Press Watch: Sojourning (Part III)

I had been talking to Joyce Hollyday, one of the pastors of the Sojourners community which publishes a monthly magazine of the same name. As I have already commented (Catholicism in Crisis, April, 1984), Sojourners is interesting since it embodies the very strong tendency of contemporary social-ism (and the amended spelling is intentional) to take root in religious or quasi-religious communities. In former decades — perhaps even since the French Revolution — the ideology of socialism has customarily appeared in the garb of science. Its prophet has been Karl Marx; its characteristic mode of action has been central planning; its major thrust has been the centralization of power and authority in a single figure.

Today’s socialists are quite different. They are not interested in Karl Marx; they are frequently hostile to science; they are not atheists; they disapprove of central planning; they yearn for decentralization; and they reject a cult of personality. Moreover, they do not specify an economic program, and they certainly are not interested in “the state ownership of the means of production.” Nevertheless, in important respects the ideology that totally preoccupies them is strongly reminiscent of the 19th century “scientific” version, and seems to be the expression of a permanent feature of human nature. Its advocates seek to transform the world, to transform human nature, and to achieve an outcome that is egalitarian in material terms. Today’s communitarian enthusiasts talk about social justice, social change, social action, social programs, social work and the social gospel. All of these “socials” do add up to an “ism.” It may conveniently be called social-ism.

This ideology is, or should be, of considerable interest to orthodox Roman Catholics. Parishioners, nuns, and priests who believe that old religious attitudes and beliefs need to be changed are strongly attracted by the ideology of social-ism. It provides them with the arguments and the organization needed to begin implementing the changes that they desire. Many parishes and dioceses across the land now find in their midst small groups and communities, not unlike Sojourners, who are intensely committed to implementing changes that bring church life into alignment with their “vision,” their nonexistent but ardently sought world in which human nature has been transformed and all its inhabitants are equal to one another. In earlier centuries, too, such groups and movements frequently existed. They were called heretics, and their doctrines were called heresies. Today these terms seem to have fallen into misuse — or even connote a wry approval.

I asked Joyce Hollyday what she thought about “socialism” and of course she thought of it as a word with party-political connotations, very inappropriate as applied to Sojourners. “None of us would regard ourselves as socialists,” she said. “In our minds, the terms ‘Christian’ covers all that we are. Our principle is not a political one. It is found in Acts, chapter two. (‘And they had all things in common.’) We share all of our money. We pay ourselves subsistence salaries — enough to meet the needs of each individual. And we take unto ourselves the needs of the poor.”

She told me that the community (consisting of 30 adults) owns four houses. But the deeds of ownership are drawn up in such a way that they would not, or perhaps cannot, sell them at a profit. “We have seen enough evictions to make way for wealthy people,” she said. They live in Washington’s 14th street “riot corridor,” — all within four blocks of one another. “We pretty much live in a way that is inexpensive and shared,” she added. Some of them have jobs as teachers or nurses, for example, and their salaries “go into the common treasury and that is the pool that we draw on.”

As we left the room and went downstairs to the small bookstore where I picked up some Sojourners literature, Joyce Hollyday remarked to me that the whole idea of profit, “rather than sharing,” was intolerable to her, as it was to Sojourners generally, and evidently this was one of the most basic things that she, and the community, and the magazine, would like to change. When you think about this, you realize that what is ultimately at issue is the whole notion of ownership: the right of individuals to own things, and to exchange them freely with one another. Such a right is itself the very expression of decentralized authority and decision-making, and it can only be abolished (as in the Soviet Union and Cuba, and increasingly in Nicaragua) by the centralized power of government asserting totalitarian control.

A week or so later I met Jim Wallis, who is the editor of the magazine and a founder of the Sojourners community. He was brought up in Detroit, went to seminary in Chicago, and arrived in Washington D.C. in 1975 with his fledgling community of eighteen adults and two babies. Jim Wallis is 35. When he was about 20 years old he had a black friend who showed him the black ghetto of Detroit. Wallis concluded that it was an expression of white racism, “our deepest sin,” and to this day he has not gotten over it.

When I went to see him he was seated behind a rather bare desk in a plain, unadorned corner office. There was an intercom arrangement nearby, and at one point a voice from some other part of the building inquired how many column-inches he would be needing for his next article in the magazine. But this little hint of up-to-date technological convenience gives a misleading impression. Wallis is clearly not a person who is interested in personal luxuries or material comforts, as is characteristically the case with all community-founders, visionaries and ideologues. His full head of reddish-orange hair had been attentively coiffured, and he wore a plain, inexpensive, baby-blue pullover, and blue corduroy trousers.

“We try to live together like the earliest communities in the church a long time ago,” he told me at the outset. “And this kind of life is going on in many other communities that we are in touch with.” There was a lot of “networking” among them, apparently, and in fact Wallis had just returned from a “community of communities” meeting in Cleveland.

I wanted to know how he would reorganize life in America if he were granted the power to do so. He hesitated at first, before replying rather tentatively: “My concerns are basic … traditional Gospel concerns,” he said, but then he picked up some steam and strength. “I think we live in a culture that despises the poor,” he said. “Both in the way that economic structures treat the poor, and in terms of personal attitudes. I see the Gospel talking in terms of justice for the poor, as a basic Gospel value … one of our principal convictions is to establish justice for those at the bottom.”

I tried to ask him what he meant by “justice” but he hardly heard me. “I live in a neighborhood where almost half the people are out of work. With almost no health care for the poor. With inadequate housing. Where education is a joke in the public schools. Where people have no security on the streets.”

The blame for all this? “Certainly the blame is in the structures of our society,” he thought, “the priorities we’ve established as a nation. Basically we have decided that people are expendable: the old, the sick, the handicapped, the racial minorities, and our enemies are expendable. In fact, the nuclear arms race is the end result of that assumption. It means that we are all expendable. All the world’s children. The future itself has become expendable. And to me, that assumption must be challenged. Every Saturday morning we have a food line, serving 300 families who simply can’t make it. One and a half miles from the White House. And that is a parable of the priorities of this society: that the poor don’t count.”

It was difficult to get Jim Wallis to make concrete suggestions for change, or to assign blame in any concrete way. What he knew was that the present structure of life was wrong — sinful — and that it was possible to have a “vision” of some other kind of life, a vision which admittedly has not yet materialized anywhere in the world.

Who has decided that so many people are “expendable”? Well, the Administration. The Congress. “Our institutions,” he thought. “Large corporations. Large corporations do not have justice for the poor as one of their priorities.”

Again, I asked him what concrete changes he would like to see. “It would be such a fundamental change in the way those decisions are made it would be difficult to …” He pondered again and said: “Those decisions are made by a handful of wealthy people.”

His own country was deeply displeasing to him. It was a society “that spends more than half its tax dollars on weapons and doesn’t care that people freeze to death.”

Then would he spend nothing on defense? To this he conceded that the Soviets are aggressive, but then so is the United States. “The Soviet Union and the U.S. both have foreign policies that are aggressive and destructive and violent, and principally victimize poor people, principally Third World, oppressed people. I think the Christian thing is not to take sides with either of these two giants.”

Oh, he knew there were risks. “Nonviolence is not without risks. But it is better to suffer violence than to inflict it,” he said. “There are risks in disarmament, of course. But the risks of our present course are greater.” The Soviet threat? Yes, he knew that it was real. “But I think the American threat is also real. The greatest threat is the arms race itself.” He added that the Soviets are running “a state capitalist system and we’re running a monopoly capitalist system. In both cases small groups of people — always white men — make decisions affecting millions of people, especially, poor people.”

Recently Wallis was in Nicaragua. In fact he has been to Managua twice. “One has to be without a heart, not to be impressed by the tremendous strides in literacy, in health care, and the basic conditions of the people,” he thought. (The “literacy” program was an attempt to indoctrinate the peasants into communism using a primer instructing the pupil that “‘a’ is for agrarian reform,” etc. Wallis was here simply accepting government propaganda at face value. The Sandinistas claims of improved literacy, which have been unchallenged by Western media, are pure unsupported assertion and highly implausible.) “The overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans support their government,” he believed.

“On the other hand,” he added, “I think the treatment of Miskito Indians, although highly exaggerated in this country, has been insensitive. It reflects the long-standing racism of Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans against blacks. That’s not a Sandinista problem. That’s a Nicaraguan problem.”

As a matter of fact, he was moved to say when considering the Sandinistas: “No government is perfect. Neither are the Sandinistas. In any post-revolutionary situtation there are always factions vying for power. There was in our revolution here.” As for the split in the Catholic Church in Nicaragua: “The Nicaraguan government does not kill priests and archbishops like our U.S.-supported government in El Salvador.” Thus, he does not believe that “concern about the persecution of the church” in Nicaragua can be sincere.

I asked him finally what he thought about the communal ownership of property. Did he think we should all live like the apostles in Acts? He replied, and I confess to being slightly surprised by what he said: “That was a consequence of the coming of the Spirit. It was a real economic sharing among believers. In the church that is always a voluntary sharing that comes about because of faith. We had a visit not long ago from some people from the embassy of the People’s Republic of China. They had heard that there was a community of sharers in Washington. They asked us why we were doing it, and we said because of our Christian faith. And they were astounded. They said, ‘You as Christians are doing this in a way that we are not.’ We don’t advocate a forced communal pattern. The vision of it is that people will be moved by faith to do it voluntarily.”

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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