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The Need for Social Action: An Interview With Ron Sider

There’s a growing concern that we must be engaged in overcoming poverty. If we really decided that we cared about poverty in this country—and I think an increasing number of people do, and that’s fantastic news—the last thing in the world we want to do is lose our commitment to evangelism in the process. Part of the solution, in fact, is the social brokenness in people coming to a living relationship with Christ and experiencing the renewal and transforming character that that brings, and that helps overcome poverty and social brokenness. We’ve got to change the structures that are unfair, and we’ve got to lead people to Christ and let the Holy Spirit transform them at the same time.

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Professor and Christian activist Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, discusses why—and how—the Church should be engaged in social issues.

You’ve written extensively on social justice, compassionate care, poverty, ministry, etc. What initially led you down this path?

I grew up in a devout evangelical family in the Mennonite tradition, so there was strong initial concern for poor, in-need folk. I was doing my graduate studies in the ’60s at Yale and was experiencing the Civil Rights Movement. I began to read the Bible. I discovered there were hundreds and hundreds of verses about God’s special concerns for the poor. I lived among African-Americans for the last two years in New Haven, North Philadelphia and Lower Germantown. Out of that, we’ve experienced what it means to be poor and depressed—not directly ourselves, but by interacting with neighbors and seeing their struggles and anguish. I felt the call  way back in my graduate-school days to help the evangelical world deepen its understanding and concern for questions of social justice for the poor, peacemaking and so on. I resolved that I would do my best to make sure we didn’t repeat the old mistake of 100 years ago when a strong social gospel emerged, but it had a poor theology and wasn’t biblically grounded and it lost its passion for evangelism. I wanted a new evangelical social concern to be solidly biblically, to be grounded in historical Christian orthodoxy and to be more concerned with evangelism, not less.

What are some projects Evangelicals for Social Action is heavily involved in at the moment?

We have been working for decades to help the evangelical world and to develop a more biblical balance in ministries. We have a ministry called Word in Deed Network—we come alongside local congregants and help them with tools, advice and mentoringso they really put together evangelism and social action. I just completed a book called Scandal of Evangelical Politics, which is about how to think biblically about politics. If you’re going to be a Christian in politics, then you have to ask the question, "What does God care about?" When you do that, you find God cares about the family, creation care, peacemaking and racial justice, so what we dare not do is just select one or two issues and focus only on that. We have to have a biblically balanced agenda if we’re going to be engaged in a biblical way in a political life. The exciting thing is that in the evangelical world, we’re moving more and more in that direction. We’ve had a couple decades where we’ve seemed to be primarily concerned just with the sanctity of human life and family issues, and that’s important. I’m very very concerned with those issues, but the Bible also cares about the poor, and increasing care of peacemaking, so we have to be concerned with that whole biblical balance.

What are some specific examples of lives that have been touched through your organization?

We often get letters from people who say they’re so glad to hear about the magazine and [ESA’s] work, because they felt alone in their congregation when they wanted to talk about creation care or God’s concern for the poor. Now they’ve discovered that there are people across the country who share those concerns. I get letters personally thanking me for the way I’ve changed their lives—or rather, how God’s Word has changed their lives.

Social justice seems like a trend these days, both among Christians and non-Christians. What do you make of this? Where do you see this trend heading?

I think two things have happened in the evangelical world in the last 30 years. One is that we have fundamentally changed on the question, "What’s the mission of the Church?" Years ago, most evangelical leaders of the Church would have said it was to save souls, to do evangelism. Now, most evangelical leaders would say the mission of the Church is to do evangelism and social ministry. That’s a huge change that’s reflected more and more in different congregations putting together word and deed. The other important change is that there’s a growing concern for poverty in evangelical circles. The evangelical relief and development agencies have been growing for decades. There’s a growing concern that we must be engaged in overcoming poverty. If we really decided that we cared about poverty in this country—and I think an increasing number of people do, and that’s fantastic news—the last thing in the world we want to do is lose our commitment to evangelism in the process. Part of the solution, in fact, is the social brokenness in people coming to a living relationship with Christ and experiencing the renewal and transforming character that that brings, and that helps overcome poverty and social brokenness. We’ve got to change the structures that are unfair, and we’ve got to lead people to Christ and let the Holy Spirit transform them at the same time.

What are some practical steps leaders can take to encourage their group to be proactive in serving both the local community and needs abroad?

I think it’s a combination of reading and studying and getting involved. We need to read more and more about what the Bible says about God’s concerns for the poor. We can read books that talk about the reality of poverty in the world. Alongside that study, we can begin to get involved. The theory without engagement is empty. I don’t think we’ll fully understand unless we get involved with poor people either on a mission trip to another country, or across town to a poor neighborhood. We can start spending a couple hours a week tutoring, and we can do a whole variety of things where we can get involved personally for just a few hours a week. It really begins to change our heart. It changes our understanding, deepens our empathy and makes us more ready to give more generously.

Aside from the physical act of serving others, how can one become internally compassionate about a cause?

I think the understanding is the work of the Holy Spirit, and I think the understanding comes from studying the world about poverty. The work of the Holy Spirit happens as we read the Bible and study the world, and open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit. I love Corinthians 3:18, which says that Christians look into the face of the Lord, and as a mirror reflects an image, so we reflect the glory of the Lord. It says we are being transformed day by day, more and more, into the image of Christ. If Christians in this country, would every day take a moment and look into the face of Christ and say, "Lord, please make me more like You, and please change me so that I begin to care as much about the poor as the Bible says You do"—if we would do that, I think something powerful and dramatic would happen to the Christian Church.

What is one thing you feel has changed about your perspective simply through writing about social issues?

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I think I have a deeper understanding of how systems trap people to make it harder for them to do the right thing. I don’t believe anybody is totally determined by their situation; I think everybody has a free will. God calls every person to make the right choices and be responsible human beings. It seems to me that if you compare the kid growing up in the inner city—where the educational system is awful; where, in some cases, the only decent job is selling drugs—with another kid—growing up where the educational system is great, both parents are there to support that child, there’s great opportunities if the person works responsibly in school and goes on to college and gets a great job—those two kids have very different situations in life. In one case, the whole environment and the whole surrounding structures make it harder to make the right choices, and the other makes it easier. An understanding of the way different settings and structures shape people is one important part of how I’ve been changed. Reading about God’s deep concern for the poor has my hope fully changed from being a selfish personality into one that’s more generous, caring and giving to others.

What issues do you think the Church needs to be more vocal about?

"Biblical balance" is my phrase and slogan. I want us to do prayer and action, and I want us to do evangelism and social ministry. When we are engaged in politics—and I think we should be—even though it’s not the most important way we change the world, we should have a politically balanced agenda. We have to be pro-life and pro-poor, pro-family and pro-racial justice, pro-peacemaking and pro-creation care.

What is one thing you are passionate about seeing change, if you could name just one?

It would be this: I’m afraid that a great deal of the American Church, including a great deal of the evangelical Church, is really lukewarm, half-hearted and fundamentally disobedient to Christ. My one deepest longing would be that all parts of the Church would repent and turn away from its lukewarm, half-hearted attitude and decide we’re committed to Jesus Christ. Above everything else, He’s the absolute center and we’re going to obey Him, no matter what the culture says—He’s going to be the center of our whole lives. If the Church would do that, we’d see revival, renewal and drastic change.

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This article originally appeared in Neue Quarterly Vol. 01. You can subscribe to the Quarterly or buy individual copies.

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