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.