A Clarion of Justice

1965 was a stirring year for social change.

1965 was a stirring year for social change. The power of the civil rights movement was at its height, and the hope and threat of social change (depending on where you sat) was riding high. It penetrated unlikely lives - including a retired fundamentalist white missionary couple in the tiny town of Savannah, Ohio. The first issue of Freedom Now, the magazine that would become The Other Side, rolled off a secondhand press in Anne and Fred Alexander’s basement that year.

Three months ago, on the brink of its 40-year anniversary, The Other Side magazine ceased publication. In between those bookends a remarkable legacy was created.

Behind the Alexanders’ homegrown effort was the stalwart belief that if white Christians were told the truth about racism, they would repent and change their ways. Instead, the couple’s work became largely irrelevant to their targeted constituency (fundamentalist white Baptist Christians), but it was embraced by a new generation of radical young evangelicals who learned of the magazine through John, the Alexanders’ son, then at Wheaton College. A few years later, a group of impassioned young seminary students in Chicago would crank out their first issue of the Post-American, a modest publication that would become Sojourners.

What these diverse voices raised, like a clarion call, was the realization that the reign of God broke down divisions. Whether those divisions were racial or economic, national or international, based on gender, or patriarchy, or class, Christians were to understand them and tear them down. The Other Side took its name from the idea that it wanted to share the voices of "the other America" - the America that did not make the glossy magazine pages, the news stories, or the television screen.

When The Other Side was launched, the nation was barely a decade past Brown vs. Board of Education. It had never before grappled with the deep effects of racism, and it would be years before many of us realized how deeply racism and segregation distorted human relationship over generations.

This was also true of the other issues The Other Side gradually took on as it broadened its content to address economic justice, peace issues, women’s roles in society and the church, torture, food systems, native American issues, violence, prisons, the environment, nationalism, and heterosexism. The structural evils the magazine tackled grew, each with complex layers.

Fred and Anne Alexander were part of the stream of "social gospel" flowing through U.S. history. But in many ways, the fact that they were probably oblivious to its existence is even more hopeful. That their own study of scripture and life experiences enabled them to break through such powerful cultural norms and narrow theological orthodoxies is powerful testimony to the revelation of the Spirit.

Forty years later, it is safe to say that this alternative stream of Christian witness, including these fledgling voices and so many more, transformed the face of Christianity in the United States. Historically, this is a culture that was prone to read scripture and understand faith testimony in extremely individualistic and pious ways. The Christian witnesses of dissent in that era changed that forever. The contemporary "culture wars" would not exist had the conversation in the church not been dramatically altered by these prophetic voices.

ONE OF THE hallmarks of The Other Side was that it held to the need for deep personal faith and morality even as it called for widespread social change. It called for both personal and social morality. Blending these two made it a bit of a maverick.

Because The Other Side was ecumenical, over time it drew on the strengths of a number of traditions. From the Baptists and evangelicals, it took a seriousness for grappling with scripture and an emphasis on conversion. From the Anabaptists, it drew the importance of lifestyle as a vehicle for Christian witness and the conviction that peacemaking was at the core of Jesus’ message. From mainline Protestants, it emphasized the social gospel, and from the Catholic tradition, it built on acts of mercy, attention to spirituality, and a sense of the liturgical seasons in our lives. It was inspired by liberation theology movements and pentecostal movements alike.

The mixture was such that almost any reader would get buttons pushed—and fairly often. And that, after all, was the point.

A second hallmark was its commitment to human creativity as an expression of God among us. This was most evident in the way it celebrated contemporary art on its own terms, accompanying articles rather than illustrating them. Art was a statement of faith and human resistance to injustice; an essential, not a luxury.

The magazine attempted, in different experiments, to build an alternative organization that matched its public commitments. For almost all of its history, salaries were rooted in a kind of economic sharing where every staff member got the same basic salary and families with dependents could request an additional stipend. Salaries were well below market as both a reflection of the magazine’s always tenuous financial health and a recognition of a world filled with poverty. A staff sharing program contributed thousands of dollars to other struggling organizations. There were specific disciplines to build a strong work community and to run a "green" office. Flying as they did in the face of standard business practice, some of these commitments did not make life easy.

Maybe the big miracle is that it lasted at all. As an early staff member commented: "When we started that little publication, we never imagined it would continue 40 years. And it has always been costly in love and commitment. But every issue I received over the years has stayed true to that original vision, that search for what we used to call ‘justice rooted in discipleship.’"

ULTIMATELY, A COMBINATION of severe financial problems, the challenges facing all small, independent presses, and organizational tensions led The Other Side’s board to cease publication. For most of us, readers, staff, and supporters, the unexpected loss is wrenchingly sad. Months later, I still often catch myself in tears.

But at some point we must move from grief to celebrating the life that was. The magazine was a vessel. Over the years, the organization behind it had also launched other ministries. Jubilee Crafts was one of the very first nonprofits to push fair trade. The Jubilee Fund heightened people’s understanding of international justice and empowerment. The Alternative Seminary was a local manifestation of alternative scripture study. Some were laid down; others continue independently.

It is important to remember that none of these varied efforts are the vision to which we are called. If anything, they are merely harbingers. They beckon, asking that we lift our eyes to the horizon and attend. They demand that we wait for the vision that, in the words of the prophet Habakkuk, "is surely coming, and will not delay" (2:3). That vision is coming in the ways Jesus promises us - stealthily as a thief in the night, precious as a pearl, irrepressible as a mustard seed.

Look! It is already being lived out among us.

Dee Dee Risher joined the staff of The Other Side in 1987. She was editor at the time the magazine ceased publication.

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