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Sojourners: History, Actvities and Agendas

By Jacob Laksin
Discover The Networks
2005


In the aftermath of the November 2004 elections, a consensus among Democratic Party leaders was that their defeat could be attributed to their party’s disconnect from religious voters. Seeking a way to remedy this as quickly as possible, they turned to Jim Wallis for help in developing a strategy for making Democratic candidates more appealing to the coveted religious demographic. Wallis is
the founder of the organization Sojourners, the editor-in-chief of Sojourners Magazine, and the author of the newly released best-seller God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. In January 2005, at the beginning of the Congressional session, Senate Democrats invited Wallis to address them in a private discussion. In addition, some fifteen Democratic members of the House made Wallis the guest of honor at a breakfast confab whose subject was devising ways to instill support for the Democratic Party into the hearts of the religious faithful. James Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said, “He [Wallis] can help us communicate with the rising number of evangelicals in the country, which is right now a Republican constituency, but which Wallis argues could easily become part of the Democratic constituency as well.”

Wallis’ organization, Sojourners, is a Washington, D.C.-based Christian evangelical ministry that combines activist fervor with leftwing notions of “social justice.” It was formed in Chicago in 1971 and was originally known as the People’s Christian Coalition (PCC). Born of the efforts of a group leftwing religious students who were then enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, from its inception the ministry reflected the radical politics and antiwar attitudes of its founders. A commitment to promulgating leftwing ideology with missionary zeal became the ministry’s hallmark and was the animating theme of the its inaugural publication, an antiwar evangelical magazine called the Post American. Bent on catechizing a larger audience in their idiosyncratic notions of religious radicalism, the PCC community relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1975. In the process, the ministry adopted the name Sojourners and renamed its magazine accordingly.

For the ministry’s founders, the name Sojourners was symbolic. An allusion to the Biblical appellation for religious pilgrims, it was taken by Sojourners to signify their commitment to a radical social order. Claiming as their predecessors Christian renewal communities throughout history, Sojourners’ leaders declared at once against the time-honored interpretations of Biblical teachings and the traditional mores of Western civilization. Adducing the “radical example of Jesus,” Sojourners proposed to champion “alternative visions” to the church, and vowed to “counter the assault of the world's dominant values.” Sojourners’ statement of faith spelled out the ministry’s dogmatic antiwar beliefs (“Violence and war will not resolve the inevitable conflicts between people and nations”); its defiance of the established social order (“We refuse to accept structures and assumptions that normalize poverty and segregate the world by class”); and its confessed intention to foment a revolution (“We believe that gospel faith transforms our economics, gives us the power to share our bread and resources, welcomes all to the table of God’s provision, and provides a vision for social revolution.”)

History indicates that the ministry has stayed true to this radical spirit. As one of its first acts, Sojourners leaders formed a commune in the inner-city Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Southern Columbia Heights. Living in communal households, Sojourners’ members also shared their finances. They participated in various activist campaigns, organizing events at both the neighborhood and national levels. Grounded in the prevalent antiwar convictions of the community, the themes of these campaigns, echoed monthly in the pages of Sojourners, centered on attacking U.S. foreign policy (particularly regarding the Vietnam War), denouncing American “imperialism,” and extolling Marxist revolutionary movements in the Third World.

Fueling these campaigns was the widespread anti-Americanism espoused by the Sojourners community. Jim Wallis, one of Sojourners' founders and its longtime leader, expressed this perspective starkly in his 1976 book, Agenda for the People, in which he argued that only a radical Christianity, of the kind in favor within the Sojourners community, could redeem the United States. That the U.S. was in need of such redemption, Wallis, in common with his fellow Sojourners members, had no doubt. “America,” he wrote, “is a fallen nation.” Giving bladed voice to his ministry’s revolutionary views, Wallis detailed the Sojourners belief that religion must be seen in opposition to all forms of state government. “For us,” Wallis wrote, “the modern state is the great power, the great seducer, the great captor and destroyer of human life, the great master of humanity and history in its totalitarian claims and designs.” To replace the state, Wallis called for “a radical nonconformist community in the present world system, refusing to live by the norms and assumptions that control the behavior of others.”

Sojourners devoted much of the 1980s to living out this vision. The Sojourners community actively embraced “liberation theology,” rallying to the cause of communist regimes that had seized power with the promise of brining about revolutionary restructuring of society. Particularly attractive for the ministry’s religious activists was the Communist Sandinista regime that took power in Nicaragua in a 1979 revolution. The Sojourners community uniformly welcomed the Communists’ victory in the revolution. Clark Pinnock, a disaffected former member of Sojourners, revealed in 1985 that the community’s members were “100 percent in favor of the Nicaraguan revolution.” Having supported its rise to power, Sojourners turned its efforts to opposing the policies of the Reagan administration that aimed to undercut it. Singing the praises of the Sandinistas each month in Sojourners, the community also initiated a program called “Witness for Peace.” As part of this program, Sojourners members would travel to Nicaragua and return with reports of humanitarian disasters wrought by the anti-Communist guerrilla forces, condemning the policies of the Reagan administration that sponsored those forces. The expressed intention of the program was to pressure the U.S. government into ending its support for Nicaraguan opposition movements. By no means detached observers of Nicaraguan politics, the program’s participants acted as apologists for the brutalities that attended the reign of the Sandinista government, insisting that any efforts to undermine its power, which had been acquired not by popular support but by a violent revolution, amounted to a violation of the Nicaraguan people’s “right to self-determination” and was an unwarrantable affront to the “democratically elected” regime.

Owing to the pro-Sandinista prejudices of its leaders, the Witness for Peace program entailed more than mere rhetoric; trips to Nicaragua regularly degenerated into mere propaganda exercises for the Sandinistas. On one famous occasion, for instance, a 190-person Witness for Peace delegation was treated to a pro-Sandinista press conference immediately after arrival. Ushered into a lounge reserved for the occasion, its exits blocked by armed Sandinista guards, the tour group looked on as the Witness for Peace leadership, in collaboration with Sandinista officials, proceeded to stage a press conference—complete with tape recorders, television lights, and cameras, and reporters from the Sandinista-controlled media—denouncing the “illegal war being waged against Nicaragua . . . designed, directed and funded by the (U.S.) government.” One Witness for Peace spokesman expressed his “wish that our visit would ‘hurt’ American policy in the region.” Other Witness for Peace initiatives included dispatching teams of Christians to the Nicaragua-Honduras border to form a “protective shield” between Nicaraguans and anti-Sandinista forces. Between 1983 and 1990, some 4,000 activists, many of them members of Sojourners, would take part in the Witness for Peace program, dutifully relaying the Sandinista party line in the United States while condemning the anti-Communist as “terrorists.” This intimate cooperation between the Witness for Peace leadership and the Sandinistas was by no means accidental. In a November 1983 article for Sojourners, Joyce Hollyday revealed that the program had been designed in partnership with members of the Sandinista government, including Tomás Borgé, one of the foremost figures in the Sandinista Directorate and a Minister of the Interior. “Borgé agreed that such a presence on the border could have a strong impact on the situation in Nicaragua,” Hollyday reported.

Nor was Witness for Peace the only pro-Sandinista initiative embraced by Sojourners.

In parallel with its lobbying efforts for Communist regimes in Central America, the ministry was mounting a sustained rearguard action against the policies of the American government. Writing in the November 1983 issue of Sojourners, Jim Wallis and Jim Rice of Sojourners drafted what would become the charter of leftist activists committed to the proliferation of Communist revolutions in Central America. Titled “Promise of Resistance,” the document called on activists to carry out various acts of civil disobedience in order to obstruct any attempt by the United States to invade Nicaragua. In response to the surging radicalism of the pro-Communist Left, an amended version of the document appeared in the August 1984 issue of Sojourners. Renamed “Pledge of Resistance: A Contingency Plan in the Event of a U.S. Invasion of Nicaragua,” the document summoned activists to undertake illegal actions—in the manner of forcing their way into and occupying congressional offices—with the intention of thwarting any potential American military intervention in Nicaragua. Initially concerned with U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, the pledge would undergo yet another revision, when, in keeping with Sojourners’ commitment to the advance of Communism, it was expanded to oppose U.S. policy toward all of Central America. As was the case with the Witness for Peace Program, the pledge was heavily influenced by its Communist beneficiaries: Among other groups in solidarity with the Communist cause, CISPES, the propaganda arm of El Salvador’s Marxist guerrilla movement, was invited by Sojourners to participate in acts of resistance in the event of military intervention. In addition, nearly 70,000 activists signed the document, which was sent to Congress, President Reagan, the Defense Department, and the CIA.

The Sojourners community found yet other ways to resist American foreign policy. Steadfast advocates of the nuclear freeze movement, Sojourners members maintained that a nuclear buildup, or at any rate one engineered by the Reagan administration, was irreconcilably at odds with Christian teaching. Jim Wallis expressed this notion in a 1983 editorial for Sojourners, wherein he explained, “For us, nuclear weapons are an intolerable evil, and as Christians we cannot tolerate their production or use.” Taking no account of the Soviet Union’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons, Wallis expounded on another article of faith among the Sojourners community when he wrote that “[t]he Reagan Administration remains the chief obstacle to the first step in stopping the arms race.” Acting on these beliefs in 1983, Wallis led a group of Christian anti-nuclear activists into the U.S. Congress, where, preparatory to their arrest on charges of holding an unauthorized demonstration, they prayed for the elimination nuclear weapons. Sojourners sought the same objective as a member of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, a 1980s anti-nuclear movement that included, among others, such groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ground Zero, and Common Cause, and enjoyed the support of political leaders like Senator Edward Kennedy. As part of their assault on the Reagan administration’s defense buildup, Sojourners activists also downplayed the threat posed by the Soviet Union. An illustration of this stratagem is Jim Wallis’s feigned puzzlement, in a 1983 Sojourners editorial wherein he wrote, “It is sometimes difficult to remember how the Russians became our enemy.” In the same article, Wallis chastised U.S. policy-makers for what he disparaged as their tendency “to assume the very worst about their Soviet counterparts.”

The Soviet Union’s dissolution dashed the ministry’s hopes for the triumph of Communism worldwide. But rather than subject its leftist dispensation to a considered review, the Sojourners community turned its sights toward other “progressive causes.” One was environmentalism. In one 1990 Sojourners article, for example, writer Bob Hulteen mounted the argument that environmental activism was a logical outlet for the notions of justice long championed by the ministry. “Environmental activism devoid of Justice is naïve and ineffectual, and Justice-seeking work without concern for the earth is naïve and narrow minded,” Hulteen explained.

The ministry also leveled its leftwing reading of the Bible against policies like welfare reform. Reviling welfare reform as a “mean-spirited Republican agenda,” Jim Wallis pointedly denounced its supporters in a 1994 Sojourners editorial: “Whether just stupid or callous, such talk can only come from those who don’t know or care about the reality of poverty. Such hatred toward the poor must be opposed on emphatically religious grounds. The Republican agenda of social abandonment is no alternative to the failures of liberal government policies.” The ministry’s campaigns in defense of policies like affirmative action were marked by similar intemperance.

Consumed as it was with domestic issues, Sojourners occasionally succumbed to its nostalgia for Communist revolution. In the fall 1994 issue of Sojourners, writer Martha Orianna Baskin assailed the American trade embargo while celebrating a leftist initiative called the U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment Caravan as “the largest act of civil disobedience against the 33-year-old U.S. blockade of the island.” Similarly, the ministry has never wavered in its anti-war faith, declaring against every American military intervention in the 1990s and, more recently, the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even as it kept up its knee-jerk opposition to U.S. foreign policy, the ministry sought new ways to increase its influence. Thus in 1995, with the aim of bolstering Sojourners’ unique brand of leftwing activism and evangelical Christianity, Jim Wallis founded a sister organization, Call to Renewal. A network of churches and other faith-based organizations that counts Black Churches, Pentecostals, Anabaptists, and Protestants among its members, Call to Renewal purports to disclaim “partisan divisions,” asserting in its mission statement that “[o]vercoming poverty is our goal.” But a review of its policy positions suggests that Call to Renewal’s preferred method of alleviating poverty locates the organization firmly on the hard Left of the political compass. Invoking their inspiration the Biblical prophet Isaiah, Call to Renewal endorses such policies as a “living family wage,” universal healthcare, and even “adequate nutrition” for all citizens. Cloaking its leftist economic agenda in theology, Call to Renewal favors a “progressive” tax code, on the justification that “Biblical prophets insist that prosperity be shared.” Notwithstanding its manifestly leftist position on economic matters, Call to Renewal, like its partner organization Sojourners, routinely pretends to non-partisanship, insisting that “overcoming poverty must become a bi-partisan commitment and a non-partisan cause.” This purported commitment to bi-partisanship, to cite but one recent example, failed to prevent Call to Renewal’s convener, Jim Wallis, from condemning the Bush administration’s proposed budget as a “moral outrage.”

Sojourners has also introduced a number of new ways to disseminate its message. In addition to publishing Sojourners, the ministry now sends out a weekly email newsletter , called Sojomail. Another recent addition is a blog authored by Jim Wallis, who authored the 2005 book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. As suggested by this title, Wallis’s blog directs its attacks largely against the political right. In one typical entry, for instance, Wallis, after an appearance at Wheaton, an Illinois-based Christian college, urged students to adopt “evangelical” beliefs consistent with “progressive” politics.

While reaching out to campuses, the ministry has also directed its sights on the church. To this end, the editors of Sojourners magazine now offer a program called “Preaching the Word.” For an annual fee of $44.95, religious leaders who share the ministry’s commitment to reading scripture through the lens of leftwing politics can receive articles to supplement their sermons. According to Sojourners editors, “Preaching the Word” is designed for pastors who preach “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” With respect to which newspapers they have in mind, a clue comes from one article featured in the program. Authored by Sojourners executive editor David Batstone, it is a denunciation of the U.S. military’s efforts in Iraq, which Batstone derides as a “deepening quagmire.”

As a corollary of this new media evangelism, the ministry also runs an internship program. Designed for “anyone 21 years or older who is single or married without dependents,” the one-year internship aims to cultivate a new generation of evangelical activists to preach the virtues of the ministry’s leftist gospel. Residing, like Sojourners of old, in a shared household, Sojourners interns are employed full-time either at the ministry or at Call to Renewal, where, working on the organization’s Overcome Poverty program, they campaign for their economic initiatives either through specially organized “preach-ins” or by marching in demonstrations. The underlying idea behind the internship—to carry forth the ministry’s radical message—finds its clearest expression in the ministry’s statement of faith: “For us, the word ‘radical’ has always meant ‘rooted.’ The explosive mix of Biblical faith and radical social renewal that ignited Sojourners in the beginning will continue to fuel our pilgrimage and light our way in the years to come.”

Sojourners is a member organization of the Win Without War and United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalitions.


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