The Whispers of Troublemakers

by Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne
A few years ago, Philadelphia chose to inaugurate its Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance (which criminalized homelessness by making it illegal to lie or sit extensively on sidewalks) on Martin Luther King Day. Define irony.

Our community, the simple way, celebrated by sleeping out illegally with our homeless friends — and we were arrested. At our trial, the judge remembered King and remarked: "What is in question is not whether these folks broke the law … but the constitutionality of these laws." When the prosecuting attorney argued that the constitutionality of the law is not before this court, the judge retorted, "The constitutionality of the law is before every court. If it weren't for people who broke the unjust laws, we wouldn't have the freedoms we do. That's the story of this country from the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights movement. These people aren't criminals; they are freedom fighters. And I find them all not guilty, on every charge." It was a rare moment of vindication.

How quickly we forget the stories of our ancestors, who continue to whisper, "Another world is possible." Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of those whispers. But for those of us who had not yet been born in 1968, the whisper is faint.

Written in my Bible is a quote from King that we used when we moved onto the streets in protest those years back: "There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a man is bleeding, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed.… Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved." Dangerous words of a prophet still resistant to domestication.

Those words are balm when people call us crazy. "You're just idealistic kids," they say. Those who imagine alternatives to war are constantly called crazy. What is crazy: spending billions of dollars on a defense shield that is ultimately vulnerable, or suggesting that we share our billions so we don't need a defense shield?

French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul once said, "Christians should be troublemakers, creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension incompatible with society." When we imagine such dimensions, we will be called crazy.

King was initially disappointed when people called him an extremist, but he grew to like the label. "The world," he said, "is in dire need of creative extremists. We live now in extreme times. The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?"

Our community house is located in the poorest district in Pennsylvania. Each day we collide with drug addiction, prostitution, police brutality, and welfare cuts. We feed about forty people every day, run a community store, and rehab houses. I am only twenty-seven, but I get tired sometimes.

When I do, it is reassuring to ground myself in the broader vision King articulated. He never lost sight of how violence affected our neighborhoods — that for each bomb, another school is neglected, another family is left homeless. Lockheed Martin will continue to take in over $30 billion annually from the public treasury, while the schools in my city go bankrupt and the affordable housing waiting list exceeds ten years. Nearly half the federal budget goes to the military while "welfare" dispersals make up less than one percent. I hear King whisper that these kind of choices will lead us to spiritual death.

Violence is always rooted in a myopic sense of community: a fundamental disconnection from our relationship as humans and children of God. In my neighborhood, kids talk about their "fam;" graffiti murals and veteran walls help commemorate the people in "our tribes" who have died. King sensed this myopia — both in the U. S. ghettos and in the nationalism of his country during the Vietnam War. He longed for our vision to be larger than our "fam" or our country, to "lift neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation" to an all-embracing and unconditional love.

King has helped me understand that, just as war has polluted our neighborhoods and our minds, so must the beloved community invade our homes. Our dinner tables must reflect our commitment to reconciliation and an open commensality that mirrors the banquet of God. Our serious work for peace begins in our homes, and with our local neighborhood revolutions. And our work for justice locally must remember that we are part of a global family. (After all, the companies that left desolate seven hundred large properties in my neighborhood are the same companies that today abuse workers and destroy the earth overseas.) Because of my experiences of the beloved community, I stake my life on the reality that another world is possible.

There is a kid in my neighborhood named Steven, and we sometimes talk about Martin Luther King. Just after September 11, I asked him what we should do. He told me, "Well, those people did something very wrong." He paused pensively, "But I've always said, `Two wrongs don't make a right.' It doesn't make sense to bomb them back. Besides we are all one big family."

The whisper continues.

This article was first published in the January 1, 2003 issue of The Other Side, and was reprinted with permission of the author.

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is a founding member of The Simple Way faith community and author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.