If there is one book that summarizes the cultural ethos and failed nerve of Christianity Today and InterVarsityPress, it would be Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. First, I will highlight some good points, then I will say a few really ugly remarks, then I will critique the book.
Some Good Points
He has a fairly decent take on the Sabbatical year (83ff). I don’t think he realizes that his master, The United Nations, isn’t that concerned with biblical law. Further, I like how he notes that Scripture “prescribes justice” (83; cf. Dt 15:9-10). Sider even approaches (and at times affirms) the godly principle that “sinful persons and societies will always produce poor people” (83). Amen, and amen. I have to ask though, if Sider can name some societies in the 20th century that adopted his principles and if they were sinful and produced poor people. One such society had four letters in its abbreviation.
Sider has some surprisingly astute comments on interest and he realizes that Christendom’s painful back-and-forth on interest wasn’t pretty and so we shouldn’t generalize (85).
He further notes that Marxists and Capitalists worship the same god: Economic forces (105). Of course, Sider himself labours (pun) for world revolutionary forces, so he can’t be taken all that seriously. Further, he rightly criticises the business model that has infected churches today (107).
He has an excellent section on asceticism (111ff) and its false ontology/anthropology. He writes, “Christian asceticism has a long history, but Jesus’s life undermines its basic assumptions” (112). Of course, a lot of the biblical examples Sider cites assume that one can legitimately spend one’s wealth on grain, alcohol, or feasts without feeling guilty by socialist agitators.
David Chilton has correctly pointed out that this book is a guilt trip. But that’s not why I am mad. Religious people of various denominations have been trying to guilt trip me over silly stuff for years. I’m largely immune to it. But when he projects “guilt-psychoses” onto godly, hard-working Christians who have made cuts in their lifestyles and to hear “they have earned hell-fire” because they didn’t meet Sider’s arbitrary “line of essentials.” To quote Chris Rock,
Shut the f%$k up
Sider makes routine comments like “And justice, as we have seen, means things like the Jubilee and sabbatical remission of debts” (115; statements like these are throughout the book). It raises the obvious question: Who will enforce this? Laws without sanctions are no different than PCA “recommendations.”
Holier than God?
Sider has modified his tone from his first edition where he was adding to the gospel (yea, preaching another gospel). Still, he makes comments like “It is sinful abomination for one part of the world’s Christians to grow richer year by year while our brothers and sisters in the third world suffer” (98). This would be a true statement if a number of other conditions were met. Are North American Christians causing other Christians to suffer? If they are, Sider has given us no argument nor shown any evidence. Further, would he have N.A. Christians be just as poor? If so, then how could they help? If they didn’t have any wealth, then how could Sider’s globalist masters take it from them? He hasn’t thought these things through.
He notes that conservative pastors speak on “personal sins” but rarely on “structural sins” (119). He does cite some texts trying to prove the existence of “structural sins,” but the texts mention sophisticated personal sins (ala Amos 2:6-7). If there is such a category of structural sins–by which he seems to mean a certain way of society in which participation is sinful–they usually appear as a complex of personal sins in a social setting. It’s hard to really talk about structural evils outside of presupposing Marx.
The institutional evils that Sider does criticize are in fact evil. I just worry about using a Marxist term to categorize it. But are the evils perversions of goods (private property) or are they embedded in the nature of things (private property, discipline use of scarce resources)? Sider has elsewhere affirmed private property, so it isn’t clear exactly what he has to say here.
To be fair, Sider does define what he means by structural evils: “Initial injustices, unless corrected, mushroom” (127). This is actually insightful, but he never disentangles his rhetoric from Marxist terminology. Marx saw society as inherently violent and could only progress by historical dialectic, which itself would probably be violent.
Plainly Misreads Texts
The most glaring misreading of texts is his appeal to the Jubilee principle (80ff). While he correctly notes that the text says “all land should be returned to original owners,” and that “it was the poor person’s right to receive back his inheritance” (81). While he doesn’t draw the conclusion, this is a brilliant argument against the evil and satanic practice of Federal inheritance taxes.
He does correctly note that Yahweh says “The Land is mine” (Lev. 25:23), but what principle should we draw from that? Only the dominum can thus distribute the land. This is the same dominion economics that Wyclif argued. Well and good, but one suspects that Sider has another dominum in mind: The State.
I don’t know how he thinks his model will work. He says “the specific provisions of the Jubilee year aren’t binding today” (85). I agree with him, so how does he apply it? Why is this law binding today but the ones about stoning sodomites and idolaters not? He gives us no answer.
External Contradictions with Scripture
Sider’s most notorious point is the graduated tithe. I just want to point out one Scriptural difficulty with it. The Bible tells us that a godly man leaves an inheritance for his seed (Prov. 13:22). Yet, if Sider has his way it’s hard to see how this could happen. There would be no inheritance. It would all have been given away!
Internal Contradictions with Logic
Sider’s book is riddle with inconsistencies. He notes (rightly) that “the right of each person to have means to earn his own way takes precedence over a purchaser’s property rights” (81). Absolutely. But when the state is interfering with regulations, how can he seriously claim the above?
Further, if Sider complains about world debt (and I don’t really disagree with him) yet he presupposes structures like the World Bank and the United Nations (which, ironically, are structural evils!), then his problem shouldn’t be with right-wing Christians but with his own statist overlords.
He complains about LDC (limited developing countries) “protein deficiency,” yet he ignores a concrete solution to the problem. A country like India with such a deficiency has a lot of cattle. Unfortunately, they worship the cows instead of eating them. Idolatry and economic devastation are connected. Sider doesn’t seem to see it.
Keynes or Smith?
Sider urges us not to make an idol of private property nor seek the advice of “that deist Adam Smith” (102). In the next paragraph he praises the Keynesian revolution. If we are going to make irrelevant comments about Adam Smith’s religious views, is now the time to mention that Keynes liked to molest little black Tunisian boys?
Fat Cat Corporations
I won’t address the sections on corporatism. A lot has changed in 30 years (both good and bad) and neither Sider nor I am really competent to speak on these matters. I would simply challenge him that his beloved World Bank is probably culpable in a lot of these international corporate schemes.
There is a lot of America-bashing in this book. For all of America’s evils, real or supposed, I do suspect that if America were to disappear, millions more would die.
Am I guilty?
Jesus asked, “Is your eye evil because mine is good?” I refuse to let socialist agitators make me hate God’s blessings. Still, per Sider’s recommendations, I really don’t eat all that much beef (for reasons other than guilt-trips), both of my cars were made in the last millennium (and breaking now, for what it’s worth), both churches I was a member of in the last ten years contributed to concrete, local charities that actually made a difference.
Graduated tithe: he realizes he can’t make this binding on Christians today, so I will ignore it.
Communal Living: This is almost funny. One should study the history of communal living in America. Besides a nigh-100% failure rate, they more often than not end up being sex orgies. In any case, the agrarian in me does gravitate towards simplicity, but not because of Sider’s guilt trips.
How should we live in response to Sider? For one, who are these cozy, fat-cat, presumably white and conservative Christians that are so callous to the poor? He doesn’t list any names. Further, I am not aware of conservative churches that don’t give money to charities (who are better able to manage it than some bureaucrat in Washington).
The danger isn’t that my feelings are hurt because Sider shamelessly libeled his brothers in Christ. No, he isn’t stupid. He is against charitable giving. Therefore, the only solution is the Government. But even here we have a problem. At least in theory, America’s government is democratic. Those white males don’t elect socialists. That’s no problem, though, for Sider has a stronger play: The United Nations.
Sider is long on saying governments should adopt biblical principles (79, 144, 194) but I get the sneaky suspicion that this is merely suppressing fire for a globalist order. He says America and Russia have biblical obligations to give their resources to poorer countries (194), yet he lists no bible verses proving these obligations.
He says this is not a call for a violent revolution (194). Okay, how will you enforce it then? What if I say no to your demands. What are you going to do then? At this point Sider has two options: something like PCA recommendations or the point of a bayonet.
Because I love my country, I won’t take up arms against the Government (unless I am led by a godly lesser magistrate; then I would be on the front line). I will fight to the death any bureaucrat from Brussels or Paris or London or wherever).