for a year ahead of us in some form or another, how’s it going where you are?
Shane: Well, for 25 years, we’ve been building this community on the north side of Philly, as you know, called The Simple Way. And in some ways our prayer has been- my prayer for our community is – that we would be both courageous and cautious, right? So that we would not let that fear paralyze us from what love really requires of us right now. So many of us have been doing a whole lot of beautiful things trying to share food with folks that are vulnerable and make sure seniors are taken care of, you know, and kids that are out of school still have nutritious food, because they can’t rely on school lunches. So we got 10,000 Clif Bars donated. That’s fabulous, really nutritious Clif Bar. So we’re thankful for that. We’ve got my friend, Miguel Diaz, he’s kind of like our neighborhood elder. He’s officially called a block captain. So he’s the captain of our block and he is just doing amazing work. We’re giving away more food than we’ve ever given away. We’re growing our gardens and people are in the neighborhood and able to help garden. So we’re still renovating abandoned houses. And I think what the pandemic has caused for a lot of people is a deep sense of empathy. Because most of us have been impacted by someone we know that’s had it. But you start to think of the people who don’t have homes and how vulnerable they are right now. Or if your home is not a safe place, as in the case of domestic violence. You know folks, we really need to be mindful of those who are already vulnerable and the pandemic has just made them even more so.
So in Philly, we’ve got a coalition that’s been sharing food with people and we’ve been giving about 600 bags of food out every day. And it’s beautiful because there’s people who wouldn’t all agree on politics or on theology, but we can agree that we gotta make sure that the folks on the street and families in our neighborhood are able to get food. So that’s been a beautiful thing. That’s brought a lot of different groups together. So yeah a reporter asked me, when are we gonna get back to normal? And I said, I hope never because normal really wasn’t working. Normal got us George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, normal got us 700 people in the U.S. dying every day from poverty; a hundred people dying every day from gun violence. So I hope that the pandemic is kind of this liminal space that actually invites us to rethink normal and to reconsider what we’re going back to. So I’m really hopeful that we come away with a deeper longing for community and connectivity and a deeper sensitivity to the other people’s pain.
Karen: I love what you’re saying. And I would agree with you 100% and it’s actually one of the reasons I love talking with you, Shane, because I think you’re giving a clarion call to us all, an encouraging call. Yes, let’s not go back to what was, let’s go forward and in it be awakened to how can we be more compassionate. How can we be part of the solution? I can’t help but ask you, what’s next for you? You tend to do lots of things and energize lots of people. What’s next on your horizon?
Shane: Well, after 25 years in Philly, Katie and I have been taking some time, we have this–it’s called a schoolie, it’s a school bus turned into a tiny house. So we’ve got this solar powered mobile, tiny house school bus we’re living off of. And we’ve been spending some quality time with our family in Tennessee and North Carolina. And we’ve been traveling doing some of these events like the March that we just did and trying to show up over the next few months in any ways that we can. I think it’s a historic moment in our country. So I’m headed up to Philadelphia this weekend because it’s literally the 25th anniversary of when homeless families took over the abandoned Catholic church in our neighborhood. And so we’re going to remember that season and we’re also going to actually address the growing problem of homelessness in our city. So we’ll have pictures. Katie and I got married in that old abandoned cathedral. So I’ll be up there on Sunday as we gather. But I’m grateful for this time. We’ve also been as you know, I think, and maybe the listeners don’t, we, Katie and I, are both apprentice blacksmiths. So we’ve been taking guns and turning them into garden tools with a national movement now called Raw Tools – which is raw, is war flipped backwards. So raw tools.org. So we’ve got all of our blacksmithing equipment and we’ve got guns still coming in, because you’ve seen even in the pandemic our gun violence is surging. And so we’ve really invited people to donate guns and they also are making people very vulnerable to suicide. If you have easy access to a gun, that’s two thirds of our gun deaths. So we’re disarming during the pandemic and melting guns into garden tools. So we’re pumped.
Karen: I love that. I absolutely love that. That’s fantastic. We will encourage people to go to your website. We’ll give links to all the things that you’ve talked about here. Shane, thank you for continuing to call us forward, call the church forward, call us into a unity that is purely based on the love of God, the way it needs to be. A love in action that really is there for our brothers and sisters no matter where they come from and who they are, but fully loved and valued. That’s so critical.
Shane: Well, thank you, Karen. Thank you for lifting up Henri Nouwen’s voice. But also your voice. And I think there’s so many people, as I think of the people who have helped create the fire in my bones. Henri is certainly one of those. And yet there’s so many in this cloud of witnesses that’s out there. So I’m grateful for you. I’m grateful for everybody up there who’s doing their best to stand on the side of love and truth and justice at such a time as this. So thanks for always being a conversation partner in this, Karen.
Karen: Thank you, Shane. What a privilege to talk with you. We’ll look forward to doing it again soon. And I’ll keep my eye on you because I know you’ll be out there no matter what, making a difference. And that’s what I want to be a part of and we all want to be a part of. Thank you, Shane. I appreciate you so much, blessings.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I love the passion and vision Shane Claiborne has for this time of racial reckoning. I’m glad that he reminded us of the great strength of Henri Nouwen’s words, the call to listen, really listen to those who have felt marginalized and who have known discrimination because of the color of their skin. This is a call for all of us. I hope you felt inspired by what Shane and others are doing to make a difference.
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