Understanding the “Evangelical Left,” Part 2: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger

Here at The Search for Piety and Obedience, we’re in the midst of a several-post series related to the so-called “evangelical left.” (For the first installment in the series, click here.)

In our last post, I argued that the Brethren in Christ should know (and care!) a great deal more about this movement because of our tradition’s significant role in birthing and shaping it. (As scholar David Swartz noted in the comments section of our last post, the Brethren in Christ have had an “outsized” influence on the movement.) I also described how Ronald J. Sider, a Brethren in Christ minister, played a critical role in getting the movement on its feet.

With this post, I want to explore one of the movement’s most important texts: Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

After the jump: More about the origins and impact of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

Published in 1977 and written while Sider was teaching and working at Messiah College’s Philadelphia Campus, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger both shocked and inspired the evangelical world. Christianity Today later named it #7 on its list of the “Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals.”

The book called on American Christians — and American evangelicals in particular — to more faithfully consider their role in the global economy. As citizens of one of (if not the) wealthiest nation in the world, American evangelicals should have a greater hand in the alleviation of hunger, material inequality, and other forms of poverty, both at home and abroad. “God is on the side of the poor!” Sider thundered at one point in the book.

Here’s a longer quotation to give you a sense of the book’s argument:

We each have our own unique gifts and calling. God wants many of us to fast and pray about social sin. Most should study, and many should write and speak out. Some should join and support organizations promoting social justice. Others should run for political office. All of us should ask how changes in our personal lifestyle could help model a better world. But God does not want anyone to feel guilty for not doing everything . . . Correct[ing] social sin is not a heavy burden. It is an invitation to joy and meaning in life, an occasion for blessing our neighbors, and a wondrous opportunity to be a coworker with the Lord of history. [1]

Here’s more on the book, courtesy of a 2000 profile of Sider in Christianity Today:

. . . Sider is not content to urge Christians to be fair in their personal dealings and generous in their giving. He takes up “structural evil”—the way in which injustice can be incorporated into a system, so that no one is really responsible, it’s “just the way things are.”

Here Sider’s book is both weakest and strongest. Sider is no economist, and as he pushes through such large issues as the international debt crisis, the structure of world trade, and global warming (in the latest, updated edition), he is not particularly convincing. As University of Michigan philosopher George Mavrodes wrote soon after Rich Christians was first issued, Sider shows little understanding that the economy is a system, and that you cannot simply change one facet of the system without introducing dozens of other unintended changes. Sider’s analysis draws from complaints voiced in many international forums, particularly by Third World and liberal economists, but he does not mention that they have been answered by conservatives.

The well-grooved debate goes approximately this way: Liberals assert that the world economic system is flawed, as proven by intolerable poverty, and suggest ways in which the system should be changed. Conservatives respond that while the situation may be bad, it might be a great deal worse, and that it is generally worst where governments attempt to intervene in free-market systems. Therefore, conservatives are skeptical about changing the system, especially where change involves new or expanded governmental powers. Liberals tend to look at the evils of poverty as a remarkable exception to the norm and hold the wealthy responsible for alleviating it; conservatives tend to look at the economic development of the West as the norm, and hold the poor responsible for not emulating it. The arguments tend to get a lot more technical from that point on. They certainly are not simple. It is not always clear why some nations have become wealthy and others remain poverty stricken; nor is it clear how the situation can be changed.

Sider clearly, if simplistically, presented the liberal side of this debate. That in itself would rankle some evangelicals, who regard anyone to the left of Jesse Helms as a doubtful Christian. But when Sider went further, when he made his views the basis for morality, he got some people’s goats. For example: “If God’s Word is true,” Sider wrote, “then all of us who dwell in affluent nations are trapped in sin. We have profited from systematic injustice. … We are guilty of an outrageous offense against God and neighbor.”

Read the whole article here.

Sider’s book certainly made an impact upon the emergent progressive strain within the evangelical movement. Rich Christians went on to tell a quarter-million copies, and continues to sell well today, in its third printing.

Readers: Have you read Rich Christians? How has it affected the way you think about social injustice and poverty? How has it affected the way you live?

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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