WE'VE BEEN TOLD we don’t look a day over 39! Okay, old joke. But we’re acutely aware of the slightly awkward irony of an intentionally countercultural—and counterinstitutional—movement, formed in the ragtag, “don’t trust anyone over 30” culture of the early 1970s, turning 50 years old. Like the Rolling Stones, we’re still hard at it, as we mark five decades since the beginnings of Sojourners. While we’re more structured and stable than back in the early days of the so-called People’s Christian Coalition (which, not surprisingly, published many raised fists in our first few issues), we’re still doing our best to speak truth to power, afflict the comfortable, and all that. Our outward appearance may have evolved over the years, but our mission—our first principles—are unchanged from day one.
The photos below focus on the people who launched The Post-American in 1971 and helped it to thrive and grow after our 1976 move to Washington, D.C., where it became Sojourners magazine. The publication was started by students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., north of Chicago—students who were convinced that much of the church, and the evangelical part of it in particular, was wrong in its support of the Vietnam War, wrong in its approach to racism and racial justice, and at best inadequate in its awareness that the gospel calls disciples of Jesus Christ to be agents of change in our fallen world.
As you’ll see in these photos, community, worship, and public actions for social justice were all part of the job description for those who put out the magazine—there was little separation between magazine work and our socially engaged life together in Christian community. After 50 years, we’re still strong believers in an integrated life of faith and social justice, and we try to tell that story in every issue of Sojourners. We hope you enjoy this look back at our earliest roots.
AS I SAY farewell to Sojourners, one word comes most to mind: gratitude. I feel deeply grateful for the past and very excited about the future. The love of my life and my vocation for more than 50 years has been centered on two other words: faith and justice. Therefore, it is a great joy—a dream, really—to take this big step into the next chapter of my life and vocation and be wonderfully invited into two new roles focused on both of those core words.
I have accepted an invitation from Georgetown University to become the inaugural Chair in Faith and Justice at the McCourt School of Public Policy and the founding director of the new Center on Faith and Justice. In these new positions, I will be able to focus on the things I most love: teaching and mentoring, writing and speaking, offering media commentary, convening and strategizing with both faith and political leaders across the theological and ideological spectrums, engaging in outreach to both policy makers and local practitioners, helping to change the narrative of faith and politics, and
being an advocate for justice—all because of my faith. It is an incredible gift.
As I leave Sojourners, I am saying farewell to the faith and life school that I helped to start. But I will never leave it behind; I will always support Sojourners and I will continue to be shaped for the rest of my life by its mission.
THE NIGHT ED SPIVEY JR. first came to our Sojourners community house in Chicago, he made me laugh. He still does, more than anybody else I have ever known. But it was also evident how serious he was about his faith and its meaning for his life. Ed was raised as a Southern Baptist, and he told us a funny story of how his Baptist pastor in Chicago wanted his congregants to wear a button to work that said, “I’m Excited!” When people ask why, you were supposed to say, “I’m excited about Jesus.” But Ed was in his first job after college—as art director of the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday magazine, where he was the youngest hire in the newsroom—and he was reluctant, to say the least. While he found the button idea tacky, it was clear that he was excited about following Jesus wherever that road would lead.
That’s what we talked about at our first dinner together. Some of us were still seminary students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and we had just started a new publication called The Post-American, forerunner to Sojourners. None of us had ever done a publication before, or much writing beyond leaflets and school papers. Our art director was both temporary and part-time, and we would often wait weeks before our articles were laid out for printing. It took us by surprise when, at that first dinner, Ed said that he felt a strong calling from God to join us. “I am ready to quit my job at the Sun-Times, move in with all of you, and give my life to this.” Ed’s announcement called to mind the scripture we were then reading about how the earliest disciples acted when they heard a call from Jesus.
IN JANUARY, Sojourners entered its 50th year—a half-century of working to inspire hope by articulating the biblical call to social justice and a vision of the “beloved community.” When I began reflecting on that impending anniversary several years ago, my first thought was: “I don’t want to go back to my desk the morning after that celebration.” I also knew that I wanted Sojourners to go on long beyond the founder, and that we would need a new generation of leadership to take Sojourners into the next 50 years. When I began to think about a successor, one name kept coming to mind: Adam Russell Taylor. I met Adam 20 years ago when he was a student in my first class on faith and politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Adam has been involved with Sojourners for the past 20 of our 50 years. His personal story, scholarship, breadth of experience, vision, sense of vocation, and ordination in the Black church all uniquely prepare him to lead Sojourners as its first African American president. This transition has been in the works since 2016, when the board and I first selected Adam to be my successor. It’s been an amazing journey, and I’m so grateful that Adam is coming home, am very committed to his success, and I look forward to our continuing collaboration in the years ahead.
Still as founder, and now also ambassador, I will continue to write for Sojourners, record my Soul of the Nation podcast, expand my speaking engagements, offer strategic advice to Sojourners and others, and stay centrally involved with some key parts of our work—such as the convening of faith leaders in coalitions such as the Circle of Protection and the Faith Table and projects such as Lawyers and Collars in our partnership with the National African American Clergy Network.
We’ve experienced a season of transitions here in the nation’s capital. Coinciding with the onset of a new political administration, at Sojourners we’ve also been going through a significant passing of the torch. Adam Russell Taylor has taken up the mantle as new president of the organization, as part of a multiyear succession process. Outgoing president and cofounder Jim Wallis will continue to work with Sojourners in a variety of capacities and starting this fall will also have a new full-time faculty position and found a new center at Georgetown University on faith, public life, and the common good.
OUR AUGUST 2020 article “Harboring a Culture of Hate,” by Catholic scholar-activist Eric Martin, contended that since the U.S. Catholic bishops did not explicitly condemn the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate—the bishops’ committee said “some still claim it as a sign of heritage”—some Catholics believe it is acceptable to be both Catholic and a member of white supremacist movements. Some Catholic officials and laypeople called the article misleading, saying it unfairly downplayed the institutional church’s other important anti-racist work, and Sojourners’ president Jim Wallis, who was then also editor-in-chief of our publications, decided to remove the article from our website.
Two weeks later, after some of the most intense and voluminous reaction in our publishing history, we issued a correction and reposted the article—and we’ve made some significant structural changes as well, instituting new policies that establish editorial independence from our organizing work (our new editor-in-chief Sandi Villarreal explains the importance of editorial independence). We’ve received hundreds of responses from our readers—including ordained and lay Catholic leaders, journalists, scholars, and activists—a sampling of which is below. As always, we appreciate your honest and passionate engagement, and we promise to keep listening.
Autocrats and strongmen all over the world attack the free press and the idea of objective truth because they want you only to be able to listen to their truth. As Trump always puts it, “Believe me.” It's a way of governing that holds people captive because they depend on the strongman to tell them what the truth is. So when you take away the truth, you are purposely trying to take away people’s freedom.
I found some fundamental questions Jesus asked or were prompted in others by the things he said and did — eight Jesus questions — that resonate as so completely relevant to the time we are in. A crisis is both a danger and an opportunity, a great danger to marginalized people who have been put in such risk, but also an opportunity for all of us to re-discover Jesus — to reclaim Jesus, to go back to him. That’s why I wrote this book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus, to lift up these core Jesus questions, which are both so timely and yet so timeless. I knew the book would likely be timely when it came out this fall; but couldn’t have imagined how dramatic that timing would be.
And yet, it’s undeniable that the election of Donald Trump and the presidency that has followed — and the Christian response to all of it — have revealed how disconnected many American Christians have become from Jesus. In particular, the uncritical support Trump enjoys from many white evangelicals in the religious right, and the Faustian bargain they have made for power, are turning many Americans (and others) away from Christianity altogether.
The current divided government that we see in the U.S. as a result of the 2018 midterm elections has made it markedly more difficult for the president to advance his agenda through new laws and decisions on Congress. Given the contempt he and so many of his supporters have shown towards so many groups of vulnerable people, the new obstructions to Trump’s agenda in the Congress is more than welcome. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s response to having its legislative agenda stymied has largely been a shift to unilateral executive actions on the administrative and regulatory front rather than any reconsidering of the wisdom or morality of visiting harm on society’s most vulnerable.
Anti-Christ is a very big word, very evocative of our deepest spiritual realties and feelings, and is seldom invoked without controversy. It’s been abused by those promoting bad “end times” and “left behind” theology. But it’s also a profoundly biblical concept, one we must take as seriously in our day as Jesus did in his. Jesus warned his followers to be on the lookout for “pseudo-christs,” those that claimed his name but were far from the true heart of God, and said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
As a result of the political, religious, and moral crises we face today, both the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake. This crisis is fundamentally about our chance and our choice of whether those who call themselves Christians are ready to go back to the teachings of Jesus, and whether such a call might be taken up by others beyond the churches. Many of us share a deep hunger for reclaiming Jesus instead of falling into more political polarization — we want theology to trump politics.
The crowded opening reception featured keynote remarks by Mark S. Massa, S.J., and Rev. Gardiner Shattuck about the story’s key figures, Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest, and William Stringfellow, a civil rights lawyer and lay Protestant theologian.
If we hear silence from white people of faith, we are in deep spiritual trouble. Christian moral objection to the president’s racist language must grow every day and from many quarters, but so farno word at all from the president’s most prominent evangelical supporters. Those Trump supporters have other issues and moral concerns, including differences with Democrats on abortion (as others of us do too); but will they call out the President on racism? That has now become an urgent moral and theological test.
Our faith is offended by these assaults that contradict the biblical commands to love and protect our neighbors. Our conscience is seared by the lies and strategies of hateful politics that will lead to more and more violence in this country and put the soul of our nation in jeopardy. Words matter and hateful words do lead to violence. Our commitment to our brothers and sisters under attack will lead us to pray, stand, act, and vote against the politics of fear and hate, because of our faith and patriotism.
The revelations at the end of the summer from journalist Bob Woodward and from the anonymous administration official writing in The New York Times provided more evidence, as if more were needed, of the unhinged, immoral, chaotic, and deeply corrupt nature of the president and his administration. They also underscored the absolute necessity of creating and bolstering whatever checks and balances are possible to this administration’s power—not merely because of political exigency, which is dire enough to fairly name it as a constitutional crisis, but because the integrity of our faith is at stake as well.
While I’m convinced that the very soul of our nation is under threat by this administration and its actions, it’s not just policy or even character issues per se that have brought us to this point—as important as they are. Those issues include racial bigotry that overtly denies the image of God in all people; the denial and destruction of truth itself; a reversal of Jesus’ leadership values of service over domination; our unity in Christ as opposed to oppression based on race, gender, and class; whether we put “America first” or affirm the global character of our faith and relationships; and the real danger of growing autocracy and authoritarian rule over our democracy.
The moral corruption of this administration is staggering and presents increasing danger to the health of our society and the institutional balances of our republic. On top of all that, because of the Faustian bargain he has made with many white evangelicals, the Trump era has also created a defining moment for people of faith, not only a constitutional crisis but also a crisis of conscience. For Christians, that raises the stakes even beyond what they would be if this were “only” about a political catastrophe.
A photo essay from the Reclaiming Jesus Service and Candlelight Vigil to the White House.
EARLIER THIS YEAR I heard Rev. William Barber of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina use the phrase “Mr. James Crow, Esq.”
Since hearing the phrase, I have been reflecting on the revised and updated name for Jim Crow, the comprehensive and brutal system of racial segregation, discrimination, and terrorist violence against black lives and bodies—explicit in the U.S. South, and often implicit in the North, throughout the 20th century.
I have been thinking about this new and more-sophisticated Mr. James Crow, wearing a white shirt and a tie instead of a white sheet and a hood and inhabiting the back rooms in state legislatures and corporate offices instead of rural backwoods lynching sites.
I’ve also been thinking about Mr. Crow’s strategy for the 2016 election and the years ahead.
Mr. James Crow’s biggest concern now is the transformational demographic shifts occurring in the United States, which by 2040 or so will see a significant milestone: For the first time, the U.S. will no longer be a white-majority nation and, instead, will be made up of a majority of minorities. That’s one of the most important facts in American political life today. This fundamental demographic shift in racial and cultural identity is underneath almost everything in U.S. politics—including the presidential election.
So with a suit instead of a sheet, how does Mr. James Crow, Esq., enact his strategy? And what are the servants of Mr. Crow saying to one another?
THIS NEW VERSION of Jim Crow has a clear, systematic strategy to protect white supremacy and promote racial segregation, discrimination, and even violence. He knows that even he, with all his power, can’t prevent the racial demographics of America from evolving. But he thinks he can obstruct and delay the changes that new racial demographics will bring to American life and politics. In apartheid South Africa, we saw that even when a racial group is in the minority, it can wield the power to oppress other races and protect its own supremacy.
Mr. James Crow’s five-part strategy includes: