Ron Sider has published more than 20 books concerning evangelical politics, Christian activism and effecting change in culture. We recently spoke with Dr. Sider about his new book The Scandal of Evangelical Politics (Baker) and how changing the world starts with the individual.
In the new book The Scandal of Evangelical Politics you say, “Christian political activity today is a disaster.” Can you explain that a little?
When you look at the U.S or around the world there are fundamental problems. First, you can take almost any issue, and Christians come down on all sides. There is no consistency with the way that Christians approach political issues; just talk about evangelicals for example. In this country, for the last couple decades, we’ve had a significant number of evangelicals—sometimes they’re referred to as the religious right—and probably the most vocal evangelicals who have in effect focused especially on two or three issues: sanctity of human life and family/sexuality issues. It seems to me that if you’re a biblical Christian you have to ask what the Bible tells you God cares about.
God seems to care about the poor as well as the sanctity of human life, about creation care as well as the family. So we need a biblically balanced agenda. That would be one illustration of that one-sidedness. There’s also that lack of consistency. Sometimes you’ll get evangelicals being almost libertarian and opposing any government action when it comes to overcoming poverty but then being very activist when it comes to reducing abortion. We need to see more systematically and consistently.
In your opinion then, when did things go wrong? When did people become so one-sided?
In the late 18th century in England and in the first half of the 19th century in the U.S., evangelicals were quite socially engaged. They were active for example in the struggle against slavery. In England, of course, they played an absolutely crucial role in ending the slave trade. In this country Charles Finney, one of the leading evangelists in the middle of the 19th century was also an active crusader against slavery. Then at the end of the 19th century, early part of the 20th century evangelicals began to abandon political engagement. Some people refer to this as the great withdrawal.
We have had a huge debate in the Church between Social Gospel Christians and fundamentalist Christians. The Social Gospel Christians developed a somewhat liberal theology and were very engaged in social issues, but were not much concerned with evangelism. Evangelicals at the time, called Fundamentalists, were very concerned with reaffirming the fundamental theological truths of the Gospel: the deity of Christ, bodily resurrection and so on, but then they lost the concern for overcoming poverty and working to correct social justice. And so we got a great divide in the 20th century between Social Gospel Christians and Evangelicals with a special focus on evangelism.
Fortunately in the last 20-to-years, Evangelicals have recovered a balance so that today more and more Evangelicals and Pentecostals think it’s proper, it’s central to the mission of the Church to do evangelism and to do social action. At the same time we’re getting more political engagement and whereas for a time we just jumped to the politics without thinking about it.
In 1977 you wrote Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger that addressed Christians’ role in aiding issues like world hunger. In the 30 years since that book came out, how do you think the Church is doing?
Well, it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand I think that the materialism among the majority of Christians is probably worse today than it was when I wrote the book, on the other hand there has been a lot of growth in evangelical concern for the poor. There are dozens and dozens of evangelical relief and development agencies that are multimillion dollar operations doing very good development work around the world. For example John Perkins who leads the Christian Community Development Association, is working in inner city programs and rural programs among people who are desperately poor combining evangelism and social action.
The Global Network of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians represents roughly 420 million Christians around the world, and one of their main agendas now is the micro challenge which works on the United Nations Millennium development goals. At the center of that is the desire to reduce poverty by 50 percent by the year 2015. So there’s growth, or one more example: Rick Warren is perhaps the most prominent evangelical voice today, and Rick Warren is talking not just about the sanctity of human life and the family, although he cares about that, but also about care for creation and concern to oppose torture as part of our government’s policy and major concern for HIV/ AIDS and poverty in Africa and elsewhere. So there’s real growth in the Evangelical world, and I think we are moving toward a biblical balance.
You’ve spoken of spiritual transformation and socioeconomic transformation that takes place in the life of a Christ-follower, so if that is the case why do you think it is that Christians are not always the ones leading the way?
That’s a very good question, and I’m seeing two things. I’m seeing that we have made some progress, and I have some degree of optimism as I look ahead to the next 20, 25 years, but it’s certainly the case that we’re not even close to doing what we could do or should do. The average Christian gives 2.6 percent of their income to the local church. That’s a quarter of a tithe. In the richest nation in human history that’s absolutely a disgraceful figure. We could be giving not just 10 percent—most American Christians could give 15 percent, or many of us could give 20 percent and more and not even be close to poverty.
I think we should be doing vastly more than we’re doing, whether the issue is giving generously for evangelism and social action, especially overcoming poverty around the world, we should also be doing much more in terms of creation care.
It seems as though some Americans feel like if they can’t see it happening—if we don’t come in contact with the homeless—then the problems don’t really exist. Or if things are happening globally and it doesn’t affect our lives, they don’t take action. Why do you think that is? Why do we have that mentality?
I think part of the problem is that we haven’t gotten our theology straight. We have been fundamentally seduced by the prevailing individualism in this society. We’ve lost a biblical understanding of the Church as a new community of mutual accountability, where we walk with each other and challenge each other and help each other follow Jesus, and in fact dare to raise questions when somebody begins to wander from what Jesus calls us to do.
I think it’s partly the individualism and a failure to understand and embrace a biblical understanding of the Church as a new community of mutual accountability. I think also, we haven’t had a biblical understanding of sin. Some parts of the Church have understood it just as personal sin, other parts of the Church have seen it only as structural sin and the Bible says sin is personal and social. We need to understand that in order to be more faithful in our structural and political engagement. I also think it’s because we’ve had a misunderstanding of the Gospel and we’ve understood the gospel as primarily forgiveness of sins instead of what Jesus said it was—the Gospel of the Kingdom, and the Messianic Kingdom is breaking in. Now with the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I are truly enabled to live Jesus’ new kingdom values. Then the Church ought to be a new community, a physical new social order way out in front of the rest of society, correcting all the things that are wrong and in fact modeling a new reality that then invites the rest of society to share. It’s the Gospel of the kingdom, not just forgiveness of sins.
What is one issue that you are particularly passionate about and that you would like to see people in their 20s and 30s become more aware of?
I think the absolute bottom line is Jesus. What I wish is that not just 20- and 30-year-olds, but everybody would daily look into the face of Christ and say: “Jesus, I want to be more like you. If you give me the strength, I’ll do anything you want me to do.” I think that means saying that I want every part of my life to reflect Jesus and biblical issues. It’s so easy to be seduced by surrounding culture. I think the greatest temptation of the Church all through history has been to slowly conform to surrounding culture. I wish that every Christian would, every morning, begin the day by looking into the face of Christ and say, “Please Lord, this day, help me to be more like you.”