Dispatch from the CTA 2010 National Conference

MILWAUKEE, WI – It is 1:38 a.m. Three hours ago, we finished the first night of the 2010 Call to Action Conference. Our keynote speaker was activist Shane Claiborne.

Claiborne makes his own clothes and has massive dreadlocks. He is 35 but looks younger, and speaks in a Billy Graham-esque drawl. He helped found The Simple Way, a Christian faith community in Philadelphia’s inner city. Claiborne comes from an evangelical background, but when asked if he is Catholic or Protestant, he answers “Yes.”

The conference brochure neatly encapsulates Claiborne’s career: “Shane writes and travels extensively speaking about peacemaking, social justice, and Jesus….Shane speaks over 100 times a year in a dozen or so countries and nearly every state in the US.”

Speaking for an hour without notes, Claiborne was by turns both profound and comic. He talked about the troubles of the inner city, the ways he and his intentional community have sometimes defied the law in order to serve the inner city, and why we should take Jesus’ injunction to lay down our lives in service at face value.

But he also related hearing a Christian rocker’s claim that “God gave me this song to share with you,” and quipped that once the song was over he could totally understand why God was in such a hurry to get rid of it.

However, what I will take away comes from the CTA 20/30 coffeehouse that followed, where Claiborne took audience questions with a mike in one hand and his mug in the other.

Most questions were about things he’d already discussed. But one woman pointedly went where Claiborne hadn’t.

She asked Claiborne about something she had read in National Catholic Reporter Online. To wit: The Simple Way and affiliated communities seemed ambiguous about whether same-sex couples were welcome. Claiborne had even said in the article that if he were a pastor, he would not marry same-sex couples, although he’d refer them to clergy who would.

As someone who was both a partnered lesbian and an admirer of Claiborne’s justice message, the woman agonized over this disconnect. She wanted him to explain himself more clearly.

The meeting room went dead silent. It was the first time I ever truly believed the old saw about hearing a pin drop.

When Claiborne finally spoke, his response was careful and winding. First of all, he said, The Simple Way reached its decisions about sexual conduct the way they did about anything else, through consensus. Since members came from across the religious spectrum, they could only agree on this core value: that monogamous couples and celibate singles would be supported.

Claiborne himself adhered to a traditional model of marriage. But he acknowledged that authentic Christian communities were inevitably communities of people who disagreed. And he asked, in all apparent sincerity, to be proven wrong.

For he knew first-hand the people excluded from the man-woman model. They were people from the neighborhood, people who were his friends, people who were sometimes suicidal. He wanted to be proven wrong.

Unlike Claiborne, I pointedly disagree with the traditional teaching. Whether you check “straight” or “other,” you are human. To be human is to not only need love, but to need that love expressed as touch. Without it, we wither. Human touch is what ultimately convinces us that, as we sing in the Canticle of the Sun, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, / And all creation is shouting for joy.”

But the way Claiborne expresses himself, and the way he bends over backwards to respect the stories of others, symbolize what Call to Action is (at least to me) all about. While defending the truth of the lives we’ve lived and what we’ve come to believe, we cannot do as was done to us. It would be not only impossible but hypocritical to wrench the hierarchy (or conservative laity) into our own version of orthodoxy the way they often seek to wrench us into theirs.

We do not so much demand a “right” pope or “right” bishops as we demand Catholic leaders who are pastors rather than rulers, who preside over the Church in charity. Claiborne, I pray, will receive his wish and be proven wrong, but he does understand charity.

And so his keynote was fitting for this gathering in Milwaukee, where we do not proclaim teachings, but open doors and add chairs to banquet tables.


2 thoughts on “Dispatch from the CTA 2010 National Conference

  1. Hi Justin,

    I just wanted to thank you for lifting up this story. My name is Jamie Manson, and I’m actually the woman who asked Shane the question. (I also wrote the essay on Cardinal George that you recently commented on [“Curious Cardinal George”]). I’m sorry our paths did not cross this weekend in Milwaukee!

    Shane did very graciously come up to me and my partner after the session was over. He explained that there are issues he is willing to “die on the hill” for and those he isn’t. LGBT rights falls in the latter category. I explained to him that what we want is for our sexual orientation to not to be an issue at all. We would like to offer our gifts and our love to communities such as his without our own loving relationships being viewed as an obstacle to our relationship to God.

    He does seem genuinely conflicted about this issue, and, after talking with him, I got the sense that he feels badly about his position on it. It’s an intriguing situation, which makes me think that there is something larger at stake for him than his commitment to an evangelical reading of the Bible. Essentially, a large percentage of his followers (and two of his key supporters: Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis) do not believe in the intrinsic goodness of same sex relationships. If he fully affirms these relationships, he takes the massive risk of losing their attention, support and commitment. This would likely compromise the extremely influential witness of the Simple Way.

    I would hate to see so many Christian kids lose their zeal for the poor and marginalized because Shane suddenly began affirming gay marriage. But didn’t we learn this weekend that there are risks of love that prophets are called to take?


    • Hi, Jamie! It’s great to meet you, if only in cyberspace. Thank you for reading and commenting.

      I suspected you were the one who asked Shane the question (you actually look like your NCR headshot, and not all writers do), but I wasn’t sure because you were all the way across a very large room. And I didn’t even get the idea to write the post until much later, when I was back in my hotel and couldn’t verify your identity.

      You bring up a point that I’ve been thinking about lately. While reactionary theology can be appalling, the people who create and believe in that theology are no less complicated, no more black-and-white, than anyone else. They come to it with a thousand considerations, many as practical and earthy as they are theological and abstract. In Shane’s case, those considerations may well relate to the complex web of relationships that makes the Simple Way thrive. Still, you are right to suggest that even if you are a prophet already, as Shane is, that doesn’t mean you have achieved a kind of plateau where you have no more to risk.

      It would be fascinating to apply this analysis to others (and we could include Francis George here, or even Pope Benedict) who are much more definite, and much less accommodating, than Shane. Where does THAT come from? What are their thousand considerations? How much of it is about God? How much of it is about responsibilities they juggle or lives they’ve lived that we don’t know about?


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