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Reviewed by Kerry Walters, William Bittinger Professor of Philosophy, Peace & Justice Studies, Gettysburg College, and deacon at St. Andrew's, Lewisburg
"If someone had a heart attack on Sunday morning, the paramedics would have to take the pulse of half the congregation before they would find the dead person." Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution is filled with uncomfortable zingers like this that would make most standup comedians green with joke-envy. But whereas comedians are often anti-Christian, Claiborne is anything but. His criticisms are loving rather than hostile, coming from a deep conviction that although mainstream American denominations have lost their way, the Way of the early Christian community—the "irresistible revolution"—is recoverable.
For Claiborne, a founding member of inner-city Philadelphia's Christian community called The Simple Way, the secret lies in helping those "suffocated by Christianity but thirsting for God" to get out of the pews and into the risky but quickening business of imitating Jesus. Christians are called to feed the hungry, nurse the sick, shelter the homeless, and care for the imprisoned and marginalized. But these traditional works of mercy, argues Claiborne, need to be supplemented by a prophetic speaking of truth to power in order to address the structural injustices that make works of mercy necessary in the first place. "When I ask God why all of these injustices are allowed to exist in the world," writes Claiborne, "I can feel the Spirit whisper to me, ‘You tell me why we allow this to happen. You are my body, my hands, my feet.'"
The Irresistible Revolution, part memoir and part manifesto, is Claiborne's exploration of what it means for Christians to take their roles as God's body, hands, and feet more seriously. He tells us about his transition from an evangelical childhood and youth in which he suffered from "spiritual bulimia," gorging himself on fast food piety that was neither digestible nor genuinely nurturing, to his conversion while a student at Eastern University to Jesus's "revolutionary" Way of love. After graduation, Claiborne became involved with New Monasticism and the Emergent Church movement, traveled to Iraq with a peacekeeping team, established The Simple Way, threw himself into community activism, and began speaking across the nation to warn Christians about the "great tragedy" of "admir[ing] and worship[ping] Jesus without doing what he did, [of] ador[ing] his cross without taking up ours." Intriguing as his memoirs are, Claiborne's purpose in The Irresistible Revolution isn't to write an autobiography so much as to use his life as a case study of the revitalization of both an individual and a church community. The book is only marginally about him. The real story is about the Holy Spirit's renewal of the Church.
In many ways, Claiborne's personal life journey and the revitalization of Christianity he preaches is profoundly Franciscan. Both involve a joyful embrace of voluntary simplicity, an intense commitment to nonviolence, a ministry to the needy which involves living with them and sharing their joys and sorrows rather than simply referring them to some relief agency, a courageous willingness to overturn the tables of today's moneychangers, and a devotion to Christ that renews body and spirit when the going gets rough, as it often does. It's this Franciscan radicalism which makes The Irresistible Revolution alarming to some but a breath of fresh air—of Ruach—to many others, especially the young. So here's a modest suggestion. The next time the Bishop visits your congregation to confirm youngsters in their commitment to the Body of Christ, give them copies of Claiborne's book to celebrate the event. Or, even better, invite them to read it as part of their catechetical preparation for confirmation. And then let them loose upon the world.