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Will the death of an icon end the evangelical left?

An icon of the evangelical left, Ron Sider, went home to the Lord recently at the age of 82. Sider is most famous for his book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: A Biblical Study published in 1977. Sider admitted in the opening address to the 2019 annual meeting of the American Society of Missiology that his book advertised his ignorance: 

“The book ranges over a wide field, as you know: biblical studies, economics, politics, social ethics—I didn’t know much at all about any of those areas. Apart from a few courses on biblical studies at Yale Divinity School, I had virtually no training in any of these areas. I never had a course on politics and only one on economics (Economics 101) in my whole life.”

But ignorance of his topic didn’t stop him! Published by InterVarsity Press, the book became popular among students who knew less about economics, history and the Bible than Sider. Christianity Today magazine called Sider’s book one of the 100 most influential books in religion in the 20th century, but then CT had long promoted Marxism. 

When Sider’s book came out, Jimmy Carter had been elected President. The country had been slogging through a decade of high inflation and was mired in stagflation, the combination of high inflation and unemployment that mainstream economists told us was impossible. The most popular economics textbook in the country, by Paul Samuelson, reminded us with every new edition that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would overtake the U.S. as the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the planet. The prospects for Soviet-style socialism seemed bright, and Sider’s book reached an audience hungry for more optimism about socialism.

In his ASM speech, Sider joked that he had been called a Marxist. “My response to that was, ‘I’m a Mennonite farm boy, for Pete’s sake. Have you ever met a Mennonite farmer who wants the government to own his land?’”

Yet, in his first edition, Sider called for a national food policy, greater foreign aid, a guaranteed national income, international taxation, land reform, bureaucratically determined prices, national health care, population control, and the right of developing nations to nationalize foreign holdings. In other words, he didn’t want the state owning his land, but he was happy to have it turn him into a sharecropper, taxing away most of its produce and regulating what, when, and how he could plant, in the name of environmentalism. How is that different from the state owning his land?

Sider's books are full of Marxist terminology such as “economic violence,” “exploitation,” “proletariat,” “social justice,” “structural change,” and “new international economic order.” He even entitles a section in Rich Christians “Is God a Marxist?” His answer is obviously yes, for the “God of the Bible wreaks horrendous havoc on the rich” because “the rich regularly oppress the poor and neglect the needy.” Moreover, “God is on the side of the poor.” Quoting E.F. Schumacher, Sider wrote,

“It is obvious that the world cannot afford the USA. Nor can it afford Western Europe or Japan.... Think of it-one American drawing on resources that would sustain 50 Indians! ... The poor don’t do much damage. Virtually all damage is done by say, 15% .... The problem passenger son Spaceship Earth are the first-class passengers and no one else.”

“If God’s word is true, then all of us who dwell in affluent nations are trapped in sin. We have profited from systemic injustice. We are guilty of an outrageous offense against God and neighbor.”

Sider’s book went through several editions, ending in 1997 as Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity. The change in the subtitle marked a shift in the author’s economic thought. He had expunged some of the rabid anti-capitalist language and grudgingly conceded that freer markets had helped the poor. Instead of blaming Christians for the plight of poor nations, he challenged them to live more simply and devote more to charity. Why the change? The Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991 and destroyed the economic arguments for socialism. Sider was forced to face the obvious. He followed his comrades by switching to environmentalism as a channel for advancing socialism. 

Then Sider shifted again, desperately trying to keep up with the times. In his 2012 book, Just Politics, Sider affirmed the Biblical requirement that able-bodied people should work. The Journal of Markets and Morality, put it this way:

Nonetheless, in clear contradiction to 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Sider insists that even people who ‘irresponsibly choose’ not to work still have a right to basic provisions supplied by others (including food and a level of healthcare ‘that the science, technology, and wealth of a given time can make available to all [society’s] members’)…. The unspoken assertion is that government should take from the responsible in order to give to the irresponsible.'

Distributive justice, as defined by Sider, is a ‘just division of money, health care, educational opportunities—in short, all the goods and services in society.’ This is another area where Sider’s biblical exegesis appears to be unduly influenced by his political preferences, and his bias is evident to the careful reader.”

Next, Bernie Sanders made socialism respectable again and in the 2019 speech Sider backslid on his ambivalence to capitalism. “I think my book Rich Christians illustrates from the first edition my basic methodology for looking at social problems.” He told about a message he gave at an Oregon Christian college: “I gave two chapel talks about structural injustice, God’s concern for the poor, and how American wealth resulted to some extent from poverty in other parts of the world.” 

Sider was a typical evangelical theologian, taking his cues from anti-Christians on social issues then using a crowbar to force the Bible to conform. He claimed to be pro-life and formed a group he called Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden. Yet, Sider had his own private definition of pro-life that was very different from what most Christians meant by the term. He intended to deceive others with the title. 

Sider, Jim Wallis and others dreamed of dragging all evangelicals into political activism for socialism during the 1970s. Fundamentalists had rejected politics for most of the 20th century, letting the left dominate from the election of Roosevelt on with disastrous results. Side succeeded in awakening fundamentalists to politics, but he was horrified that it took the form of the conservative Moral Majority and the election of Ronald Reagan as President. 

Today, Sider’s evangelical left makes up about 20% of evangelicals and have tempered their advocacy of socialism. Instead of claiming that socialism is Christian economics, they assert that the Bible is ambivalent about economics and government so any system should be acceptable to Christians. Like Sider, they are proud of their ignorance of economics and content with a superficial grasp of the Bible.  

Maybe we should think of Sider as one of the weak Christians Paul mentions in Romans 14. Paul saw Jewish believers who couldn’t get past the holy days and rituals of Judaism and enjoy their freedoms in Christ as weak in faith. They used the same Bible as Paul and other believers who were strong in their faith. But they used faulty hermeneutics and arrived at false, destructive theology. 

In a similar way, Sider and the evangelical left he helped create, violated the principles of hermeneutics to deceive gullible Christians into following the economic principles of an alcoholic atheist rather than the Word of God.

Roger McKinney is the author of Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx.

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