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Prophet or Siren? Ron Sider's Continued Influence

Ever since the 1977 publication of his Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger, Ron Sider has been among the most prominent voices calling American evangelicals to a greater concern for the poor. Since then, he has continued to write prolifically on the subject of poverty and the Christian’s obligation to the poor. Sider has sold thousands of books, regularly writes for Christianity Today and other publications, is founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), and publisher of PRISM magazine, an ESA publication. In these venues and others, Sider has been a relentless defender of the poor and has consistently challenged American Christians to take seriously God’s mandated concern for the poor.

Sider not only calls others to heed the poor but also demonstrates a lifestyle of commitment to the poor. With a respectable academic pedigree from Yale, Sider could presumably have pursued a comfortable middle-class existence–teaching, writing, serving as a pastor, or working in some other occupation similar to those of his Ivy League peers. Yet for three decades he has lived in parts of Philadelphia into which his Yale colleagues might not want to venture after dark. Living among the poor was not only a conscious decision he and his wife made in order to better identify with and serve the poor but has also shaped his thinking and writing in ways that no academic research ever could.

Sider has been quite open about his lifestyle in his writings and in interviews. He does not hesitate to count himself among the “rich Christians” of his book title. A few years ago in an interview for a Christian magazine, Sider discussed his family’s financial decision-making. His family has owned cars, and he has sent his children to Christian high schools and colleges, even though, as the interviewer presses, “children were starving in India.” He insists that he is not calling on wealthy American Christians to live at the poverty level, but to reconsider lifestyle and giving choices. In light of world poverty, “we ought to spend less on ourselves and give more to others.” In his books, he has described the “graduated tithe,” a process by which a family gives beyond the ten percent tithe, increasing their giving exponentially as their income increases.

With his constant presence in evangelical publishing and publications, one must wonder what kind of influence he has had. In a conversation with the dean of an evangelical seminary, this reviewer made the comment that Ron Sider has had a great impact on the economic thinking of seminary students and professors. The dean challenged that statement, asking, How many pastors practice the graduated tithe? How many Christians have relocated to poorer neighborhoods than where they would otherwise live? How many have substantially altered their spending habits and increased their giving to the poor?

A Hard Look at Policies That Affect the Poor

Ron Sider has, no doubt, asked himself these questions as well. Many Christians will testify to having been influenced by Sider’s writings, but Sider would acknowledge that his work is far from over. In his recent book, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, Sider revisits familiar themes, taking a hard look at policy areas that affect the poor. Like Sider’s other works, Just Generosity is written for the layman but with a decidedly more technical tone, due to the process by which it came to be. Sider is part of the group of scholars who wrote the essays for Toward a Just and Caring Society: Christian Responses to Poverty in America, which Baker published in conjunction with the book under review. Sider uses the scholarly articles of that volume to provide much of the basis for his policy proposals in Just Generosity.

Sider opens Just Generosity by asking this question: Why, in the “richest society in human history” (27), does poverty persist, and why do American Christians tolerate the levels of poverty that exist? In his trademark way, Sider discusses causes of poverty and gives a biblical foundation for caring for the poor. Although our nation has made much progress in addressing poverty, Sider argues, currently liberals and conservatives are stuck in a policy impasse. Liberals tend to blame structures and systems for the persistence of poverty, while conservatives tend to blame “wrong moral choices exacerbated by bad government policy” (35). Sider concludes, “Both are partly right.” Neither personal choices nor societal, legal, and economic structures can be excluded from a discussion of poverty.

Just as conservatives and liberals have disagreed on the causes of poverty, so have they disagreed on the solutions. Following Robert Bellah, Sider states that liberals have looked predominantly to government to solve the problem of poverty. Conservatives, on the other hand, “expected individuals to flourish if government got out of the way and let the market do its magic” (81). Sider calls for a renewal of civil society. A strong civil society not only upholds and teaches those moral qualities that can prevent individual poverty but also can instill a sense of community and a desire to provide help and support for one’s less fortunate neighbors. The religious community in particular can provide moral leadership in defense of morality and care for the poor, as well as developing structures and attitudes that prevent and reduce poverty.

This is where Ron Sider is at his best. He explicitly avoids the label “prophet,” but in many ways he continues the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, calling the church to repentance for its deafness to the cries of the poor. Granted, charitable giving in the United States exceeds that of most nations. Take a walk around any town in the country and you will see sign after sign of generosity. Hospitals, museums, schools, churches, and many other institutions that shape who we are were provided and are sustained by the generosity of countless Americans. However, as a recent Christianity Today article recounts, charitable giving in the United States hovers at around 2 percent of income. Regular church attenders account for a good deal of that; they average over 3 percent. One recent study found that evangelicals gave 4.27 percent of their income to their churches in 1993, down from 6.19 percent in 1968.

When Christians fall so short of giving a tithe to their own churches, it is no surprise that church-related and secular organizations that serve the poor struggle to attract and retain donors. Sider is correct to point out that at current levels of giving, civil society, including religious institutions, could never approach the level of support the poor currently receive from the government. Would that all Americans, Christians and otherwise, heed the call that Sider has been sending out for over twenty years now, and constantly consider how they, their churches, and the voluntary organizations of which they are a part might expand their involvement with the poor. Whether or not he sees his role as prophetic, Sider ought to be commended for his part in keeping this challenge before American Christians.

Sider’s Mixed Message

However, Sider’s call to renew civil society has a flip side. Sider asserts that civil society has not and will not, in the very near future, rise to the tasks of serving the poor. As he puts it, “any suggestion that churches replace governmental care for the poor is unrealistic” (92). He makes it clear that he sees an important and permanent role for government: “Let no one misunderstand my call for a greatly expanded role for faith-based agencies in civil society as a libertarian rejection of government’s important role” (87).

Here Sider’s message is mixed. He can minimize the role of government: “Government should act as a last resort when other institutions do not or cannot care for the poor” (93). And he emphasizes that government policy must not weaken those primary structures in society that prevent and reduce poverty, such as the family and religious institutions. Yet, in each of the policy chapters, he turns to government policy as a final solution. Granted, he discusses the role of the family and civil society, but ultimately government solutions prevail.

Some brief examples may be helpful. Problem: The working poor do not earn enough to support a family. Possible solutions: Earned Income Tax Credit and other tax credits and benefits; minimum wages; federally mandated family wage; government-funded jobs programs. Problem: Broken families have high rates of poverty. Possible solutions: Reformed divorce laws; home-ownership tax credits for low-income families; tax incentives for marriage. Problem: Many poor have limited or no access to health care. Possible solutions: Government-funded insurance; mandated job-related insurance for all workers. Problem: The poor receive inferior education. Possible solutions: Mandated equal per-student funding for all schools; voucher system.

These examples are not exhaustive, nor are they all bad proposals. Many of these find support among liberals. Others are favorites of conservatives. (One of Sider’s real strengths in making proposals such as these is that he is careful to avoid being labeled, by offending both conservatives and liberals!) These examples are meant to demonstrate that Sider does lean heavily on government solutions in formulating a response to poverty. When he offers private-sector, voluntary solutions, he often does so with an expectation that they will be funded with government money. Throughout the book, Sider celebrates the Charitable Choice portion of the 1996 welfare bill, which permits faith-based agencies to receive federal grants for anti-poverty programs. This is not the forum in which to weigh the drawbacks and benefits of Charitable Choice, but that measure is another method of employing government means to reach the goal of responding to poverty.

One who knows Sider’s writings at all will not be surprised by any of this. Sider can never be accused of advocating anarchy or any form of libertarianism. One might have hoped, however, that, given his strong endorsement of civil society, he would have offered more creative ways in which civil society can address poverty. His mantra that civil society can only do so much without the help of government left this reviewer wondering why Sider did not make some truly radical proposals involving voluntary action alone.

Sider would benefit from a healthy cynicism concerning government action. He freely criticizes the failure of private businesses to provide a just wage or health benefits to workers, the selfishness of middle-class parents who oppose the distribution of school funding from their children’s schools to poor schools, the greed of business people who grant themselves ballooning salaries while workers’ incomes stagnate, and other examples of inequality and injustice in our economic system. But the same human failings that lead to injustice and inequality in the private sector exist in the public sector as well. Human shortsightedness, selfishness, and sinfulness find their way just as easily into public policy and administration.

The reality is that many of the programs created by government to help the poor have had the opposite effect. Other policies not specifically addressed to the poor have had unintended consequences harmful to the poor. When Charles Murray argued in Losing Ground, in 1984, that the Great Society programs so carefully designed to help the poor in fact made things worse, few took him seriously. But soon his arguments began to make sense to both Republicans and Democrats. Some now say that we need more government programs, or different kinds of programs. Others call for a limitation of government programs and the establishment or strengthening of voluntary structures. Sider aims toward the middle of these two sides, but his shots tend to fall on the side of government programs and government funding. The church would be better served if he would overcompensate, aiming toward less government involvement and more voluntary action, using his energies to propose and promote more creative, voluntary, nongovernmental solutions to the problems he discusses. Sider’s siren song of reliance on government ultimately defeats his call to a renewed civil society.

Seeing the Poor Through the Eyes of Christ

Whatever his specific policy proposals, Sider comes back around to the decisions of individual Christians. He never leaves the government out of the picture completely: “Fully or largely privatizing society’s obligations to the least among us is impractical, unrealistic, and wrong” (218). But his bottom line, his final word, is the commitment of individual Christians to pray for the poor, to have personal contact with the poor, to commit to spending time serving the poor, to learn about the poor, and to evaluate their spending patterns in light of the needs of others. His “Generous Christians Campaign,” in which Christians pledge to do all of the above, is a positive step in leading Christians to be more other-directed, to share from their personal abundance, and to begin seeing the poor through the eyes of Christ.

Many of Sider’s specific policy proposals are objectionable, as is his overarching reliance on government solutions and funding, but in light of the pressing needs of the poor, and in light of the unprecedented wealth of Americans, his hopeful conclusion is a welcome, and needed, vision. “Generous Christians and other people of goodwill can transform our country. We can end the scandal of widespread poverty in the richest nation in history” (222)

Perhaps Sider could add to that an accompanying admonition from Abraham Kuyper, who wrote in The Problem of Poverty, “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”