The Common Good
November 2011

From a Shoebox to a Movement

by Jim Wallis | November 2011

For 40 years, Sojourners has been fighting the good fight. Where do we go from here?

The metaphor I have often used to describe the origins of Sojourners in the fall of 1971 is that we raised a flag up a flagpole. The words on the flag proclaimed, “Biblical faith requires justice.” Many on the ground felt the same way, but they often couldn’t see each other and felt alone. When they saw the flag we raised, they ran to the bottom of the pole where they met others—and a movement was born.

Our core group met at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the northern suburbs of Chicago. We connected the first week of seminary and became excited about a new possibility for American Christianity. We ranged across a wide spectrum: civil rights and anti-war activists who had come to Christ; InterVarsity and Campus Crusade students and staff searching for a gospel that could reach the current generation of students; hippies and druggies converted to Jesus; disaffected Southern Baptists from Baylor University; Moody Bible Institute graduates against the war in Vietnam; and even one from Bob Jones University in the heart of American fundamentalism. We were at a leading evangelical seminary, not a liberal one; some of us chose deliberately to go there to argue with our own evangelical tradition about what the Bible really says.

For example, one of our first activities was finding every verse of scripture about the poor, wealth and poverty, and social justice. We found more than 2,000 texts that we then cut out of an old Bible. We were left with a “Bible full of holes,” which I used to take out with me to preach.

At one point, the seminary tried to expel some of us, claiming we had cost the school $1 million in lost contributions because of all our preaching, teaching, organizing, and demonstrating. The plan to expel us was foiled when more than half the student body and faculty stood up for us. At Trinity we began to meet key Christian leaders such as John Stott and John Howard Yoder, who were very encouraging of our “radical discipleship” and biblical vision of justice and peace.  

After the publication of the first issue of the magazine, then called The Post-American, a U.S. senator got in touch with us and invited us to Washington, D.C. He was Sen. Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Oregon, whose opposition to the Vietnam War as an evangelical got him letters beginning, “Dear Former Brother in Christ.” He needed some friends, and we were introduced to the nation’s politics. From the start, political party and ideology mattered little to us, but we soon learned that “prophetic politics,” not partisan politics, was what was most needed by the nation, and we have always looked for allies wherever we could find them.  

At the beginning, we were all white men, as most seminarians were in those days. When some women finally came to Trinity the next year, they joined our group, as did some of the few black students at Trinity College across the road. From the beginning, evangelical feminism and the scandal of white racism were major themes in the magazine. The rich diversity of the body of Christ has been a defining characteristic of our message and mission, and we continue to grow more deeply into it.

WE HAVE FOUGHT two major battles over these last 40 years, with a third fight now before us.

1. The first great battle we fought was against the idea that faith was just a private thing. That was the way many of us had been raised—to be only concerned about “me and the Lord,” remaining almost oblivious to the world around us, except in our continual efforts not to be “worldly.”  

That narrow, individualistic view of religion came to a crisis point for me when I was a 15 year old, trying to work out my faith in the world. I was feeling a growing concern about the racial division and discrimination that was tearing apart my hometown of Detroit. A church elder took me aside and said to me, “Jim, Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That’s political and our faith is personal.” That’s the night that I left my faith, in my head and heart; I was gone altogether soon after that, joining the student movements of my generation. I later came back to faith in the radical Jesus of Matthew 25, who called us to serve “the least of these,” and with my new seminary companions fought for the public meaning of faith. God is personal, we agreed, but never private.  

That was our first fight at Sojourners. When faith is merely private, wealth, power, and violence remain unchallenged, because religion isn’t understood to be about such things. In fact, privatized faith is an asset to injustice, keeping the faithful complacent, complicit, or just quiet about it. It took a movement, but we won that battle. Now, almost nobody—not even the most conservative Christians—would say that faith is merely a private affair with no implications for public life. Relating faith to public life and to society is now assumed to be both important and necessary, and the debate is only about how faith should publically express itself.  

2. The second great battle was against the claims of the then-new “Religious Right” that the only social issues about which Christians should be concerned were about sexuality, one way or another. According to the media, abortion, homosexuality, and pornography were the political issues that evangelicals most cared about and would be voting on. We argued that Christians should be concerned about more than just two or three so-called “moral issues” and, in particular, that God’s call to care for and defend the poor was absolutely central to biblical faith. We were “pro-life” and deeply committed to “family values,” but we said the God of the Bible was one of both compassion and justice.  

To restrict faith to only a few issues of mostly personal morality leaves wealth, power, and violence unchallenged. Religion becomes a political support for injustice and for those who defend the status quo. After I was a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for the first time, many young people emailed me to say, “I didn’t know that you could be a Christian and care about poverty, the environment, or the war in Iraq.” The success of my book God’s Politics revealed hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t feel represented by a narrow Religious Right, nor a secular Left, and were seeking a biblical, theological, and spiritual foundation for social justice.  

I think we have won that battle too. Even conservative think tanks now speak of a Christian concern for the poor, and they even try to invoke (and redefine) the term “social justice.” God’s love for the most vulnerable—the children of the inner city, the hungry and the homeless, the global poor who are the victims of famines and pandemics, or the women and children caught up in the modern slavery of human trafficking—is being preached from many evangelical pulpits today. Caring for the poor is now seen as a sign of the kingdom of God, especially among a younger generation of believers.  

3. The third great battle will be about the nature of the society that God wants and, in particular, whether there is such a thing as the common good. It will be about the role of government, the role of churches, the role of the market, and the role of the believer and citizen. Some say that caring for the poor is well and good, but that government should have nothing to do with it, that private charity is the only answer to poverty. Capitalism should be left unregulated and unhindered to solve our problems with the “invisible hand of the market,” they say, and we should just trust that wealth will trickle down. 

But others point to the rich tradition of the common good, in which we are all held accountable for how our behavior affects others. That ethos is deeply rooted in Catholic social teaching, in the evangelical revivals and in black and Latino churches, in the Protestant social gospel and in Judaism and Islam, and in the American Constitution, which insists that government shall provide for the “general welfare.” 

Recently, former TV talk show host Glenn Beck was so mad at Sojourners, and me, that he put me up on his famous blackboard because we were “social justice Christians” who, he said, were very dangerous. He was right. Christians committed to social justice are indeed dangerous, because they challenge wealth, power, and violence, whereas private charity alone does not. To say that the God of the Bible is a God of justice, not merely a God of charity, will get you into trouble every time.  

We have recently seen the emergence of the tea party, which confuses individualism with freedom, a resurgent libertarian political focus on “me” instead of “us,” and the renewal in popularity of philosophies such as Ayn Rand’s gospel of selfishness. In addition, we’ve seen the failure of American political liberalism to stand up to corporate America or to the bureaucracies of its own institutions. Given the lack of alternatives, the result is a nation suffering from a loss of political imagination and a lack of moral courage.  

We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers—we are called to love our neighbors, and even our enemies. The test of any society is how it treats the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger. That’s what the Bible says, and that’s what Jesus calls us to. The next battle for Sojourners is to preach that vision and to practice that ethic, to seek the common good in an age of selfishness. We will try to articulate the commonwealth of God, which will surely challenge the ideologies and idolatries of both the Right and the Left.  

As we look ahead, I am greatly encouraged by the emergence of a new generation of Christians, a new cadre of leaders for such a mission. I trust both the personal faith and the social conscience of the young people I meet and work with every day. This is the demographic that will be the future of the ministry of Sojourners. They are men and women; white, black, Latino, Asian American, and Native people. They define themselves less by tribe and more by relationships and networks. They are people of deep faith, and at the same time respectful of interfaith identities. They are activist and contemplative, people who connect their spirituality with social change. They greatly value their diversity of race, ethnicity, and culture; are not encumbered by parochial or national identities; and have a global worldview. They want to be in, but not of, the worlds in which they live. They are pilgrims who seek countercultural community, and they also seek the welfare of the city they are in. They are Sojourners. 

Forty years ago, we published the magazine out of a communal house near the seminary, and we kept the names and addresses of our subscribers on 3x5 index cards in a shoe box. Now we are a digital publishing effort on many platforms, reaching a quarter of a million people each week and, through the broader media, millions more. We have grown from a community to a network and a movement—online and face to face. We hope to become a fully engaged and interactive social media network and international community of perhaps “a million Christians for social justice,” the extended Sojourners community. Imagine that! Then help us create it. It’s been 40 wonderful years; now it’s on to the next 40.  

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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