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The Evolution of Ronald J. Sider

In 1991, Eerdmans published a revision of Craig Gay’s Ph.D. thesis. Entitled With Liberty and Justice for Whom?, the book’s subtitle conveyed its scope: The Recent Evangelical Debate Over Capitalism. Gay’s book was marked by common social science preoccupations–the assumption that “interests” determine convictions, for example–and did not always explicate the ideas of those it described in terms that satisfied their authors, but there is no other source available that comprehensively describes the debates then current. The usual suspects filled the pages of the book. On what Gay called “the left” were Jim Wallis, Danny Collum, Arthur Gish, John Alexander, and Ronald J. Sider, some of whom were beginning to incorporate Marxist thinking into their theology. On the right–what Gay called “the defenders of capitalism”–he included people like Ronald Nash, John Jefferson Davis, Herbert Schlossberg, P. J. Hill, and E. Calvin Beisner. And in the center, “the mainstream,” he gave us mainly representatives from the Dutch Reformed tradition like Bob Goudzwaard and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Anyone interested in what evangelical thinkers were saying about economics in the decade-and-a-half after 1977 can go no place other than Gay’s book to find out what was happening.

First Edition Was a Wake-Up Call

I say “1977” because that was the year Ronald Sider published Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, the original book of which the one under review is the fourth version. The evangelical world, active in evangelism and in health and relief ministries, was largely oblivious to structural arrangements that made widespread poverty seem endemic, almost inevitable. Sider’s book was a wake-up call, striking at the complacency that was so common. It swept through evangelical colleges and seminaries and turned masses of students and teachers against the capitalist systems that Sider identified as one of the main agencies of worldwide poverty.

Arrayed against Sider’s approach in the early years was almost nothing, until David Chilton wrote Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators, published in 1981. When Sider published a new edition of Rich Christians, it was ostensibly to answer his critics, but Chilton’s name was conspicuously absent from the book. Chilton answered Sider’s second edition with his own new edition of Productive Christians (1982), and Sider’s third with his own third (1985). Now that the twentieth-anniversary edition of Rich Christians is here, we look in vain for a response from Chilton, who died young a couple of years ago.

Were Chilton still alive, he might not think it worthwhile to respond to Sider at all, since this is a different book from an author who is much changed. Sider is a new man.

Sider a new man? That’s more or less what he says. He has learned a lot of economics in the last twenty years. In the struggle of economic ideas, communism has lost and capitalism has won, and deservedly so, for the “market-oriented economy” is better, and better for poor people. Sider is especially impressed by the economic progress of some of the Asian countries that have adopted market economies. He knows the poor are not necessarily morally superior to others. Decentralized economic decisions empower people. The causes of poverty are complex. He now knows that the poverty of poor countries may be causally related to the tyrants who rule them. He now knows that the Jubilee of Leviticus 25 was not a matter of government-mandated redistribution.

Former Ideas in New Clothing

Yet, the old Sider is still with us, often so well-disguised that he himself sometimes does not appear to recognize his former ideas in new clothing. He knows that the relative income figures of rich and poor countries are misleading but still uses them. He sees that faulty worldviews have something to do with poverty, but he quotes Myrdal on colonialism and poverty as if that were not true. He now has the meaning of the Jubilee approximately right, but he sees in it “no hint … of a sacred law of supply and demand that operates independently of biblical ethics….” It is hard to see how he can recognize that the value of the land is determined by the number of harvests that are transferred to the receiver without wondering how the value of each harvest is to be determined. He will never be able to account for it if he thinks that perceptions of supply and demand have nothing legitimate to do with the setting of those prices. (That “sacred law” he speaks of is, regrettably, a cheap shot).

Sider lauds the expansion of market economies as helping the poor but seems to think it inevitable that this will lead to “pervasive cultural decline”; thus, he confuses markets with the faults of some who participate in them. He still is baffled about the workings of the free market that he lauds, presuming that if we buy an unnecessary suit, or drink a beer or eat a hamburger made with grain that could have become bread, we are taking food out of the mouths of the poor. He evidently thinks that if the beer and hamburger markets dry up because people stop consuming these products, farmers will continue to grow grain that formerly went for those purposes. For similar reasons, he still supports the cheap-food policies that have made it impossible for poor farmers in Africa to remain in business.

He is happier with the continental countries’ “more active governments” than with British and American economic liberties, apparently unaware that with long-running double-digit unemployment those more statist countries are powder kegs; indeed, as I write, France is beginning to explode with frustration.

In at least one respect this edition of the book is worse than its predecessors, containing a long, completely one-sided–the alarmist side–section on the environment. Sider cites the highly controversial 1995 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as if that settled the global warming issue. In fact, the controversy is as bristly as it ever was. I think Sider’s understanding of environmentalism is now roughly at the place his understanding of economics was in 1977, and in the years to come he will again have considerable backtracking to do.

Stewardship Mandate in Light of the Biblical Ethic

That example suggests the main problem with Sider’s approach. He still reaches conclusions based on an insufficient knowledge base, and therefore is unable to judge his sources adequately. Thus, in his index we find Gunnar Myrdal, but not P. T. Bauer; Donald Hay, but not P. J. Hill; Arthur Simon, but not Julian Simon; Lester Brown, but not Fred Singer; Dom Helder Camara, but not E. Calvin Beisner or Amy Sherman. And especially not David Chilton. That tendentious selectivity is enough to account for the incoherence of this book. Rich Christians is full of, “On the one hand this and on the other hand that,“ but without coming to any integrated conclusion that accounts for both. What could be only a series of paradoxes, susceptible to resolution, remain in this treatment irritating contradictions.

The strength of this twentieth-anniversary edition of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger is the same as the strength of its predecessors: It forces all but the most obdurate of Christians to face the issue of their own stewardship in the light of the demands of the biblical ethic. To that extent, its influence is salutary. The evangelical college I attended forty years ago was full of Eisenhower Republicans, secure in their complacent conservatism. It took a book like this to blast them out of it, and Sider deserves the credit for doing it.

Its weaknesses, however, left his readers vulnerable to the guilt-inducing delusions of collectivist thinking. This edition shows how much Sider has learned in the last few years about the potential that market economies have for preserving liberty and expanding economic well-being, but its preoccupations provide no coherent way for people to come to an understanding of their own responsibilities in the light of the stewardship mandate. Those who follow its precepts will give more generously to the poor and perhaps eat fewer hamburgers. They will think kind thoughts about the free market, but will learn from Sider neither why markets produce so much benefit nor how vulnerable they are to ignorance and malevolence wielding power. Such readers may be unable to do more than watch complacently if the market is forced to the wall by statist ideologues.