Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: God's counterculture

Two young leaders talk about New Monasticism. God doesn’t just work through Lone Rangers, say Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. There always has to be a web of friendship.

For Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “subversive” friendship is about creating God’s counterculture in the midst of a dominant culture.

ClaiborneShane Claiborne is a founding partner of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, Penn. In addition to his work with The Simple Way, Claiborne has carried his commitment to service to the poor to the streets of Calcutta with Mother Teresa and to Baghdad with the Iraq Peace Team. He is the author of several books, including “The Irresistible Revolution,” “Jesus for President” and “Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers.”

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove,  associate minister at St. John’s Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., is the author of “New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church,” “To Baghdad and Beyond” and “God’s Economy.” He lives with his family in intentional Christian community at the Rutba House in Durham. Wilson-Hartgrove is a graduate of Duke Divinity School.

Both men were educated at Eastern University in St. Davids, Penn.

Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove spoke with Faith & Leadership about community, leadership and how they were formed by their experiences at Eastern. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: In what capacity do you see yourselves as leaders?

Claiborne: Leadership chose me more than I chose it. When we started our community we were very suspicious of leadership. We had sort of an anarchistic mantra, “a strong people need no leader;” that was pretty sweet for a week or two. We began to see that the remedy for bad leadership is not no leadership but good leadership.

[Good leadership means that] people lead in the areas where they are strong. Going in the other direction, when someone shows that they’re a leader, people tend to think he or she should be in charge of everything. Instead, we try to step back and ask, “What are the things that I’m good at? What are the things you’re good at? How is Christ weaving us together into the body?”

Wilson-Hartgrove: I love where Jesus overhears the disciples talking about who’s going to be first, and then says, “Whoever wants to be the greatest among you must become last and the servant of all.” When I was in my late teens and early 20s, Jesus didn’t squash my ambition. He just said, “If you really want to be great, there’s an entirely different way to go about it. You’ve got to become the servant of all.”

Q: I want to touch on friendships that form and sustain leadership. How do you characterize the role of friendships in your leadership?

Claiborne: I think back to the circles of the prophets; the authors weren’t one person as much as they were a whole school, a community of people. God was doing something among them and they tried to trace his footprints. I respect folks that had subversive friendships; I mean Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and so many others that were a part of civil rights struggles; I think of [Nelson] Mandela and [Desmond] Tutu. God doesn’t just work through Lone Rangers; there’s always got to be a web of friendship.

Q: Would you flesh out the “subversive” part of friendship?

Claiborne: It’s about creating God’s counterculture in the midst of a dominant culture. That requires forming a critical mass with different values, not around a charismatic leader but around Jesus and the values of the gospel.

Wilson-Hartgrove: In the early church, Paul was an organizer of subversive communities within the Roman Empire. [Similarly,] we live in a time where people know that something’s wrong. We want to change things and it seems to me there are two options. You can try to take over the system and redo it, but I’m not real confident that I can do it any better.

The other approach is this underground movement that’s going on. This is how Jesus came at it. He didn’t try to drive the Romans out, but he came in and he said to people who had no power in the system, “You can begin living this kingdom that is truer than anything in this world, and you can do it right where you are.” Just turn the other cheek. Start loving your neighbor. Start giving to whoever asks. That sort of conspiratorial, underground movement is what I get excited about.

Claiborne: That kind of thing creates a lot of momentum. We started doing a magazine together called “Conspire.” It’s done like a literary co-op; communities buy a share of it and we pull it off together. We’re able to make it available for free.

We’ve held the People Against Poverty and Apathy (PAPA) Fest for several summers. PAPA gathers a thousand people from around the country and some internationals. We can do it for about $15,000 because there’s no paid staff. Volunteers run it and everybody that comes is a contributor, whether cleaning the port-a-potties, doing childcare, teaching a workshop or playing music. As Christian disciples it’s in the fabric that we are part of this body and we value community.

Wilson-Hartgrove: Gandhi had the conviction that, if you’re going to present an alternative, you have to gain some independence from the structure that is oppressive. He was trained as a lawyer. He could have gotten into the system, but instead he made an intentional effort to organize people [around projects] like raising goats nonviolently. Or not relying on clothing made in English factories where people work in poor conditions. Gandhi’s constructive programs have been important to me.

Q: You both attended and were in some ways formed by Eastern University. How would you credit Eastern with equipping you for the lives you’re currently leading?

Claiborne: Eastern has created that critical mass of folks that are singing a similar song. At Eastern we’re not only proclaiming the gospel for the whole world, but also asking, “How do we embody that?”

There were different things that landed me at Eastern, but honestly what transformed me wasn’t just in the halls of the university, but in the streets of Philly. A college friend took me into the city and introduced me to folks that were living on the streets. It was like the Bible became 3-D. The things that I was reading in sociology books had skin on them.

Wilson-Hartgrove: I love Eastern. I saw there an institution that was willing to listen to the margins. I remember going with a group of students to President David Black’s office. We said “Global warming is a big deal, and we’ve got an institution here where we use all sorts of energy. We’ve got to do something.”

Many people in Black’s position would get defensive, but he just said, “Ah, this is terrible. Could you all figure out how to do it and come tell me and we’ll work on it?” Sure enough, we did all the research and found a company that could do wind energy. Eastern went 60 percent green the first year.

Claiborne: Ten years into The Simple Way, I went to Eastern with some of the kids on our block that we’ve seen grow up and go to high school. I got all of the leadership together at Eastern and I said, “For a lot of the kids in our neighborhood, the obstacle to their coming [to Eastern] is financial. Would you consider creating scholarship funds for our kids every year, full scholarships? They all looked at each other. A very awkward silence for about 30 seconds and then, with tears in their eyes, they said, “Yes, it’s the right thing to do and we don’t care about a recession. We trust that God will lead us as we do this.”

Wilson-Hartgrove: I recognized this form of leadership when I was reading the rules of St. Benedict once. Benedict is giving instructions to the abbot of the community and says, whenever you have small decisions, have a little council and talk to them about it. Whenever there’s a big decision, he says, you have to listen to the weakest member. That’s brilliant for leadership.

Q: Both of you have written with John Perkins, who is concerned with indigenous leadership in urban neighborhoods. Each of you has embedded yourselves in a community. How is the indigenous leadership vision coming to fruition in your settings?

Claiborne: One of the things that John talks about is that restoring a neighborhood takes three groups of people. It takes remainers, people from that neighborhood who could leave but don’t; returners, people from the neighborhood that go off and get skills, maybe college education, and then they come back to the neighborhood as teachers, doctors and lawyers; then third, missional relocaters that come into the neighborhood from outside to be a part of restorative work.

We need to recognize all of those groups, especially when the relocaters get seen as the sort of Messianic folks that came to save a poor neighborhood.

Q: Can the relocators lead people who are indigenous, people who’ve remained or who return?

Claiborne: People are going to lead in different ways. Within our neighborhood, a part of what we have to do is step out of the way from time to time, so that we can be behind other leaders, even if they do stuff differently than we would.

Wilson-Hartgrove: In Perkins’ vision of these different roles people play, it is important to recognize the distinct gifts that each person brings to a neighborhood. And to be honest about it. It’s important to say we’re never the indigenous leaders. We’re never that voice. We shouldn’t go out and speak on behalf of the neighbors.

But as a relocater I can say I have access through relationships to people who remainers and returners might not know. I’m going to use that to try to help the neighborhood.

The other thing that John has emphasized is submission to the local leadership. To come into this neighborhood and to see all 50 problems, for sure, but not to say we’re going to start programs to address them. Instead, we ask how the church in this neighborhood is already addressing things. What is the youth program in the neighborhood already doing? That way we can come alongside people and work with them. That’s been pretty important for us.

Q: You’re put into this position of spokesperson or leader. Is that uncomfortable for you?

Wilson-Hartgrove: Like everything else for me, it takes the community. I don’t do a ton of introspection. I just ask people how this is working out and how do we need to do it. In terms of talking other places, my community said at one point it was getting to be too much. They told me I could travel once a month for four days. It helps me to have people who know my junk as well as my gifts and say, “Do this.”

Claiborne: Decisions like writing and speaking or how much I travel are made in different ways with community around me. Every speaking engagement that I get invited to is looked at with a group of people that pray about it together. Last year at one point my speaking days were full and Harvard called, kind of last minute. I went to the committee and said, “But this is Harvard!” The response I got was, “Harvard will be there next year.” That’s exactly what I need around me.

I’ve gone through different phases with notoriety. I see in myself and in others the tendency to do one of two things: Either to romanticize fame, becoming infatuated with it; or the opposite, to sabotage it and be suspicious as if notoriety were inherently evil.

Mother Teresa says we’re not called to be successful but faithful. Try to be faithful, whether that wins you an award or gets you killed. We try to continue to be faithful and not to think too highly of ourselves. Whether three people listen or three million, it’s the Spirit that we hope is speaking through us. The Spirit can speak through rocks and rock stars, through donkeys and everything else. If God should choose to use us, then thanks be to God.