Press Watch: Sojourning (Part II)

On Sunday morning I arrived at the Sojourners building, a modern, school-like structure in a quiet corner of northeast Washington, a few blocks away from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I was just in time for the 10 o’clock service, which was held in a square, plain room with an unadorned cross on one wall. There were about 100 people present, a good many seeming to be in their mid-thirties or thereabouts. And there was a fair sprinkling of couples with children. Sojourners is neither a youth movement nor an old-folks home.

For those who may have missed the first installment (C in C, Feb. 1984), Sojourners is a broadly ecumenical, evangelical community based in Washington, D.C. (They moved here from Chicago in 1975.) Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard University, has something to say about the community in his new book Religion in the Secular City. Sojourners also publish a monthly magazine of that name. Its editor, and the founder of Sojourners, is Jim Wallis, the son of a Plymouth Brethren elder in Detroit.

“Sojourners represents an opposition movement to the American establishment rooted in traditional Christian faith,” Wallis wrote in 1981. “Ours is a biblical radicalism. It is neither liberal nor Marxist, embracing no ideology. It derives from a realization that biblical faith will always break apart old categories and defy stereotypes.”

As I mentioned earlier, Sojourners is of great interest because it is a perfect example of the recently revived tendency of socialist thought and action to manifest itself vigorously in small religious communities. In such communities, a sincere attempt is made to live according to the ideals of commune-ism. I deliberately spell it that way to differentiate the ideal — or the “vision” as it is so often called today — from the practice in communist countries.

There is much talk in Sojourners, both the magazine and the community, about rejecting labels, defying categories and rendering stereotypes outmoded. And we see in this the all-important breakdown of definition and erosion of identity that is at the heart of all attempts to bring to an end one form of social organization and replace it with another. “Building a new society,” it is often called. Wallis writes about a “new commitment to the rebuilding of the church at a local level,” about a “new style of life,” and the Sojourner’s “prophetic vision.” (In the current vocabulary of communist theology, “prophetic” means, roughly, “revolutionary.”)

The Sojourners community consists of 32 adults and seven children “living in six houses and assorted apartments,” according to Ginny Soley, who is assistant to the publisher. Sojourners proclaim their devotion to the form of community life that is briefly mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. (“And all that believed were together, and had all things in common.”) Nevertheless, it is clear that our Sojourners have a rather more radical and political goal than simple Christian living. This is the only way to account for the strongly anti-American content of the magazine, and of their outlook in general.

The Sojourners are obsessed with “peace and justice issues,” which typically are never really defined; with “siding with the poor,” which is said to “bring us into conflict with the institutions and arrangements which oppress them”; and above all with the “nuclear threat,” which boils down to a critique of the U.S. policy of incorporating new technological developments into military hardware.

As for the Soviet Union and the system of totalitarian communism by which its citizens are subjugated, this is represented as an aggregate of Russian men and women who want peace just as much as we do. But their “leaders,” (i.e., their rulers), are understandably fearful as a result of the unending anti-communism of U.S. policy makers. (“This is our state religion,” associate editor Danny Collum has written.) So the Soviet leaders have in turn become so obsessed with security that, yes, the Soviet Union indeed is somewhat oppressive. In short, the oppression of the Soviet citizenry is attributable to the aggressive policies of the U.S. government, Ronald Reagan in particular.

The following interesting sentence by Danny Collum suggests that the Sojourners’ attitude toward the Soviet Union may well be one of indifference, born of a sense of its ideological irrelevance. “Today,” he wrote in the November 1982 issue of the magazine (“What About the Russians?”), “almost all Third World insurgents and European and American leftists have long since ceased to consider the Soviet Union a worthy model of socialism and have come to fear its debilitating influence.” In short, the Soviets are no longer at the cutting edge of socialist thought.

The service began with some spontaneous calls for prayer from the congregation. The publisher of Sojourners, Joe. Roos, bearded and bejeaned and bringing to mind the ’60s “counterculture,” made a little speech about the White Train, which is the latest Sojourners cause. (The February issue of the magazine devotes 16 pages to this subject.) It is the train that transports nuclear warheads from the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, to the Trident submarine base in Bangor, Washington.

“We pray for all those people along the trail of the White Train, that you may bless their witness,” Roos intoned from the congregation, adding that the train, when last spotted, was “traveling at the illegal rate of 60 m.p.h.” (One suspects that in the Apostolic Age described in the Acts of the Apostles and admired by Sojourners, Sts. Peter and Paul did not concern themselves with such minutiae of the Roman administration, even if they did have common ownership.)

Sojourner allies have been turning out along the tracks to protest the passing train with its cargo of death — vigil, civil disobedience, and so on. And the latest Sojourners also contains a statement of support for such “non-violent resistance to each successive violation of our Pastoral Letter” by Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and Bishop Leroy Matthiesen. The magazine also prints photographs of the offending train, and maps of its alternative routes.

Someone else from the congregation said: “We pray for yet another reminder of the effects of our militarism, and the government which does not acknowledge the effects of herbicide and its use.” Amen to that.

Then we sang a hymn, with piano and guitar accompaniment. The hymnal had been amended by ball-point pen, I noticed. God was still considered to be masculine, but all generic uses of male nouns and pronouns — man, son, workman, and so on — had been changed to plural or otherwise sex-neutral forms. (The hymnal itself had been published only in 1977, and seemed to be a modern document in most respects, but evidently not modern enough.)

The congregational singing was extremely good, sometimes moving unexpectedly into a confident, well-practiced two-part polyphony. But the actual music had the weak, drippy, sentimental dreamy-Delius quality that has characterized so much ecclesiastical music in the past decade. (A lot of this music has come from female pens — and sounds like it.)

There were two pastors, male and female. Jim Wallis himself was out of town, at a meeting in Philadelphia. The Bible readings were the same as those used in the Catholic Church that Sunday. The Gospel was from St. Mathew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount — “Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin.” I noticed that whereas the current Catholic Missalette uses the word “money” instead of “mammon,” the Sojourners stuck with mammon, and in her sermon, Joyce Hollyday went out of her way to explain that it did not simply mean “money.” On this point at least, the Sojourners seemed to me to be rather more sensible than the Catholics.

Joyce Hollyday, an associate editor of the magazine, was wearing corduroy trousers, a cardigan with toggles and tassel-moccasin shoes. She made one or two other sensible points, saying that Jesus’ words were not just addressed to the rich, but were to be heeded by everyone; and she made a surprising little criticism, en passant, of the radical-chic lifestyles of some leftists. She also made the very good point that “the gospel does oppose that quest for security that makes faith superfluous.” But she also rather marred her performance, in my view, by going on a bit about “racism, sexism and militarism.” Nevertheless her message was on the whole more sensible that I had expected.

Whatever criticisms one may have of the Sojourners, they have carefully avoided the pitfalls of radical chic, and they are above all serious, perfectly sincere.

The service included a “celebration of the Eucharist,” with a blessing of bread and wine. The bread was a very big fluffy, whole-wheat kind of a loaf, the kind that has some powdery white flour on top. Most of those present received communion, which consisted of a sip of wine and a morsel of bread plucked from the fluffy loaf.

After the service, which lasted a full hour, I spoke to Joyce Hollyday, who was brought up as a Methodist in Her-hey, Pa. She told me that she was a Sojourners “elder,” although she was only 29. She had been a member of the community for six years. Before that she had spent a year at Yale Divinity School, and had planned to become an Episcopal priest. But, she said, “I felt at the time some conflict with the church around the issues of lifestyle. I wanted a more community-focused lifestyle. I wanted to live more intentionally with other Christians.” This she was now doing at Sojourners.

“We are very broadly ecumenical,” she went on. “We have a handful of Mennonites, mainline Protestants, those who would consider themselves evangelical, and a growing number of Catholics. This is reflected in the readership of the magazine, which has become more heavily Catholic, particularly among Catholic women religious.” She said the circulation of the magazine was now about 60,000. “We live in a system of economic sharing, we pool our income, and we give ourselves subsistence salaries,” she said. “And so our overhead is very low. We have hit a huge growth spurt at a time when many magazines of our size have gone under. The reason is that there is beginning to be a confrontation between the church and the policies of the government. We are finding a sweeping movement of churches beginning to turn toward the priorities of justice and peace. Many are Christians who work among the poor and see the increasing desperation of people who have been abandoned by the policies of this government. Many others are being converted around the issues of nuclear war and Central America. They see our involvement in preparations for nuclear war, and our military intervention in Central America, as sinful.”

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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