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What does it mean to be 'completely' pro-life?

Ron Sider talks about rooting for both sides in politics as he seeks a ‘biblically balanced’ agenda


People walk past Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., during the March for Life 2016. Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

What does it mean to be 'completely' pro-life?

Ron Sider’s 1977 book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger issued a challenging call for Christians to both declare a biblical gospel and demonstrate compassionate care for the poor. His message resonated with a generation of young evangelicals. He went on to form Evangelicals for Social Action, which championed social causes. To date, he has written more than 30 books. He recently spoke at the Evangelicals for Life event, held in conjunction with the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I spoke with him there about his approach to life issues.

What did you tell the Evangelicals for Life group? I said, first of all, that I didn’t always oppose abortion, but about 45 years ago, I rethought my position. For decades now, I’ve believed that we should act on the assumption that from the moment of conception, we’re dealing with human beings and we should respect the sanctity of human life. I’ve been opposed to abortion and supported the movement to try to restrict and end abortion. I was delighted to be a part of the conference. That was the first part.

The second part was to say I’ve been disturbed with parts of the pro-life movement. Some joker said it sometimes looks as if we think that life begins at conception and ends at birth. We’ve sometimes had pro-life people that supported government subsidies for tobacco and had no concern about racism and so on. 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, 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 a pro-life issue, and I think environmental degradation is the same. 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.

I’ve heard that position called “comprehensively pro-life” or “completely pro-life.” I would assume it includes the death penalty as well, right? Yes. My phrase is “completely pro-life.” … This morning I did talk about the issue of capital punishment. There again, the National Association of Evangelicals has changed its position and now recognizes that a number of their people, denominations, are opposed to capital punishment.

It’s interesting that in the Old Testament, the first murderer was Cain, and God dealt with him correctly, and He didn’t kill him. He, in fact, put a mark on him so nobody would. In the New Testament, you get Jesus with the woman taken in adultery, and the proper Mosaic punishment for that was capital punishment. Jesus didn’t in any way suggest that or support that. He shamed the men, they left, and then he said, “Don’t sin anymore.” I think that, plus the fact that DNA evidence indicates that sometimes we convict people then later we discover they weren’t guilty. If we keep them in prison rather than kill them, we can correct that tragic mistake.

We all know that poor people and minorities get the death sentence much faster than other people who can afford good lawyers. 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. 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.

Your position on capital punishment and some other things that you’ve said have caused some to lump you with a group called the evangelical left. Do you accept that label? 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. At the same time, on some other issues, I would be on the political left. I regularly have trouble voting in presidential elections because the one party is closer to where I am on some issues, the other party is closer on other issues. I’ve voted both ways at the presidential level.

How do you decide? What if you agree with a Democrat on eight or 10 issues, but they’re wrong on the life issue or they’re wrong on gay marriage? In your mind, do you differentiate between a vital few issues and a trivial many issues, or do you give them all equal weight? I have tried to spell out in my book, Just Politics, how I approach the issues of public policy, I hope, in a biblically informed way. I don’t think there is one issue that trumps everything else.

But isn’t the life issue—a million babies being aborted every year—one that would trump how much money we spend on some welfare program? Tens of millions of people die every year of starvation and diseases that we could easily prevent. There are millions and millions of people dying on a whole range of issues.

People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther have said there’s maybe one question that each generation has to face. If abortion is the question for our generation, like slavery maybe was for a previous generation, shouldn’t that issue take precedence? I do think that at particular moments some issues are in play in ways that other issues are 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 choosing to take the life of an innocent person and letting somebody die of starvation or executing someone who has been convicted of [a capital crime]. 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 calls us to deal with. Then I try to decide which candidate is closer to, on balance, that whole range of issues.

That’s the way I approach it. In my lifetime, I’ve had friends who’ve said, “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.” I 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 evangelical civic engagement must have a biblically balanced agenda.

What do you want your body of work to say about you and about your contribution to the body of Christ? I would hope that, above all, people would say, “He tried to follow Jesus, true God and true man, his Lord, in every area of his life. He certainly didn’t do that perfectly, but that was his deepest desire. And he tried to be fundamentally submissive to the full Scriptures in 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’ve tried to encourage the 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 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. Most of all, I’ve tried to follow Jesus. That would be what I would hope people remember.

Listen to Warren Smith’s complete conversation with Ron Sider on Listening In.


Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD’s vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan To Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C.

@WarrenColeSmith

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