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Remember Ron Sider, Evangelicalism’s Original Social Justice Warrior

Remember Ron Sider, Evangelicalism’s Original Social Justice Warrior

Ron Sider, the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger who pushed evangelicals towards involvement in social justice, has passed away. His son announced Sider’s passing on Facebook, according to Christianity Today.

Sider devoted his life to pushing American Christians to work for social change, calling them to address structural issues like systemic racism, the industrial military complex and poverty. Long before “social justice” became a rallying cry for a new generation of Christians, Sider was mobilizing his fellow evangelicals to think of sin as not only as a personal issue, but also a structural one that Christians should take seriously. He saw the call to love one’s neighbor as more than just being nice to the people who happen to live on either side of you. In his paradigm, “love thy neighbor” was a radical call to tear down the social causes of poverty and disenfranchisement, and help create a society of flourishing for all people.

Sider took the Bible’s warnings against the rich very seriously and felt that Americans, many of whom are particularly affluent, should do the same. “If God’s word is true, then all of us who dwell in affluent nations are trapped in sin. We have profited from systemic injustice,” Sider in Rich Christians. “We are guilty of an outrageous offense against God and neighbor.”

Sider argued that poverty wasn’t just an economic issue, nor was it inevitable. He said the Bible called Christians to treat poverty as a spiritual issue, a sin nations needed to collectively turn from.

Sider helped found what is now called Christians for Social Justice, a political organization that mobilized Christians to address societal issues like racism, poverty, war and hunger. This was in 1978, and his small movement was soon dwarfed by the much larger and better funded Moral Majority, which elevated Ronald Reagan and his focus on individual responsibility. The popularization of the notion of stereotypes like “welfare queens” ran contrary to Sider’s theology, but it attracted a wide following and made the Christians for Social Justice movement a small wave running against a mighty tide.

It was a recurring theme of Sider’s life to be on the other political side from the majority of his fellow evangelicals. He fiercely opposed everything from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the 2016 presidency of Donald Trump, even editing a collection of essays about what he called the “Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump.”

Nevertheless, Sider never gave up on evangelicalism itself, penning a 2016 essay for CT defending the faith tradition. “Popular media learned from these examples that evangelical has often meant unjust and unbiblical,” he wrote. “This is a problem, but it’s one we can overcome. Throughout my life, I have repeatedly discovered that the media are intrigued by evangelicals who are passionate about economic and racial justice and protection of the environment. Leading with these concerns helps non-Christians listen to our conversation about Christ. Over time, we can help the larger society come to a better understanding of what an evangelical is.”

In 2011, Sider wrote “An Open Letter to This Generation” for RELEVANT, in which he called on young Christians to focus on both physical and spiritual needs of others, saying the call of God is to redeem the whole person.

“Evangelism and social action are inseparable,” he wrote. “They are two sides of the same coin. But they are not identical. Working for economic development in poor communities or structural change to end systemic oppression is not the same thing as inviting persons who do not now confess Christ to embrace Him as Lord and Savior. If we only do social action and never say we do it because of Christ, our good deeds only point to ourselves and make us look good.

The Bible clearly teaches that persons are both material and spiritual beings. Scripture and human experience show sin is personal and social; social brokenness (including poverty) results both from wrong personal choices and unjust structures. If we only work at half the problem, we only produce half a solution. People need both personal faith in Christ that transforms their values and very person, and material, structural transformation that brings new socioeconomic opportunities.”

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