—Jim Wallis, Editor-in Chief
UPDATED: August 10, 2020
Dear Friends and Fellow Sojourners,
The posting of an article by Eric Martin, and my unprecedented decision to take it down as a feature on our website (though it remains in print), has generated understandable confusion, and in some cases, outrage on the part of many of our friends and readers. The first expression of hurt and outrage came from the original publication of the piece, and it was greater than anything I had experienced in our 49 years of publication. This came from many of our dearest, closest, and long-term progressive Catholic allies. This was followed, after the decision to take the article down (and without an adequate explanation), by a whole new wave of hurt and outrage, this time by other friends and readers (many of them also Catholics), who wondered what could have justified such an extraordinary action.
I deeply understand both reactions; I believe both are justified; and I hope to repair the damage that has occurred on both sides. This episode, perhaps the worst in Sojourners’ editorial history, has taken a deep toll on many, including some of our dearest friends and allies, our own editorial staff, and of course, on me too.
Nevertheless, one of the things that contributed to the doubts and accusations was the failure to provide an adequate explanation sooner. You might call this the “Editor’s Note” I should have written earlier. The delay in writing this, as we reflected on what to do and say, has only caused the confusion and hurt to fester. So that is yet another thing for which I apologize. Big mistake on my part.
While Catholic bishops have expressed deep concerns about the article, we also heard those same concerns from a range of other progressive national Catholic organizations who are trusted allies and friends. I made the very difficult decision to pull the article because I agreed with much of their critique and had my own deep concerns about the article, which I did not think could be rectified with a simple factual correction or two. Many Catholic friends and allies who have been in the forefront of efforts to advance a pro-justice and anti-racist agenda, in partnership with Sojourners, were hurt and felt betrayed. They felt that this article would jeopardize relationships of trust that have been built over a long time, and that this would harm our outreach to bishops and other church leaders who are now more ready than ever to take a bolder stand against racism. And I found myself agreeing with them. But then other friends and allies, some of them Catholic too, were very confused and angry at the article being taken down. And I found myself understanding them. Therefore, I have found myself to be in an absolutely untenable situation. So, let me try and offer some explanations for this most difficult and painful decision and will certainly understand if people disagree. That we can all make mistakes has been made very clear from this heartbreaking situation, and mine are foremost for me now, certainly in failing to figure out how to foster much better communication all around.
I have already apologized personally and publicly to the author, Eric Martin, for any harm this has done him. None of this was his fault. As I noted in my earlier explanation, part of the initial problem was a consequence of our remote working conditions under COVID19. This was a factor in my not having seen the original article before its publication, when our standard editorial process could have allowed for substantial revision with the author beforehand—or a decision not to publish. We are all deeply sorry this didn’t occur; but that is also very understandable in the inadequate, complicated, and difficult situation we are all in with this unusual remote moment which is now much more than a moment. Mistakes are made and I have already admitted many of mine in the ways this has all been handled. Nevertheless, as President and Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners, I have tried to take personal responsibility for the decision to take the article down--which I, and others I deeply trust, believed to be the right decision, along with responsibility for posting the initial short explanation and the subsequent longer one--both of which clearly proved to be totally inadequate.
Regardless of anyone’s position on this episode—including the author, the editorial staff, those who were very disturbed by the original article, and those very disturbed by the decision to take it down—I take it for granted that all of us share a commitment to combatting the evil of racism and the original sin of white supremacy, and a determination to unmask and resist every instance in which it hides under the cover of religion. This has been central to the mission of Sojourners for almost fifty years, and it has been one of the driving motives of my entire life and ministry. That is why it has been particularly painful to hear from readers or contributors to Sojourners who have doubted this commitment; or failed to give us the benefit of the doubt.
I was reluctant at first to go deeply into the problems with the article, because I didn’t want to shift the blame to the author, and away from our own flawed editorial process. Nevertheless, in light of the hurt and confusion that has ensued, it is clearly important to elaborate on this situation, with hopes that this will help us move forward constructively with the important work at hand: particularly, the task of raising the subject of racism and white supremacy as the primary faith issue of this election season and beyond.
Eric Martin was invited to write a piece exploring the dangerous growth of white supremacy under Donald Trump and those forms of it that appeal to the distortion and abuse of religion, in particular, by false appeal to the language of Catholic faith--as Sojourners has done before with white evangelicals and other forms of white Christian faith. A problem with the article as published was not that it raised critical points about the Catholic bishops, but that this was done in a misleading and inflammatory way.
The opening of the article referred to the fact that in approving their 2018 post-Charlottesville letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the bishops chose not to “condemn” the hate symbols of nooses, swastikas, and Confederate flags. In fact, the letter did cite nooses and swastikas as symbols of hate, though it is true that it omitted reference to Confederate flags. (Needless to say, Sojourners has consistently called for the removal of all Confederate flags and monuments, long before the murder of George Floyd or Charlottesville, and I would have admired the bishops if they too had taken that position before it became as popular and widespread as it is today.) But even while failing to “condemn” these symbols and not citing the Confederate flag, it was certainly clear that the bishops were not ignoring, accepting, or endorsing any of them.
Some readers have assumed that this was the problem that caused us concern—a relatively small point that could have been clarified with editing. Many have also assumed the problem came from Eric’s criticism of the bishops, and they have noted that his point about the missing condemnation was based on published facts.
The problem, however, was that this point became the whole foundation of the article, suggesting that in their failure to condemn these symbols of hate, the bishops were quietly encouraging Catholic neo-Nazis and the Klan and thus “harboring a culture of hate.” This argument ran throughout the article, suggesting that the problem of racism “starts at the top” of the Catholic Church, and is then translated into its most virulent forms on the street. By not “condemning” these symbols of hate, according to the article, the bishops gave white supremacists “space to embrace their anti-Black and anti-Semitic work free of religious dissonance.”
Thus, throughout the article, the entire thrust of the bishops’ letter was reduced to one particular case of what it did not do—without giving any credit to the actual theme of the pastoral letter which was: to address the “particularly destructive and persistent form of evil”—racism—that “infects our nation.”
In light of the argument that the bishops were allowing space for neo-Nazis to work “free of religious dissonance,” surely it would have been relevant to mention that the bishops state explicitly in their letter: “Therefore, we affirm that participating in or fostering organizations that are built on racist ideology (for instance, neo-Nazi movements and the Ku Klux Klan) is also sinful—they corrupt individuals and corrode communities. None of these organizations have a place in a just society.”
The omission of this explicit condemnation of such groups, in an article suggesting that the bishops are offering a kind of safe harbor for neo-Nazis and the Klan, is an example of what I meant, in my earlier statements, when I said the article had fallen short “of our standards of accuracy and fairness, tone and style, balance and perspective.”
This is not to say that the bishops’ letter is beyond reproach. In other contexts, Eric Martin has himself provided a nuanced critique of this letter’s limitations. Many other Catholic critics, white and Black, have done the same. But this article provided insufficient perspective or engagement with that subject, and simply left hanging the impression that the bishops, by seeming to condemn racism in their letter, were actually signaling some kind of covert encouragement to racists and anti-Semites.
The article goes on to raise important questions about what makes it possible for exponents of white supremacy (whether in the Klan, or in the more “polite” forms represented by the MAGA wave) to find a comfortable haven among Catholics (as well as the wider world of white Christianity). Those are vital questions. That might involve, for instance, the critical question of how it is that sincere (even if subject to criticism) official condemnations of racism, such as the bishops’ 2018 letter, fail to have a greater impact on people in the pews. That is a question that calls for exploration. The same could be said of other powerful documents issued by the Vatican and Pope Francis. But the article went no further with this question than to focus on the one missing condemnation in a letter from two years ago.
This is only a brief explanation of the problems I and others found in the article. What followed was not, as some have understandably assumed, just “pushback” from the Catholic bishops (or “wealthy donors”), but a painful and angry outcry from Catholic friends and allies who have been in the forefront of efforts, in partnership with Sojourners, to advance a pro-justice and anti-racist agenda. They were hurt. They felt betrayed. They felt that this article would jeopardize relationships of trust that have been built over a long time, and that this would harm our outreach to bishops and other church leaders who are now more ready than ever to take a stand. And I found myself agreeing with them.
Here, too, one must observe the hazard in making generalizations about “the bishops.” In this era of Pope Francis, it is clear that there are bishops—some more than others--who have identified strongly with his initiatives, including the priority of the poor, concern for the environment, solidarity with migrants and refugees, opposition to the death penalty, commitment to social justice, and yes, strong support for the struggle against racism and white supremacy. Though readers of the article would not realize it, all of the bishops signed on to their letter denouncing the evil of racism. The real challenge remains movement beyond such official statements or pastoral letters toward effective witness that translates into the pews and beyond.
We acknowledge and support the example of our own local Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who powerfully denounced the opportunity afforded Trump by the Knights of Columbus to use the John Paul II Shrine for a photo-op in the midst of his crackdown on the Black Lives Matters protests in D.C. We acknowledge the strong words of Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, KY, who challenged Trump’s claim to the mantle of being “pro-life” while so many of his policies, including his appeal to white supremacy, are opposed to the culture of life. We could cite other examples. And we long to see more.
Sojourners has never shrunk from “speaking truth to power,” but when we do so we have to be sure that what we are speaking is the “truth,” and not facts or insinuations mobilized to score points or win an argument. Sojourners has never ducked the prophetic calling; but being prophetic is not just about being “right” and denouncing those with whom we disagree. It is also about illuminating our moment so that we can all see and act better.
Let me be clear, I don’t and won’t ask everyone to agree with my handling of this situation. Nevertheless, I would hope that those who are familiar with the work of Sojourners, and my own history, will find a way that we can all learn from this episode, and proceed more effectively with the urgent work before us. Perhaps this painful episode can be a “teachable moment” for us all.
I do believe there is a basis for hope that the deeper awakening on race, especially for white people, prompted by George Floyd’s death, and the subsequent protests, have created a new Kairos moment. When NASCAR and the State of Mississippi have taken a stand against the Confederate flag, we are clearly in a different moment than even two or three years ago, and the challenge is to respond to this moment, and seize the opportunities that arise.
I apologize again to Eric Martin, a fine scholar and risk-taking activist; to members of my own Sojourners staff, especially those who disagreed with my handling of this situation; and to friends and readers of Sojourners who have been hurt or perplexed by this whole situation.
I hope we may all learn from this, and find, in our disagreements, an opportunity for what Dorothy Day would call “clarification of thought.” To that I add a prayer for clarification of hearts. I hope we may all forgive each other for all of our less than perfect work; and all get moving on better work. As the words attributed to Samuel Becket go, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
UPDATED July 31, 2020
Based on further conversations and reflection, as Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners, I feel it is important to clarify a very unfortunate situation regarding an article published in Sojourners and the decision to take it down. In this case a breakdown occurred in the final step of our editorial process, caused in part by this time of COVID-initiated remote work, in which the Editor-in-Chief reviews the final copy of the magazine before publication and which, in this case, was never sent to me. That is not the author’s fault but ours and mine, and I apologize to the author for any harm this has caused.
I read this article after it had been published, and in further conversation with some of our team and many of our longtime and trusted friends including within the Catholic community, I made the difficult decision to have it taken down-- something which would only happen in an extraordinary circumstance. While our editors preferred to pursue our normal practice of reviewing the critiques and issuing any corrections to the article that might be necessary, I ultimately felt that the factual accuracy, tone, and implication of the article as a whole failed to meet our journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness, and balance and required a more urgent response from Sojourners.
The decision to take down the article has also received a deep and passionate response and I deeply understand and respect those concerns too, especially in a time like this when the need to confront white supremacy and nationalism is in the center of our minds and hearts.
The decision to take down the article was a difficult one but was based on the implication throughout the article that leadership within the Catholic Church has failed to address or even been complicit in its handling of Catholic-identifying white nationalist and supremacist individuals and groups.
The article began with a claim that a bishops pastoral letter on racism was silent on 'three famously extreme symbols of racism' (nooses, swastikas, and the Confederate flag). The letter in question does in fact name nooses and swastikas as a 'tragic indicator of rising racial and ethnic animus,' though the article says the bishops voted not to condemn them all. The Confederate flag is not named in the letter.
This factual error was then used as a key example to link failures in leadership of the Church to the growth of white nationalist and supremacists groups with ties and connections to Catholicism. This was a theme that would be returned to throughout the article and ultimately I felt that the broader theme of the article would not be corrected by a simple factual correction.
This was a difficult decision because I agree with large portions of this article especially where, and as it sought to call out, those who would seek to use Catholic theology and teaching to justify their white nationalist and white supremacist beliefs and actions. However, the article too closely linked the words, actions, and ideologies of individuals and groups to the leadership of the Catholic Church.
All institutions, including the Catholic Church, need to continually acknowledge and address their roles and responsibility as it relates to issues of racial justice. This article failed to place in context the ongoing work of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church to address these issues which would have led to a fuller and more comprehensive understanding of the work being done by leadership within the church. We also know and believe that the Catholic Church, as with all institutions, including our own, has more work to do to address these issues.
We have been in conversation with the author of this piece. I told him how much we respect him and his scholarship, and that we would like to work with him further on these important themes in publishing future articles by him that properly go through our normal editorial processes. We are grateful for his writing, insight, and relationship.
We apologize to all those who feel unjustifiably attacked including our Catholic friends, the author, our editors who worked on the article, and our readers. As an organization and publication, we remain committed to journalistic excellence and integrity. Given the damage done in this situation, I take personal responsibility as Editor-in-Chief for not realizing and correcting the oversight in our process.
Sojourners remains committed to confronting white supremacy and white nationalism—unremittingly--and the errors in our internal processes in publishing this piece grieve us even more given the clear intent of the author and our staff. We have and will continue to learn from this as we seek to restore trust and become an even better publication and organization in our practices and processes.
— Jim Wallis, Editor-in-Chief
Sojourners has removed this article from our website. It was offensive and should not have been published. We are sorry and are looking into our internal processes. This article did not meet our editorial standards for accuracy, fairness, and balance. White supremacy and alt-right factions are insidious realities of the American society and indeed have manifestations in all our communities of faith. But this article made unwarranted insinuations and allegations against many Catholics, many in leadership, including the bishops, and within the wider Catholic Church who are working toward and are committed to racial justice. We are sorry for harm this article has caused in those efforts and we will work to repair the damage.
— Jim Wallis, Editor-in-Chief