Putting An End to Sin:
A Discussion of Jim Wallis' of Politics

Clinging to Tradition Only Ends Up Making Peace With Oppression

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #998, March 14, 1999

"From whatever vantage point one looks, it is unmistakable that there is what could be called `a moral crisis in America.' There has been, to a significant degree, `a breakdown of traditional morality.' But the answer to this--at least the answer that is in the interests of the majority of people in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of humanity--is not a more aggressive assertion of that `traditional morality' but winning people to a radically different morality, in the process of and as a key part of radically transforming society and the world as a whole. It is not the tightening but the shattering of tradition's chains that is called for."

Bob Avakian

In light of the power struggle around the impeachment of Clinton, the 1996 essays by Bob Avakian on the `crisis of morality' in U.S. society are both timely and insightful. These important essays include: "Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting An End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)."

In the following excerpt from "Putting An End to `Sin,'" Avakian discusses a book by Jim Wallis called The Soul of Politics. Wallis is a religious activist who joined other Christian leaders in issuing "The Cry for Renewal: Let Other Voices Be Heard"--calling for "a politics whose values are more spiritual than ideological."

Other selections from Avakian's essays are available on our website at rwor.org


Wallis wants to transcend liberalism and conservatism, while combining what he sees as the positive aspects, and leaving behind the errors, of each--this is the common ground and reconciliation he seeks. He criticizes people like Pat Robertson for denouncing feminism as anti- family and for making "male control" the object; but Wallis calls for "healthy family values"--for "Restoring the integrity of family, marriage, and parenting...but in each case doing so in a way that ensures the dignity and equality of women." (pp. 108-09) Wallis recognizes that "The code language of family values is often a cover for a return to the patriarchal structures of the past" (p.108); but he fails, or refuses, to see that the nuclear family itself has always been an instrument of patriarchal oppression (he ignores, or fails to grasp the significance of, the fact that the word "family" itself has its origins in the ancient Roman institution in which the male head of the household had not only control but literally the power of life and death over his wife and children as well as his slaves).

As Engels demonstrated in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, this family arose together with the acquisition of privately owned surpluses and the split-up of "primitive communal" society into different and antagonistically opposed classes. It arose out of a simple division of labor having to do with the bearing and rearing of children--a division which, in those "primitive communal" societies, does not itself constitute an oppressive relation but which becomes such, and remains such, once and so long as there is privately accumulated wealth, particularly in the ownership of land and other means of production, which the owners then seek to pass on from one generation of their progeny (in particular, their male progeny) to the next. In this situation, the male-female division of labor inevitably results in male domination and control--this is the historical and material basis for patriarchy and the oppression of women.

Only through the revolutionary transformation of society--to bring about the abolition of private property in the ownership of means of production, the eradication of class distinctions, and the elimination of all oppressive division of labor--will the "dignity and equality of women" be finally and fully achieved. In short, only the communist revolution represents the road to the complete liberation of women.

This does not mean that communists call for the immediate abolition of the nuclear family, because that can and should only come about, in society and the world as a whole, when the material and ideological conditions for this have been achieved, including the abolition of not only private ownership of the means of production but also of commodity production (production of things to be bought and sold) and with this the abolition of money-relations and of money itself.

Throughout the entire revolutionary process that aims to create these material and ideological conditions for communism, the struggle must be waged to continually and ever more thoroughly overcome and uproot the relations of inequality and oppression that shackle women, to promote personal, family, and sexual relations that are based on mutual love and respect and equality between men and women, and to increasingly develop forms for the masses of people to carry out, through cooperative efforts involving men equally with women, the functions which are now focused overwhelmingly in the family and which are a burden on women in particular.

It will be possible to make a great leap in this once the present oppressive order has been overthrown and it then becomes possible to begin bringing into being whole new social relations and ways of thinking, on a societal level. And we must be bold in declaring that the final aim is the abolition of the nuclear family, along with and as a key part of the complete abolition, at long last, of the oppression of women.

Clinging to Traditional Male-Female Relations

Wallis wants to settle for something far less, and despite his seemingly very sincere agonizing over the indignities and oppression suffered by women, he is (as yet at least) unable to break with the traditional view of the family and of male-female relations. As a result, his views end up having much in common with those of the most openly reactionary crusaders for patriarchy, and for oppressive and exploitative relations in general, such as Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition. When the implications of this are understood, it is no longer so shocking that someone like Wallis, who can speak so eloquently about the agony and torment of the poor and oppressed--and of how this contrasts with the self-indulgence of the privileged--can at the same time call for (re)conciliation with the most monstrous oppressors and tormentors.

This is what comes of Wallis's attempts to transcend liberalism and conservatism. As Wallis characterizes things, liberals are concerned only with the social causes of problems, the conservatives only with personal moral responsibility, and they are both right and both wrong (see pp. 20-22). It could be said that at least the liberals are on more correct ground, since their position (even as ascribed to them by Wallis) reflects to a certain degree the fundamental principle that in an overall sense, as Marx put it, it is people's social being that determines their consciousness and not the other way around. In other words, in the relation between people's ideas, including their values and morals, on the one hand, and the economic and social relations in which they are enmeshed, on the other hand, it is the latter which are overall decisive, even though ideas can and do play a very important part in the struggle to transform social conditions.

The real problem with the liberal position is that it resists and opposes the recognition that only through the revolutionary overthrow of the present order and then the thoroughgoing transformation of society to abolish exploitation and oppression--including the accumulation of socially produced wealth as private capital and the division between mental and manual labor as well as all other oppressive social divisions--can the fundamental causes of society's problems be uprooted. And, as a matter of fact, it is only through this process, and the waging of the revolutionary struggle to carry it out, that the thinking, including the values, of people can be really and fully revolutionized--to repudiate individual advance at the expense of others and to put the common good of society and humanity above narrow and self-centered concerns.

Unable or unwilling to recognize this, and clutching instead at "traditional values"--and, more particularly, the prophetic tradition of the Bible and "prophetic spirituality" (p. 44)--Wallis not only fails to correctly understand the fundamental nature and limitations of liberalism but he also does not recognize the true nature and role of conservatism. Wallis writes that "conservatism's best impulse is to stress the need for individual initiative and moral responsibility. But because of its attachment to institutions of wealth and power, preference for the status quo, and the lack of a strong ethic of social responsibility, conservatism has virtually abandoned the poor and dispossessed." (p.22) But he does not see that there is an integral and inseparable connection between what Wallis presents as the positive and negative of conservatism--that in fact the moralizing about "the need for individual initiative and moral responsibility" is simply a rationalization and camouflage, a way of disguising and "dressing up," the most ruthless and literally murderous exploitation and plunder which actually constitutes the historical and present-day basis for the wealth and power, and the oppressive status quo, that conservatism upholds and glorifies.

It is not that conservatism, and all it represents, has simply "abandoned" the poor and dispossessed--it has thrived on the very conditions that have maintained the masses of people throughout the world in a desperately dispossessed and impoverished condition. To recognize this it is only necessary to recall the "historical fact" that Wallis speaks to, concerning the establishment of the U.S. on the basis of near-genocide and slavery, and the fact that life-stealing oppression and exploitation, within the U.S. itself and throughout the world, has continued to be the basis for the wealth and power of the system and the ruling class in the U.S.

Blood and Pious Amendments

It must be bluntly said that conservatism has no "best impulse"--its impulses are all conditioned by and serve the attempt to perpetuate this system, with all its horrendous consequences for the great majority of humanity.

For those who would say that I am guilty of exaggerated claims and extravagant language here, I ask you to think about the full meaning and implications of the following scene, which I witnessed on videotape: a gathering where Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others raise their voices in prayer asking god not to forgive but to fortify Rios Montt, then the military ruler of Guatemala (who is now attempting to regain the reins of power). Under the reign of Montt, as under the rule of U.S.-backed regimes in Guatemala generally, the most unspeakable crimes have been carried out on a massive scale against the peasants and others in that country. Atrocities like the following, which I described in a book written 10 years ago, have now come to light more extensively, and it has become increasingly difficult for anyone to deny this; but, as you read this description, reflect on the fact that, if anything, my attempt to capture the horror of these events falls short of conveying a real sense of it:

"In neighboring Guatemala, numerous accounts in recent years have described scene after scene where government troops enter a village and, after executing everyone of fighting age, proceed to brutally murder old people, rape and kill women, and then take the small children and infants and bash their heads open." (Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?)

This, without exaggeration, is the kind of thing that conservatism has supported not only in Guatemala but all over the world, although perhaps the likes of Falwell and Robertson were moved by a special passion in championing Rios Montt's acts, since he is a "born-again" butcher--like them a reactionary evangelical Christian fundamentalist. One is forced to ask: what common ground could someone like Wallis want to establish with people like this and the social relations and values they represent?

At the same time, the truth is that in the final analysis liberalism also upholds the same social relations and values; it supports, or at least acquiesces in, the same kind of atrocities in the service of these social relations, even if this is sometimes accompanied by "pious doubts and petty amendments" (to borrow a phrase from Lenin). In particular, liberals in power--including the current U.S. administration, like all others before it--will not only justify these oppressive and exploitative relations but will enforce them, including through the use of massive military power and widespread brutality and atrocity. It is impossible to name a single U.S. administration, liberal or conservative, that has not done this and that will not continue to do it.

Thus, Wallis's attempt to transcend liberalism and conservatism, while combining what he sees as the positive aspects of both, is bound to fail and to land him in an untenable position.

A Composite Error

Wallis does not proceed from a correct understanding of the relation between social being and consciousness; he does not understand the decisive role of the underlying material forces and dynamics that shape social relations and values but also repeatedly prepare the ground for revolutionary leaps and transformations in these social relations and values (he does not recognize the truth and the profound meaning of Marx's analysis that all human history is fundamentally conditioned by the development of social productive forces but at the same time "All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature"--The Poverty of Philosophy). He therefore remains mired in the attempt to construct, or reconstruct ("renew"), universal transcendental morals "derived from our religious and cultural traditions...basic values still in our collective consciousness" (p. 42), which in reality represent a tradition, a long history, of exploitation and oppression but in Wallis's imagination can be converted into tools for liberation, or at least reconciliation.

In reflecting on Wallis's attempts at transcendence and reconciliation, I cannot help thinking of the blunt words of Marx, in his criticism of the utopian reformer Proudhon:

"He wants to be the synthesis--he is a composite error.

"He wants to soar as the man of science above the bourgeois and the proletarians; he is merely the petty bourgeois, continually tossed back and forth between capital and labour, [bourgeois] political economy and communism." (The Poverty of Philosophy)

If we substitute for "man of science" the phrase "man of religion and spirituality," the essence of Marx's critique captures very well the position of Wallis. It is this position which leads Wallis to declare "No More Us and Them": this is a classical expression of the middle strata caught between the two powerful antagonistic forces in the world today--the proletarians and other exploited working people on the one hand and the bourgeois (along with feudal and other pre-capitalist) exploiters on the other hand--it is representative of the resistance of these middle strata to firmly stand with, and accept the rule of, one side or the other in this antagonistic confrontation.

And that defines the difference between Wallis, who describes himself as an evangelical Christian, and the Pat Robertsons and Ralph Reeds, who also describe themselves in these terms. All of them make reference to the same scriptures and religious tradition, but they do not draw all the same conclusions--and at times they draw very opposed conclusions--for the basic reason that Wallis generally represents a petty bourgeois position, although one which seeks to identify with the poor and dispossessed; while Robertson and Reed are representatives, in the most openly reactionary expression, of the big bourgeoisie, which dominates and exploits the poor and dispossessed and plunders whole nations throughout the Third World in particular. The problem for Wallis is that, irrespective of his intentions and inclinations, so long as he attempts to ground himself in the same religious and moral tradition, he will ultimately have to concede more and more ground to the Reeds and Robertsons.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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