Peculiar Preachers

Shane Claiborne isn’t about to win any beauty contests. Tall and almost painfully skinny, with glasses, a scraggly beard and dreadlocks that he pulls back with a faded bandana, he has the intense, slightly crazed look in his eyes that you often find in street preachers. When I heard him speak, he was wearing a thin white t-shirt and loose green pants that he sewed himself, and had only begrudgingly put on shoes.

Claiborne is a Christian author and activist, one of the founding members of an intentional community called “The Simple Way” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Members of the community live together in a house they bought in the poorest neighborhood of Philadelphia, which at the time (1998) had no existing local churches. Together, they try to live as closely to the early church as possible: pooling their resources, planting gardens, volunteering in the community, and feeding the hungry. The city of Philadelphia – “The City of Brotherly Love” – has laws in place prohibiting the distribution of food on the street, and Claiborne and his friends have been arrested multiple times for breaking these laws. Sometimes they avoid charges by distributing entire loaves of bread as the Eucharist, which is not legally considered food after it has been blessed. Other times they’ve appeared in court with a homeless member of the community, challenging the justness of the law.

As a Christian, Claiborne believes fervently in what he calls “consistent life ethic,” advocating for the poor and against all forms of selfish materialism and anti-life action. He developed this ethic during a ten-week term when he worked along Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India as a young man. During the Iraq war he volunteered with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, an international collective of nonviolent resistors who are “committed to reducing violence by getting in the way.” In Iraq, the teams would go to cities threatened by American attacks and then inform the American government that they were there, forcing them to risk killing Westerns if they went through with their strikes.

Committed as he is to poverty, peace, and international cooperation, Claiborne stands can also makes us deeply uncomfortable – which, I believe, is one of his goals.

Though he has devoted his life to emulating Jesus, Claiborne recalls John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets. “Christianity,” he writes, “is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful.”

If you are looking for stories of being peculiar, the Old Testament prophets are certainly the place to start. While we’ll look at a couple of them in detail later, taken together they are a formidable group: bizarre, loud, and living on the fringes. There’s Hosea, who marries a promiscuous woman to illustrate Israel’s infidelity to God (Hosea 1-3), and Isaiah, who walked around naked and barefoot to demonstrate how God would shame Egypt (Isaiah 20). Amos had visions of bowls of narratively resonant fruit (Amos 8), and Jeremiah walked around with a yoke on his neck and shoulders (Jeremiah 27).

There can be little debate, however, that Ezekial has it the worst of all, lying on his side for more than a year to bear the weight of Israel’s sin (Ezekial 4). Ezekial also gets the iconic experience of preaching to a field of dry bones and then having them join together and return to life, inspiring gospel songs and horror movies for years to come (Ezekiel 37:1-14). As A. J. Jacobs writes, the prophets “were fearless. They literalized metaphors. They turned their lives into protest pieces. They proved that, in the name of truth, sometimes you can’t be afraid to take a left turn from polite society and look absurd.”

The prophets were many things – committed, pious, passionate. What they were not – what people like Shane Claiborne and his fellow peacemakers and lawbreakers are not – was respectable.

Too often, both within the church and in society at large, people are compelled to respectability and socially-acceptable behavior. Activism is only encouraged so long as it doesn’t make anyone angry or uncomfortable; those who protest must do so politely, and without making anyone feel guilty or responsible. They must behave in a certain way if they are to be taken seriously or treated well.

In other circumstances, church culture gets uncomfortable about the grittier, messier passages of the Bible. Christians can often conveniently ignore the uglier, dare I say realer side of life, and replace with with a comfortable, soft, pleasant aesthetic that feels like a warm hug. To be sure, we are told to think about thinks that are true, noble, and right (Philippians 4:8), but we must also be willing to acknowledge and talk about the heavier things that come to us in life. The Bible and the prophets therein are not squeamish. Difficult topics have to be addressed, even if it's really weird.

In 1 Peter 2:9, the author writes that we are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people” (KJV). Maybe it’s about time that the peculiar people got a little weirder.

Talk Back:

• Read the first three chapters of Hosea. How does this enacted metaphor work? Do you think this was difficult for Hosea to do? Do you think some of the angry language contained in chapter 2 reflects Hosea's emotions, or God's, or both? Would this kind of "illustration" be acceptable today?

• Some people have found the story of Hosea to be distressing because of the tense relationship between Hosea and Gomer. How does the story make you feel?

• Read Ezekiel chapters 3 and 4. Why would God make Ezekiel do this? Does this seem extreme? What point do you think God was trying to get across? What do all these actions on Ezekiel's part say about how God felt about Israel's behavior

• The Old Testament prophets may seem somewhat strange to us, but their sometimes unusual messages reflected the extreme circumstances they often found themselves in. Read the commission of Isaiah in Isaiah 6. What do you learn about how God calls people to serve him from this passage?

• Why do you think God worked through both prophets and kings? Does he seem to prefer one to the other, or are both necessary?

• How can we differentiate false prophets and radicals from true prophets?

• Read Habakkuk 1-2. Have you ever had similar questions about God's justice? How does God answer Habakkuk's question about the wickedness in Israel? How does God answer Habakkuk's second complaint about the wickedness of the Babylonians?

• Which of the Old Testament prophets is your favorite? Why?