Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Like millions of Americans, I was raised “born again” in an evangelical environment—at school, church and home—where my peers and I were often encouraged to foster a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Also like millions of Americans, I suppose, my enthusiasm for pursuing this kind of religious or spiritual experience waxed and waned over the years. The faith that I did develop out of these influences genuinely helped me through a variety of difficult personal times in my teens and 20s. But occasionally I found my uniquely American, Protestant, 20th century, consumerist version of Christianity to be intellectually hard to explain, much less defend. Millions of people around the world were suffering from a variety of severe deprivations and injustices and yet I was supposed to believe (or wanted to believe) that God was also equally concerned about my suburban, existential ups and downs? Wouldn’t that be a bit irrational and perverse, I sometimes thought to myself? Well, over the last several years a number of new Christian writers, who came to similar conclusions, have been publishing entertaining books about their personal journeys of faith and the evolution in their spiritual thinking: Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What) and Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians) are some examples. Another writer who has joined this cadre is Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.Learn more about Rick Mayes' teaching, research, and publications at his University of Richmond faculty webpage.
Claiborne was raised in eastern Kentucky and similarly encouraged to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. He did so, often organizing gatherings where he and his friends would “rally around the flag” in front of their high school to pray, for example, that Christian prayer be allowed in their public schools. With self-deprecation, he recalls his days when he “used to be cool, chilling with the in-crowd of respectable United Methodists, sporting my bow tie and khaki shorts (oh yes, I did) and toting my Confederate flag (Okay, that was cool only in East Tennessee in the 1980s).” Eventually, however, he too found that the evangelical, “born again” version or style of Christianity eventually grew stale. During his early years at a Christian college, as his enthusiasm for Christianity was rapidly diminishing, he began visiting a group of homeless people in inner city Philadelphia. Working with and helping the dispossessed and most marginalized members of society transformed his views of Jesus, Christianity and the Bible. After volunteering with Mother Theresa in Calcutta and visiting Iraq as a “Christian Peacemaker” bent on helping innocent Iraqi civilians, he moved into the inner city of Philadelphia and started a community for anyone interested in living out Jesus’ claim that “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine (the poor), you have done for me” (Matthew 25:40). He concludes his book with a response to those who would say that he and his friends are crazy: “’If we are crazy, then it is because we refuse to be crazy in the same way that the world has gone crazy.’ What’s crazy is a matter of perspective. After all, what is crazier: one person owning the same amount of money as the combined economies of twenty-three countries or suggesting that if we shared, there would be enough for everyone? What is crazier: spending billions of dollars on a defense shield, or suggesting that we share our billions of dollars so we don’t need a defense shield? What is crazier: maintaining arms contracts with 154 countries while asking the world to disarm its weapons of mass destruction, or suggesting that we lead the world in disarmament by refusing to deal weapons with over half of the world and by emptying the world’s largest stockpile here at home? What’s crazy is that the U.S., less than 6 percent of the world’s population, consumes nearly half of the world’s resources, and that the average American consumes as much as 520 Ethiopians do, while obesity is declared a ‘national health crisis.’ Someday war and poverty will be crazy, and we will wonder how the world allowed such things to exist.” Of course, it remains to be seen if such optimism and hopefulness can be sustained by Claiborne and his colleagues for long (more than a few years), but who could argue that such a vision is less appealing than much of what we have witnessed over the last eight years?
I’m just finished a similar book on social justice and expanding human rights protections around the world, but from a very different perspective. James Orbinski’s An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century” is a personal narrative by the past president of the medical and humanitarian NGO, Doctors Without Borders. In his book, Orbinski chronicles his journey from a peaceful childhood in Canada to trying to provide medical care and protection to civilians caught in some of the most horrific events of the last fifteen years in areas such as Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Zaire. It must be difficult to write about extraordinarily heinous forms and manifestations of human behavior, but Orbinski manages to do so in a readable and engaging way. At times, the prose gets a little hard to follow with a myriad of acronyms for military and peacekeeping organizations. But I still recommend the book as an effective reminder both of how crazy and depraved we—as the human species—can be and, yet, how we also manage to create an extraordinary variety of noble, optimistic, aggressive and effective organizations and programs that work against injustice, human suffering, and the human tendency—when civilization falters—toward depravity.