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A conversation with Ron Sider


WORLD Radio - A conversation with Ron Sider

On this special Listening In podcast, we remember Ron Sider, who passed away last week at the age of 82.

Ron Sider Peter Tobia/Genesis

(Note: the following is a very rough transcript)

WS: I’m Warren Smith, and today on Listening In we remember Ron Sider, who died last week at the age of 82. He wrote the influential book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and he was a guest on this program in 2016. We listen back on that conversation today.


Ron Sider’s 1977 book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” elevated him to a national and international stage. Its challenging call for Christians to both declare a biblical gospel and demonstrate compassionate care for the poor as part of the gospel message resonated with a generation of young evangelicals. Sider went on to form Evangelicals for Social Action, which championed social causes, and he continued to write: to date, more than 30 books.

And while some Christians who heard the call for social action have moved to anti-biblical views on abortion and marriage, Sider has remained steadfast, writing and speaking frequently for the pro-life position.

And that’s how we came to have the conversation you’re about to hear. Sider was in Washington DC in 2016 to participate in the March for Life, and he spoke at a related event hosted by Evangelicals for Life. We began our conversation by talking about the life issue, and why that issue has remained important to him over the years.

Ron Sider, you and I are here today at the Evangelicals for life conference. You spoke this morning, what did you tell the group?

RS: Well, I said, first of all, that I didn't always oppose abortion. But about 45 years ago, I rethought my position. And for decades now, I've believed that we should act on the assumption that from a moment of conception, we're dealing with human beings, and we should respect the sanctity of human life there. So I've been opposed to abortion supported the movement to try to restrict and end abortion, and I was delighted to be a part of the conference. That was the first part. And the second part was to say, I've been disturbed. With parts of the pro life movement to some jokers, it sometimes looks as if we think that life begins at conception and ends at birth. And we have sometimes had pro life people that supported government subsidies for tobacco and no concern about racism, and so on. So I talked about other pro life issues and said that global poverty is a pro life issue when 18,000 children die every day of starvation and diseases we could easily prevent, you know, that's surely a pro life issue. Smoking is a pro life issue, it kills at least 6 million people around the world. Every year, I think racism is pro life issue. And I think environmental degradation is the same. So I said, if we're going to be consistent, I think we have to agree with Pope Francis, and say that we need to protect the sanctity of human life, wherever it's threatened. The National Association of Evangelicals has more recently said that we need to protect the sanctity of human life from womb to tomb.

WS:  Well, I've heard that position called comprehensively pro life or completely pro life for whole life. Do you have a favorite expression for it? And I would assume that it includes the death penalty as well. Is that correct?

RS: Yes. Yes, I, my phrase is completely pro life. In fact, I wrote a book on that way back in the mid 80s. needs to be revised. But I've had that position for a long time. But the Catholics talk a bit about being consistently pro life. It's saying the same thing. And yes, this morning, I did talk about the issue of capital punishment. There again, the National Association of Evangelicals has changed their position and now recognize that a number of their people, denominations are opposed to capital punishment. What I said was, it's interesting that in the Old Testament, the first murder was Cain and God dealt with him directly, and he didn't kill him. He invited put a mark on him so nobody would Then in the New Testament, you get Jesus with the woman taken in adultery. And the proper mosaic punishment for that was capital punishment. And Jesus didn't in any way, suggest that or support that he shamed the man and they laughed. And then he said, don't sin anymore. So I think that plus the fact that DNA evidence indicates that sometimes we convict people that later we discover that they weren't guilty. And if we keep them in prison, rather than kill them, you know, we can correct that tragic mistake. And of course, we all know that poor people and minorities get the death sentence much faster than other people who can afford good lawyers. So, you know, I never really have understood why killing people who have killed somebody else is the best way to convince people not to kill people, or to respect the sanctity of human life. So I'm in favor of, yes, we have to, of course, protect society, from dangerous people. We need to put some people in prison for life. But I think that respects the sanctity of human life more than simply executing them.

WS:  Well, that position on capital punishment, and some other things that you've said, have sometimes caused you to be lumped into a group that are sometimes called the evangelical left. First of all, do you bristle or accept that characterization? And whether you accept or reject the characterization? How would you explain why many on the evangelical left? Who might share your political position on some areas, depart from you on the life that you've stayed consistent on the life issue for many decades, whereas many on the evangelical left are a little wishy washy on that question?

RS: Yeah, well, first of all, I regularly resist the suggestion that I am left or right. I am in terms of current political things, clearly, on the right on things like sanctity of human life, abortion, euthanasia, also on the issue of gay marriage, and at the same time, on some other issues, you know, I would be on the political left. So I regularly have trouble voting and presidential elections, because the one party is closer to where I am. On some issues, the other party is closer on other issues, and I've in fact, voted both ways, at the presidential level.

WS: Well, I want to get back to the second part of that question, which is, why are many on the evangelical left? Not as vocal as you on the life issue. But I want to stop right there. Because you said something there. That's pretty interesting. How do you decide what if you agree with somebody on let's say, that's a Democrat on eight or 10 issues, but the but they're wrong on the life issue, or they're wrong on gay marriage? From according to you? You know, I mean, is there a, in your mind, do you differentiate between a vital few issues and a trivial many issues? Or do you give them all equal weight?

RS:  Well, I have tried to spell out in my book, just politics, you know, how I approach the issues of public policy, I hope in a biblically informed way. And I don't think there is one issue, that trumps everything else. I think that at particular, that's an interesting phrase right now, but anyway,

WS: All right, Trump, that trumps everything else? Yeah, no, I get that. But but but let me push back on that just a little bit. Because I mean, you know, the life issue, I mean, a million babies being aborted every year. I mean, that that issue is, is not one that would trump how much money we spend on I don't know, some welfare program.

RS:  Well, 10s of millions of people die every year of starvation, and diseases that we could easily prevent. So there are millions and millions of people dying on a whole range of issues.

WS:  Well, no, I get that. But again, so we'll stipulate for the record all that's true, but still clearly at any given cultural moment. Some issues are more important than others. I mean, people like Bonhoeffer and Luther have said that, you know, wow, wow. You know, all issues might be equally important. There's maybe the one question that your generation has to face? Shouldn't if that's the question for our generation, like slavery, maybe was for a previous generation, shouldn't that issue take precedence in our thinking?

RS:  Well, I do think that at particular moments, some issues are in play in ways that other issues or not, I also said this morning in my address that I do think it's right to say that there is a moral distinction between consciously choose Using to take the life of an innocent person and letting somebody die of starvation, let's say or executing someone who has been convicted of capital punishment. But I think there's a major parallel on a whole range of pro life issues. And my own approach has been to say, I want to look at the whole range of issues that I think Biblical faith causes us to deal with. And then I try to decide on balance, which candidate is closer to unbalanced that whole range of issues. That's the way I approach it. And I don't I mean, in my lifetime, I've had friends who said, you know, the nuclear question is the most important issue or the environmental question is the most important issue, or the pro life anti abortion issue is the most important? And I've said, No, I can't agree with any of those. They're all important issues. I want to take them all into account. But I want a biblically balanced agenda, which is a phrase that's in the National Association of Evangelicals document for the health of the nation, faithful Evan Geragos civically engaged in must have a biblically balanced agenda.

WS:  Ron Sider, if my chronology if I'm remembering right, your book Rich Christians in an age of hunger came out in 1977 is my recollection. The reason I have that recollection is that I was a sophomore in college freshman sophomore in college, when that book came out, had a huge impact on me had a huge impact on many of my generation. I'm older but a little younger than you. That's Christianity today call that book one of the most influential of the 20th century one of the most influential Christian books of the 20th century. How did that book come about?

RS:  Well, the kind of specific development was, I was preaching for a little Baptist Church for a few months. When I was in Divinity School, and I preached a sermon on poverty. And the end, I talked about a way to respond. I did the Biblical stuff, and I did the details on global poverty. And then I talked about a graduated tithe, the more money you make higher percentage you give. And then I did a little article for universities hidden by his magazine called the graduated tithe and then I got a contract or a little book called The graduated tithe. Then when I wrote it, it grew like Topsy and became rich Christians in an age of hunger. That's kind of one way of talking about it. I think I grew up in a farming community. I've never been rich i i developed in an Anabaptist community that cared about the poor, you know, A variety of things I lived in African American community and learned from African Americans about the extent of poverty. And then I read the Bible, there are just hundreds and hundreds of Biblical verses about God's concern, concern for the poor. And I've tried over my life, to approach any issue from a biblical perspective and then put beside that the the facts that we know, and come up with a conclusion, and the result was Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

WS:  Well, that book had a huge impact. And and, you know, I've looked at it, I cited that book, in a book that I'm recently wrote. And so I had an occasion to look at it again 40 years later, and find that much of it really does hold up over time, at least from my point of view. But even you confessed that when you wrote that book, you didn't know much economics, and that you've shifted your position somewhat over the years. Can you say, who you've read in economics? Since you wrote that book? 45 years ago, or 40 years ago? And, and, in specifically, Where has your thinking shifted?

RS:  Well, I was never a Marxist. I sometimes say, I'm a Mennonite farmer, for Pete's sake, have you ever met a Mennonite farmer that wants the government on your land? You know, but I certainly hadn't read a lot of economics. And I think it was probably the third edition, I had a very good economist, who was doing a PhD at Notre Dame, and it was connected with Calvin College. And he helped me do a lot of revising. I'm more since maybe the third edition. And since then, more explicit that when as in my lifetime, the choice is between a centrally owned centrally planned economy, as you get in Soviet Union, and a basic market framework as a starting point, I think the market framework is clearly the right better place to start. I think it's both more in keeping with what the Bible tells us about the dignity of persons, our freedom, the danger of centralized power, if you combine economic and political power as a Marxist system does, you inevitably get totalitarianism. And furthermore, it doesn't work, as well. A market economy is supply and demand is a better way of allocating, you know, use of resources. So I'm clear about that. No, I immediately want to go on and say that if you think that centralized power is dangerous, then you've got to be consistent and say, when you get the richest 1%, as in the last few years, getting 90% Of all the increase in income in the society, when you get about 135 families. Up until this point in the election cycle, giving half of all the money for both the Democratic and Republican candidates for President, you got centralized power in an incredibly dangerous way. So I want to insist that we need to have an economic process starts with a market economy, but then says we need to empower everybody. So they got access to the productive resources, so they can earn their own way and be dignified members of the community.

WS:  So if big government is bad, then so is big corporations, and maybe even big church.

RS:  Well, any kind of centralized power that doesn't have checks and balances is clearly dangerous in a fallen world, and even Christian leaders are not fully sanctified. So they need checks and balances. Now, I think another thing is important at just this point. limited government is important, but that's in no way meaning that a libertarian position is right. A libertarian position is simply not a biblical one. Whether the issue as an evangelical is don't think a libertarian approach to public policy with regard to abortion, or marriage is the right one. But it's not the right one and economic justice either. There's lots of Old Testament evidence that the king is supposed to do justice is supposed to empower poor people. This is amazing text in Nehemiah, he's the political leader, the governor, and he learns that in a time of, I think of famine, some rich Jews, enslaved many poor Jews, and they lost their land and their kids were in slavery. And he calls an assembly and he says give their land back immediately. You know, the the political leader takes a clear action to bring economic justice. So it's important one part of what governments should do would be to have public policies that effectively decentralize the economy, and effectively especially empower the poorer members of society. So they've got the resources, knowledge, education, and so on, to earn their own way and be dignified members of the community.

WS:  Ron sider, in this conversation you describe yourself as a as a Mennonite farmer and you said that you're never been wealthy but and I know a little bit about the economics of Christian book publishing, even a big book like rich Christians in an age of hunger is likely not going to make you fabulously wealthy, but it was probably a bit of a windfall for you in your life. But in in, you've had a long career. How have you dealt with success and wealth?

RS: Well, in terms of my publishing, I don't know when I did this. But several decades ago, I basically decided that I would have all my royalties go to a Christian foundation. And that then I can, you know, make suggestions as to where that goes. But I haven't taken hardly any royalties for a long, long time.

WS:  So so when you say, a long, long time, are we talking 20 3040 years? And would you mind saying how much money you have, if you will, forfeited or redirected during that time?

RS:  You know, I don't know exactly when I established that thing at the Mennonite foundation. But I'm sure it's more than 20 years ago, there was a period of time when I actually went half time in my teaching, and my income from rich Christians in those early years, you know, provided some of the rest of my income, actually, the the amount of income is really not huge. But But certainly, I'm privileged to be able to have given my royalty income to charity.

WS:  Well, how do you feel about those who don't? There are a lot of rich Christians getting richer from what I sometimes called the Christian industrial complex, they're the speaking and writing and so on and so forth. And I certainly don't begrudge anyone making a living. And I've written a number of books, and I'm happy to cash the checks myself from time to time. But we live in an age where even the Christian leaders are open to criticism on this Friday, would you agree?

RS:  Yes, you know, I'm not prepared to say that if you spend this much money on yourself, and that's okay with God, and then anything above that is sinful. I think there are different circumstances. And I'm not prepared to judge in terms of specifics. But it seems to me that when you've got hundreds of Biblical verses saying, God's on the side of the poor, and God causes people to be on the side of the poor, then it seems to me one of the things that Christian leaders ought to be doing is modeling that kind of generosity. And I think it hinders the gospel. And I think it leads to people being cynical and rejecting the gospel, when Christian leaders live an extravagant lifestyle that simply is not in keeping with what Jesus did, or the hundreds of biblical texts about God's concern for the poor.

WS:   Ron Sider, I want to ask you I want to pivot and kind of do a lightning round of some odd questions maybe. What do you do for fun?

RS:  I love to fish. And so I managed to find time to fish several times a year. Actually, we share a little cabin in Maine I'm with another couple and my wife and I usually spend two, three or four weeks up there reading and I usually fish every morning. I used to play tennis. I live in a Mennonite retirement home now. And I haven't found anybody who plays tennis yet, but if I found somebody who would play a more slow, relaxed game of tennis, I would probably do that my wife and I, most days a week go for a half an hour walk. So we're trying to stay healthy in those ways.

WS:  Well, I can't resist asking one of my favorite books is Norman Maclean's book, A River Runs Through It. I don't know if you know that book. But it was turned into a really great movie. And the opening line of that movie was or that book was, in my family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. My father, a Presbyterian minister taught that that the disciples were fishermen and that the Peter, James and John, the beloved, that disciples were fly fishermen. And I'm wondering, are you are you a fly fisherman? Or do you are a spinner?

RS:  I must confess, I'm not a sophisticated fly fisherman. I once got to fly rod, but I'm not. I don't normally do fly fishing. But I like to think that Jesus ate fish even after the resurrection.

WS:  You're, you mentioned that when Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger came out that it that it started, or at least one of the steps in that process was a was an article in his magazine, which was the magazine of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, I was a subscriber to that magazine for many years before, I guess it ultimately succumbed to the, to the way of all flesh in publishing. And, and as I also mentioned, you know, I encountered you first whenever I was an undergraduate, now that you're, you know, in your mid late 70s, how are you finding today's young people, just in general, and in particular, in the way they respond to the poor? Or is this as some say, a narcissistic, self selfish generation? Or are you seeing something different?

RS: Well, I think a lot of people talk about this generation of young evangelicals, as being different in terms of one, they just get it that we're supposed to do both evangelism and caring about the needs of people. They really do care about poverty, economic justice, and they've really gotten beyond white racism and important ways and are just multiracial and care about those issues. They care about the environment. So I think there's a significant part of this generation of younger evangelicals that have a much broader holistic understanding, then certainly the generation of Evangelicals that I grew up with, I, I sometimes worry a little bit about whether or not they're neglecting some of the things I did an article for relevant magazine. I don't know, maybe four or five years ago now. And I said, you know, I'm just delighted with your embrace of social issues. But please don't forget about evangelism. And talked about that. I said that you're right, that we have appropriately learned from post modernism to be more humble. We're all finite and limited, and we only understand imperfectly, but please don't neglect truth. You know, God is truth. The Bible is God's truth. We don't understand it perfectly. We never will, but don't abandon truth. So there's that kind of dialogue. In fact, I've just finished a book that will come out in a couple of months. So with Baker that did it with Ben Lowe, he's about 45 years younger than I am. And it's an intergenerational dialogue. And so I really treasure the opportunity to be in dialogue at 75 with people who are 20 and 25, and 30 and 35. I think that respectful dialogue is crucial, I want to listen. And at the same time, I'm grateful when they want to listen to me.

WS:  Ron, I've heard it said that maybe the Billy Graham generation was really good at declaring the gospel and that maybe this current younger generation is better at demonstrating the gospel, but that it's that both are required right that both both declaring and demonstrating would be a whole For a gospel message

RS:  that one of the most central and ongoing passions of my life has been to say that, as Evan Jellicle is getting more engaged in social issues, and that's been a lot of my concern, encourage that nurture that as we do that, please let's not lose our passion for evangelism. So holistic ministry is something that I've promoted something that I've written about. I've a number of books, my book, good news and good works in theology for the whole gospel is to say, here's the biblical here are the biblical foundations for both leading people to accept Christ and caring about their physical social needs. So that that holistic ministry has been a passion all of my life.

WS:  Ron Sider, I want to pivot in our conversation just a little bit. You are in your mid late 70s. Now, what 77,78, 76 years old? You're still obviously you're we're here at the Evangelicals for life events, or you're still working. Do you not believe in retirement?

RS:  No, I don't believe in retirement, I haven't found a biblical text that says, at a certain age, you're supposed to stop doing what you've been doing. I think that one needs to listen to one's body. My dad was a was a farmer, and then a pastor. And I watched him in 65, retire and then almost immediately become interim pastor at a small church where he was halftime for six years. And then he said, It's time to stop that. And then the home where he was the Christian home where he was living, retirement home said, Hey, we need a pastor. So for another six or eight years, he did that. That's kind of my model. As long as my brain and body works, I'll probably continue teaching halftime, if people still find my speaking a blessing, and invite me I'll continue to do some speaking. I'm 76 I let myself sleep nine hours, if that's what my body's seems to want, I have a sense of slowing down. I want to hear my wife when she says she wants to do more things with me. But I'm going to continue to speak and write and, and teach, as long as the Lord gives me a clear brain and a healthy body.

WS: Well, I think a lot of us who know your work now the body of your work over these many years are delighted to hear that because, you know, we've been we've been both encouraged and challenged by you over the years and would like you have many more years of that encouragement and challenging from you. But I think you'll agree with me that it's it's while I could hope for another 76 years from you. It's probably unlikely. So what do you want people to say about Ron sider? What kind of a legacy Do you want to leave with with your work? Whenever? Whenever you're not here to add to it? What what do you want your body of work to say about you, and about your contribution to the body of Christ?

RS:  I would hope that above all, people would say he tried to follow Jesus, true God and true man, his his Lord, in every area of his life. He certainly didn't do that perfectly. But that was his deepest desire, and that he tried to be fundamentally submissive to the full scriptures and all that he thought and did. Now, secondarily, I've tried to encourage the church to be engaged in what I call holistic mission. Not just doing evangelism, not just doing social action, but putting evangelism and social action together. I tried to encourage the courage church to be much more engaged with the poor. I've tried to encourage the church to have what I call a biblically balanced agenda, or if you'd like a completely pro life agenda. Those are several of the things that I've tried to do. I've tried to be a bridge builder in the body of Christ. But most of all, I've tried to follow Jesus and that would be what I would hope people will remember.

WS: That brings to a close my conversation with Ron Sider, who died last week at the age of 82. Sider has a Ph.D. in history from Yale, and early in his career served with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Sider’s landmark book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” has been in print continuously for more than 45 years, and has sold more than a million copies.

Sider’s books include Completely Pro-Life; Good News and Good Works: A Theology for the Whole Gospel. We had this conversation in Washington DC at the 2016 Evangelicals For Life event.

Listening In comes to you from WORLD News Group, and this program is just one of the many benefits that comes with a WORLD subscription. To find out more visit WNG.org/subscribe.

The producer for today’s program is Paul Butler, who is also the executive producer for WORLD Radio. Johnny Franklin is the technical producer. I’m your host, Warren Smith. And we’ll be back in September with new interviews…on Listening In….

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