Shane Claiborne wants Christians to embrace a “robust ethic of life.” He suggests how we might do this in his new book, Rethinking Life. Claiborne, well-known in Anabaptist circles, rose to some fame as he and a few “ordinary radicals” developed the Simple Way ministry in Philadelphia.
For many Christians, the phrase “ethic of life” brings to mind the con-tentious debate over abortion. It means much more than that, of course, and Claiborne devotes the majority of the book to other issues. He divides the book into three sections. First, he argues for what might form an ethic of life for a Christian. Then he shares how Christians have compromised that foundation. Finally, he proposes how we might repair the foundation.
Claiborne weaves his ethic of life through Catholic doctrine, Anabaptist practice and the witness of the early church. He says that all living things praise God through their breath and that, in traditional Jewish teaching, life begins at breath (a contentious claim that complicates the abortion debate). He appeals for an ethic of life that upholds the image of God in all of us.
Claiborne reads the Bible through the lens of Jesus, as Anabaptists do. But he takes this view too far, making it seem as if God changed between the Old and New Testaments. He quotes a friend who said God got born again “or at least went through anger management classes.” He presents Jesus’ fulfillment of the law as replacing the law of Moses. And he does not do enough to challenge the antisemitism that often is born from this line of thinking. He decries antisemitism but does little to address it here.
Claiborne appeals to the early church to support his opposition to military service, the death penalty and abortion. In this way, he tries to overcome the fact that abortion is “virtually nonexistent” in the Bible and that the Catholic church historically supported war and the death penalty (though it has recently turned against capital punishment).
Claiborne bases his argument for an ethic of life largely on the early church’s positions. He claims that the Constantinian shift — when the church, beginning with the Roman Emperor Constantine, gained power and privilege — disrupted Christianity’s original life-affirming ethic. His argument will be a favorite among Anabaptists, who have long decried the merging of church and state power. He decries the church’s support for war, colonialism, antisemitism, racism and American exceptionalism.
On abortion, Claiborne wants to move the needle on both sides. He wishes his “conservative friends cared as much about life after birth as they do before birth” and that his “progressive friends saw abortion not just as a rights issue but also as a life issue, a moral issue.” He hopes Christians on all points of the spectrum will do “a better job of reducing the number of abortions.”
Claiborne recognizes that abortion is complicated, which makes his appeal to the early church’s total rebuke of abortion less relevant. He argues for more nuance in abortion law based on such factors as the mother’s health, rape and incest. He argues that Christians should be united in reducing abortions and concedes that abortion rates are going down. He criticizes abortion-rights opponents who are merely pro-birth. He critiques how discussion of abortion in the United States has been framed by the extremes.
For Claiborne, it is most important to reduce abortions late in a pregnancy. He opposes late-term abortions when a mother’s life isn’t at risk but admits that only 1.3% of abortions are late-term. He has “never met a single person who has chosen to terminate a pregnancy in the third trimester when it wasn’t a life-threatening medical emergency.” He says the Bible is not clear on abortion and mostly silent about it. He critiques evangelicals’ focus on abortion as a pivot from a previous focus on segregation.
He tells the story of his wife’s abortion, which reinforces his call for nuance. She became pregnant when she was engaged to another man, and they agreed to terminate the pregnancy so her partner’s parents wouldn’t know they were having premarital sex.
Claiborne’s rebuke for a lack of nuance largely lands on pro-life Christians. And yet, he doesn’t waver in his ideological opposition to abortion. Progressives may perceive a lack of commitment to reproductive rights.
I found Claiborne’s personal testimony more powerful than his intellectual arguments. Conservative and progressive Christians alike will find his views challenging and an asset to the discussion of what it means to be pro-life.
Jonny Rashid is pastor of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship and the author of Jesus Takes a Side (Herald Press, 2022).