A crucial spiritual task for our time is that of bringing together justice and contemplation, commitment to the poor and genuine worship of God, Few do it well. More often there is one-sidedness. Social justice circles are seldom known for their piety even as circles of piety rarely spend much of their fervour in the service of justice.
Fortunately, there are exceptions and, given their rarity today, they are truly prophetic and the rest of us should look to them for challenge. One such exception is, I submit, Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, an interdenominational community of Christians based in Washington, D.C. who have committed themselves, precisely, to bringing together real worship and real commitment to justice. Under that title, Sojourners, they publish a magazine dedicated to that ideal.
Recently I had the opportunity of visiting Sojourners community in Washington and of spending an evening talking with Jim Wallis. I had more questions than our time together allowed, though not more than he had patience for, so our conversation took many roads. In this brief space, I would like to share some of his thoughts on a couple of key questions:
1) Given that social justice is so non-negotiable within Christian spirituality, why are not more mainstream Christians more deeply taken up with it?
Wallis (in paraphrase rather than quote) … The major reason is simply the power and the addictive quality of the culture, the grip it can have on people’s lives. What results is not so much badness as simple moral blindness. So much of what’s wrong here is captured in the bumper sticker: I Shop, therefore, I am! or seen in what’s on MTV. Social justice is not so much rejected as it simply not thought about.
There are, admittedly, some problems with how social justice has been presented by its advocates. Some justice groups have not been sufficiently self-critical nor checked sufficiently strident voices within their own ranks. This has hurt. However, there are some salient exceptions, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, William Stringfellow, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr – and, modestly but honestly stated, Sojourners itself. Here one sees concern for self-criticism and for proper boundaries that keep the demand for justice a faith and gospel imperative, something rooted in Christ, and not simply an echo of secular liberal criticism.
2) A key component of Sojourners is Apostolic Community. From the 20 years you have struggled to build this kind of community among Sojourners, what perspectives would you want to share?
Wallis … Struggles in community are generally more an issue of fidelity to the center, Christ, than they are in proper definition. Defining community is not so much the issue, though many would disagree with this. It’s ironic that classical religious communities are looking to communities like Sojourners for help in direction when Sojourners itself is looking to them for guidance, especially in laying out the disciplines required to live apostolic community. Sojourners just recently, as a result of a long and painful process, came out with a faith statement, Our Life at the Foot of the Mountain, which defines how we understand ourselves as an apostolic community and how we see our specific charism. We are now working at developing a statement specifying the essential disciplines required for this.
Apostolic community doesn’t necessarily imply living under one roof. It does though imply what is essentially captured in the vows of classical religious communities, namely, poverty (simplicity of life and identity with the poor), chastity (properly committed sexuality, though not necessarily celibacy), obedience (real accountability to the gospel and to community) and perseverance (not necessarily understood as permanent membership in a given community but as permanent commitment to the ideals of apostolic community). Perseverance should also today include an element of stability, namely, the community itself should have a certain geographic commitment which it should consider a vowed trust. Sojourners is now attempting to network committed Christians all over North America (and elsewhere) into base communities along this ideal.
This year Sojourners is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Its ideals are captured in Wallis’ foundational book, The Call to Conversion, now itself 10 years old. To read (or re-read) that book is, today, to listen to a truly prophetic voice.