The Common Good

Poorer, Poorer. Slower, Slower. Smaller, Smaller.

Sojomail - February 16, 2012


"The Holocaust shows not only how low humanity can go, but also how high it can go. Someone in a camp who shares his last bread with a friend sheds new light on the word friendship." - Dorit Novak, director of the Yad Vashem Memorial and Museum’s International School for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem. (Source: New York Times)

+ Sign up to receive "Verse and Voice" - our daily quote and Bible verse e-mail


Poorer, Poorer. Slower, Slower. Smaller, Smaller.

Get a free trial issue of Sojourners Get a free issue of Sojourners
Donate to Support Sojourners
Donate to support

"Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success."
 - Thomas Merton

As my extended family gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table before the market crash in 2008, conversation with cousins flowed about friends making big money with technology start-ups: "more, more; faster, faster; bigger, bigger."

A hail of laughter greeted me when I quietly muttered that my ambition was, "poorer, poorer; slower, slower; smaller, smaller."

When Sojourners started in 1970, I was 23 years old. Seven young seminary students pooled $100 each and used an old typesetter that we rented for $25 a night above a noisy bar to print 20,000 copies of the first Post-American.

We took the bundles in our trucks and cars to student unions in college campuses across the country, and began collecting subscriptions in a shoebox kept in one of our rooms.

For more than a decade we lived with a common economic pot and allowed ourselves $5 a month for personal spending. The highest-paid staff person was a young woman from a neighborhood family who wanted an evening cleaning job.

We worshiped together twice a week and opened our homes to our neighbors. When our first son was born, we brought him home to a row house in Columbia Heights where we were living with 18 other people – including an African-American family and a Lakota couple with some of their extended family from the reservation in South Dakota.

You had to be a bit crazy to be in the early community. And yes, we were poor. And we were small.

We tried to slow down. I tacked to my office door Thomas Merton’s warning to social activists about the violence of overwork:

"To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects ... is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism ... kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

To stay alive, we needed prophet, pastor, and monk.

On our best days these three energies were at least on speaking terms with each other. But like every other community that I know, most of the time we majored in one, minored in a second, and had a hard time with the third.

For us, the outer journey of prophetic ministry was our major. The journey together in community was our minor. And the inner journey was our blind spot. We did not know how to be silent, or still, or slow. And so, like most young communities, we often could not see our own inner contradictions and arrogance, our own excesses and extremes.

Now, 40 years later, Sojourners has grown up. We are not poor, or small, or slow. We have a large budget with many full time staff. For better or worse, Sojourners has become an "institution" with the necessities of policies, procedures, protocols, precedents, and concerns about hiring and firing, supervision and management, promotions and salaries, lawsuits and litigation.

Some might say Sojourners is now a "success." We certainly have a bigger public microphone than we did in the past, and the message of faith-in-action that we have been pushing for 40 years seems to be taking root.

It all boils down to this: Poorer, slower, smaller may be necessary for the inner journey, but it is not a very good business plan.

In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr talks about the journey of descent that characterizes “second-half-of-life” spirituality. He reminds us that institutions by nature are "first-half-of-life structures" that "must and will be concerned with identity, boundaries, self-maintenance, self-perpetuation and self-congratulation." He goes on to caution against false expectations:

"Don’t expect or demand from groups what they usually cannot give. Doing so will make you needlessly angry and reactionary."

In Bill Plotkin’s model of the eight stages of human development in Nature and the Human Soul, institutions can, at most, be stage four, which in his view is still an adolescent level. In his opinion, only 15 percent of Americans have crossed into mature, initiated adulthood, and in general we are stuck in a pathological-adolescent culture that lacks the wisdom of initiated men and women elders.

An institution’s job is to encase the renewal insight in a preserving shell that can carry the renewal seed to a future generation — and not to die to their organizational identity, which is required to begin Plotkin's stage five.

If we are lucky, we outgrow the organizations that we ourselves give birth to and become "joyfully disillusioned" with the very institutions that we help to create. And if we are wise, some of us will grow by staying within the very organizations that we ourselves have outgrown.

The tension of this seeming contradiction is the transformational stew of new possibilities, both for the individual who stays and for the organization. We should not expect the institution to be more that it can be.

In some ways we no longer "believe" in the organization, but we do pin our hopes to the renewal energy that birthed it, and keep letting that spirit renew us. Then we can stand in the midst of organizational disappointments and betrayals, of silliness and pettiness. Broken dreams and relationships do not need to destroy us. Instead, with consciously applied inner work, they can become small doors that lead to greater wholeness.

It takes a contemplative mind to see one’s own inner contradictions, the failures and inherent betrayals within our own lives and the institutions that we help to create. Those who take this journey of descent into their own sacred wound understand that what is flawed in them is somehow intimately connected to the unique gift that they have to offer to a broken world.

Shadow work becomes a necessary spiritual discipline. Seeing in themselves what they dislike in the other, they learn to be gentle and kind.

They delight in vulnerability and weakness, and believe that the wisdom that comes from their mistakes and failures is worth passing on to younger communities and movements.

Bob Sabath is Director of Web and Digital Technology and one of the founders of Sojourners. He now lives with his wife Jackie at the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community in West Virginia, where he offers spiritual direction and wilderness retreats. He delights in teaching his grandchildren to introduce him as: “my grandpa: he can do everything – except the one thing necessary.” Bob wants everyone to know that he is still a mess, but at least he knows it.

Editor’s Note: These reflections were birthed by a three-day desert journey in Arizona where Bob lived with Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “The Man Watching.” You can read the poem and listen to his son Peter’s musical rendition HERE.

Further Resources:

E-mailE-mail this article to friends
FacebookShare this article on Facebook
CommentComment on this article on the God's Politics Blog


+ See what's new on the blog of Jim Wallis and friends

'This is the Life': The Lost Episode
by Caroline Langston

When I was growing up, my family did not, with any regularity, go to church. That's a common story these days, but it was downright odd when I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s. "What church do you go to?" was an obvious and inevitable question, and whatever answer you provided was as encoded with advance meaning as the very color of your skin.
+ Click to continue

The Lin-carnation of Tim Tebow?
by Joshua Witchger

Here we have two athletes actively engaged in a faith community and unafraid to share that part of themselves with the public. But Lin's fellow congregants are taking his fame in a way that differs from Tebow's faithful fans. In that same New York Times piece, one 30-year-old man from The River points to his infant child and says, "I think for [my child] seeing [Lin] play will be different from me growing up and not seeing anybody that looked like me play."
+ Click to continue

Chocolate in the Baptismal Font: Things that Happen When Women Are Ordained
by Cathleen Falsani

While I'm fairly certain Martin Luther was not referring either to women priests nor chocolate fountains when he famously entreated his nervous friend Philip Melanchthon to loosen up a bit, I believe his words are apropos to this would-be doctrinal donnybrook: If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy.
+ Click to continue

The War on Religion is Bad for Religion
by Tim King

The careless use of the word "war" has set up enemy versus enemy in a battle to the death when there could be allies (even if tenuous ones) working towards a compromise. Instead, we have taken our eyes off of other pressing issues of religious liberty and done a disservice to the true definition of religion at the same time.
+ Click to continue

Sermon on Jesus’ Dream Team: Rank Fishermen, Demoniacs and Sick Old Ladies
by Nadia Bolz-Weber

This is why the next part of the text is so great. It says that evening they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. The next verse literally says this: the whole city was gathered around the door. There is no separate category of people called the sick and possessed. Jesus knew this. Some people just hide their sickness more than others and as human beings we prefer to have certain people be the identified problems so that we can look healthy or sane or good. But Jesus shook that etch a sketch.
+ Click to continue


+ Sign up to receive our "Daily Digest" e-mail - the latest headlines on critical issues

Top Stories:

Iowans Sign Pledge Not to Abuse Faith During Political Campaigns
The Des Moines Register
Twenty-three Iowans are among more than 1,000 religious people nationwide who have signed a “Faith and Election pledge,” which says they won’t abuse faith this election season. The pledge was developed in the wake of attacks on former Massaschusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and the recent condemnation of President Barack Obama for quoting scripture at the National Prayer Breakfast, organizers said. The pledge is sponsored by Sojourners, based in Washington, D.C., which is a national network of Christians concerned about social justice issues.

Analysis: Obama Contraceptive Mandate Has a Price
The Associated Press
In a much-quoted 2006 speech at the Call to Renewal conference, organized by the evangelical anti-poverty group Sojourners, Obama said secular Americans were wrong to ask churchgoers to "leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." But he also said religious groups must recognize "ground rules for collaboration" and the importance of church-state separation. Obama reaffirmed the importance of religion just last week in a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.

100,000 Lost Girls
Utne Reader
“As many as 100,000 girls are trafficked as sex slaves within the U.S.,” reports Sojourners, a magazine devoted to social justice. And the average age of entry into child prostitution or pornography? Between 12 and 14 years old.

"Sojourners in the news" articles are the most recent news clippings that mention Sojourners in any way - whether favorably or unfavorably. Though we provide the text on our site for your convenience, we do not necessarily endorse the views of these articles or their source publications.


Click Here!

Click Here!

Click Here!

Click Here!

Click Here!

Click Here!

Click Here!

Click Here!

Scared to talk politics in church? Get the conversation going in your small group with Sojourners’ discussion guides. Lots of topics and great talking points on challenging aspects of social justice. Learn more.

Wisdom for your commute: Download audio talks by Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren, Lucy Winkett and more. Shop the SojoStore.

Christians and Islam: Do we share more than we realize? This discussion guide looks at the shared history, theological similarities and differences, and hopes for social justice that both Christians and Muslims share. Download now.

"We're in this together." Help your class or small group face the anxiety of the economic recession with faith and community. Download Christians and the Economic Crisis, a four-part discussion guide.



Click Here!

GIVE TO SOJOURNERS: Donate now to support this voice for justice and peace.

GET THE MAGAZINE: Subscribe today

CONTACT US: General inquiries: | Advertising: | About Us

PRIVACY NOTICE: Sojourners won't trade, sell, or give away your e-mail address. Read our privacy policy.