Press Watch: Sojourning

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal the other day about Petra Kelly, leading luminary of the Greens, the radical West German Political party. “From U.S. Schoolgirl to German Politician,” ran the headline, under the caption Angry Woman. That reminded me of the analogous transformation of Sonia Johnson, the Mormon feminist who was excommunicated, and then wrote an autobiography, calling it From Housewife to Heretic. She was angry, too. Very angry.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal’s Diane Coutu said about Petra Kelly: “She came to view the world from a rigid male-female viewpoint and she abandoned several faiths — especially her faith in America.” Coutu described the Greens as “a loose band of apostates” — a “ragbag of feminists, pacifists, communists, neutralists, and nationalists who have strong notions of what Germany ought not to be.”

In the early ’60s Petra Kelly’s ten-year-old sister Grace became ill with cancer. Somehow Petra obtained an audience with Pope Paul VI and then “sat back and waited for the ‘miracle’ to happen.” But it didn’t. Her sister died. “When neither the chemotherapy nor a miracle saved Grace, Petra left the Catholic Church, but she also found her calling.” Or, as the writer put it slightly differently: “Her world fell apart, and came together in a new way.”

I thought about Petra Kelly and Sonia Johnson when I began to read articles by Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners, a monthly magazine now in its 13th year of publication. (It has 54,000 subscribers.) Sojourners is also a biblically based Christian community. About 40 of its members live together in a number of houses in a poor area of Washington, D.C.

To anyone at all interested in contemporary socialism, Sojourners makes for interesting reading. It is also skillfully produced, with highly professional art work, and a high quality overall. (Its low subscription price of $12 remained unchanged throughout the inflationary years of 1977-83; only beginning this year did it go up to $15.) Contributing editors include Richard Barnet of the Institute for Policy Studies, Daniel Berrigan, Senator Mark Hatfield, Penny Lernoux, Henri Nouwen, Ronald Sider and Garry Wills.

Once again I find I must appear to my fellow countrymen, conservatives in particular, whether paleo or neo, to rid themselves of the comforting idea that socialism no longer appeals to intellectuals — that the idea is somehow “dead.” Nothing could be further from the truth. What we do find — and Sojourners is one of the best places to find it — is that socialism in the West is in the process of undergoing a radical external transformation, although certain key underlying elements remain unchanged, as indeed they have stayed the same for centuries and millennia.

Socialism used to be “scientific”; now it is openly hostile to technology. It used to be “modem”; now it is anti modern. It used to be in its utopian ideal centrally planned; today’s socialist will talk enthusiastically about decentralization. Above all, socialist thought has in the past 100 years (in its “scientific” phase) tended to be explicitly atheist; today it is more and more likely to wear a religious mantle. In fact, it is no doubt true that a loosely defined, ecumenical formation or community is and has long been the locus classicus of socialist thought and practice. It is the recent Marxist, atheistic, scientific phase that is likely to prove to have been the anomaly.

We must stop thinking of socialism merely as the “state ownership of the means of production.” That is terribly narrow, and indeed is somewhat passé. Socialism is something much more inclusive — an attitude towards the world. And make no mistake, it has many adherents in the U.S. today, especially among the college-educated. (Perhaps exclusively so.) It is a faith and a strong one, and it seems very often to be triggered by a rebellion against an old faith, by a loss of faith.

The person who undergoes this transformation, or “journey” as it is often called in contemporary socialist writing, is likely to experience at some time a climactic moment of rebellion, which is also likely to be a moment of overpowering anger and rage. The old faith is at that moment destroyed, a new sense of freedom or “liberation” is temporarily experienced (but the rage will keep on returning), and the new faith of socialism is born in the “new man,” or (very often these days) new woman.

This faith will tend to take the form of an obsession with equality, with feminism (which as Gloria Steinem said is “an integral part” of socialism), with the allegedly inter-changeable nature of human beings — thought of as “humanity” rather than individuals. There will also be an obsession with the abolition of hierarchical arrangements in life. Bishops, priests, deacons and laity constitute a hierarchy. So do angels, archangels, principalities and powers. So do families — parents and children. The military is another hierarchical organization. Nature itself is hierarchically arrayed (phylum, class, order, family). It seems to be a natural form of organization on this Earth, and no doubt in Heaven too. (As for hell, C.S. Lewis suggested that it is a lowerarchy.) But to the socialist who has rebelled and found a new faith, it is an anathema.

(Notice, by the way, that Jesus Christ did not promise an egalitarian Heaven. Rather, he seemed to promise a reversal of worldly hierarchies: the first will be last, and the last will be first.)

In the new socialist community there will be much talk of vision, transformation, liberation, and (a key idea) the breaking down of barriers. Services will be non-hierarchical, and any artifacts used in such services will be as plain and unadorned as possible. (Notice the clean, unornamented horizontal line of the altar in many Catholic Churches today, expressing perhaps unconsciously the non-hierarchical ideal.) Each member will take turns as minister, if she or he so desires. Everyone will try to be in touch with everyone else’s feelings. There will be an elaborate pretense that there is no leader; if a spokesperson is unavoidable she or he will use the first person plural as much as possible. There will be a constant attempt to recapture the exhilarating feeling of “liberation” that early on accompanied the break with the old faith, but the feeling of rage and anger will keep returning.

In From Housewife to Heretic Sonia Johnson writes: “For two solid hours I raged at God at the top of my lungs, screaming and sobbing. I didn’t care if I did get zapped. I figured . . . I had been zapped, that all women had been zapped . . . But nothing happened, except that my frenzy continued and my horror spilled out into the night.”

Jim Wallis describes something similar in Revive Us Again, an autobiographical account of Sojourners. Unlike Sonia Johnson, he was not a member of the victim class that he identified with — blacks. Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, Wallis met some blacks who “showed me the other America, the America that is wrong and mean and hateful, the America that we white people accept . . . I felt a deep sense of betrayal by white America . . . I was disillusioned with my country and my upbringing as never before.”

Wallis was a member of the Plymouth Brethren — in fact his father was a senior member of that denomination in Detroit. Jim took his “concerns” about racism to the church, “with the hope that church members would respond.” But they were “defensive,” and this only made things worse. “As the church people sought to justify themselves and the country they loved, that country seemed uglier and uglier to me,” he writes.

Next, his “alienation from the church grew to anger” after he went away to Michigan State University. One weekend he came home and there was a preacher from South Africa. Well, Jim spoke to him about “the exploitative system of apartheid” and received what seemed to be a condescending response. Wallis replied “with all the anger and bitterness that had been growing inside me for a long time … I had become a very angry young man, especially about the hypocrisy of the church. Little gentleness or humility could be found in my rage … Eventually, the alienation from the church that my confrontation with racism had begun was completed by Vietnam.”

Later on, Wallis found that “the gospel spoke with more power and authority than anything else I would discover to the questions that burned in my heart.” Then came Sojourners.

Today he is obsessed by the “nuclear threat,” and the need to disarm — to “break with the doctrine of deterrence.” He writes of “a common vision and a commitment to peace,” of discernment, peacemaking and struggles: struggles for economic justice, struggles for racial justice, struggles for peace, struggles for the poor, an endless succession of struggles before the new society of his visions can be built (and the old one destroyed).

When Leonid Brezhnev died he immediately felt helpless, “aware that the decision about to be made would dramatically affect the course of history.” Brezhnev had been’ “a moderate, a man open to reason … a man who genuinely desired peace.” Reagan, on the other hand, “refuses to confess the U.S. role in escalating global violence and shows no willingness to work with our leading adversary,” the Soviet Union, which as a result has “a feeling of being backed into a corner.”

So, on the day of Brezhnev’s death Wallis prayed with the others in the Sojourners office, asking for forgiveness “for the virulent anticommunism that has caused our nation to hate a whole people and feel no conscience about plotting their annihilation.”

After that, he felt better.

I called the Sojourners office and asked if I might be granted an interview with Wallis. But he was busy with meetings, and was scheduled to set off for a retreat at Gethsemane, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, within a few days. But I did receive word that upon his return he would be happy to be interviewed, so I hope to be back next month with a second installment on Sojourners.

Tom Bethell

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Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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