The Common Good
July-August 2001

The Virtue of Irrelevance

by Chris Rice | July-August 2001

Commemorating the life of Christian activist, magazine editor, and longtime friend of Sojourners John Alexander.

John Alexander, longtime friend, teacher, and mentor of Christian activists across the country—including us at Sojourners—died on Good Friday of leukemia. In 1968 Alexander started The Other Side magazine (then called Freedom Now) with his father and served as editor from 1973-1984. He was most recently a member of the Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, where at the time of his death he was working on a book titled Stop Going to Church and Be the Church—the book's draft was saved on his computer as The Love Book. At Alexander's memorial service, the eulogist, Jack Bernard, said, "John's life was about one thing: to understand the will of God in order to do it and to call others to do likewise." —The Editors

At 50, John Alexander looked like a relic from the '60s with his rainbow-colored tie-dye T-shirt. It was 1992. I knew Alexander as a celebrity from the "Who's Who" of Christian social activists, an author, and a magazine editor. But something was amiss. Eight years earlier John had disappeared off the national radar screen. Suddenly I ran into him at a conference in his new identity as pastor for an obscure little house church in San Francisco.

Later that year, five members of the Church of the Sojourners community—including John and his wife Judy—drove 40 hours to our Antioch Christian community in Mississippi just to paint the foyer of our house, cook with us, wash dishes, and hang out.

Through many subsequent visits, it gradually dawned on me that John and Judy had been sent to us with a message from God. While my African-American co-worker Spencer Perkins and I told the nation how to do racial reconciliation, we often weren't reconciled between us. John and Judy had a lot to say about this, and I usually didn't like it. Most of the blame, they said, was mine. They said I was lost in jealousy and envy of Spencer.

But I also didn't understand how unimportant it was. "Your failure isn't even interesting," John would say. To live in this world was to live in the expectation of sinning and being sinned against. The big deal about Christianity, he said, was whether we understood that we were forgiven. The big deal about the church was creating a culture where we constantly reminded each other of that fact. "Success with evangelicals is a detail," said John. "What counts is being a reconciled, multi-racial community." John's re-definition of success alarmed me: "It's caring for each other, forgiving each other, and washing the dishes," he said, especially across the lines of race and class.

I know now why John was able to speak the uncomfortable truth to me with such compassion. He had rocketed upward from a prestigious Oxford scholarship to a spectacular academic career to a prominent national platform. But as John began to internalize weakness, and then grace, he gradually matured downward. As far as success is defined, John had chosen to make himself irrelevant.

At his memorial service in April, I kept waiting for "dignitaries" to show up. Then it dawned on me how drastically John's investments had changed over his life. He started on top of the world and ended in relative anonymity as an itinerant peacemaker for struggling Christian communities. John's body lay in a simple pine casket built by the brothers of his church. Etched into the side were the words "It is well with my soul." The church sisters wrapped him in a quilt made out of patches of John's clothing—including a piece of his beloved tie-dye T-shirt. As Judy said of his last hours, "Not many people die with so much love around them."

John taught me what is enough. It is enough to get the love of God into your bones, and to live as if you are forgiven. It is enough to care for each other, to forgive each other, and to wash the dishes. The rest of life, he taught me, was details.

Chris Rice was a student at Duke Divinity School and co-author of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel, when this article appeared.

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