The Two Sides of Social Justice
Dr. Ron Sider released his seminal work, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger in 1977. But 33 years and half-a-million copies in print later, it’s still a thought-provoking work on Christians’ role in social justice. We spoke to Sider about the hope, the need and the future of social justice.
Social justice has become something of a trend recently, and trendy again in the evangelical church in the last 20 years. Are there certain things you have seen as a positive effect?
As I look around the world, I have a lot of optimism about the next couple decades. I see Evangelicals and Pentecostals who are passionate about evangelism who are embracing social engagement and justice for the poor as well as creation care. Doing that and putting it together, if we manage to do that, I think the next couple decades will be a wonderful time for the history of Christian faith. Christianity is growing around the world and nowhere faster than Pentecostals. Increasingly Pentecostals are embracing social concern. Put that together with the Holy Spirit and you have absolute dynamite.
Do you see any negative effects in this social justice “trend”?
I see evangelicals who embrace social justice in a way that begins to neglect evangelism, and that bothers me immensely. It seems to me that the next generation, as they embrace social justice uniquely, it is crucial that they not for a moment neglect a passion for evangelism. First, because it’s biblical, and second because people are not just created for life on earth, they are invited to live forever with the Lord, and if we don’t tell them, they don’t know about that. And third because it’s precisely the combination of evangelism and social action that works best during this life.
You need a combination of evangelism, which transforms a person on the inside, gives new values and a justice activity that enables them to get an education, buy a house, get a job.
What do you see as the most critical areas of need in the next few years?
I am always uneasy with that question. I have always said you need to have a biblically balanced agenda. Now within that framework, I am willing to lift up four or five that I think are very important. I think that continuing to respect the sanctity of human life. I think it is crucial that we end the scandal of widespread poverty, that our own nation, the richest nation in human history, we still have the highest percentage of poor in any industrialized nation. And globally, we have people who try to live on a dollar a day. We know what to do to change those things. So reducing poverty would be a second issue. I think that marriage in our society is in crisis. I think most of all because Christians don’t keep their marriage vows. Evangelicals get divorced at the same rate as non-Christians, and that’s an incredible scandal. I think we also ought to preserve the traditional understanding of marriage in terms of our law. But the most important things Christians can do for marriage is live joyous, wholesome, faithful marriages; that would be so attractive that more and more people would say, “Whatever enables you to do that, I want to do that, too.” It would be a powerful evangelistic tool. So marriage is crucial. I think that climate change is absolutely crucial. I think that dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons is crucial. All of those and others are important.
In considering our current momentum, where do you see us in the next 10 years?
On the one hand we’ve had quite fabulous growth in the number and size of Christian development organizations in the last 50 years. I like to say that World Vision was a Korean Orphan choir, using a small amount of money supporting a few orphanages in Korea and now it is a 2 billion organization all by itself. Probably another 1 billion being raised by other belief and development organizations. The bad news is the giving patterns in the last 40 years have dropped consistently. We used to give 3.1 percent in 1969 and it has dropped consistently to the point where it is now 2.6 percent. That reflects a growing materialism among the bulk of American Christians that’s very disturbing and worries me a great deal. What we need is more biblical preaching, more faithful programs in churches to teach people about what the Bible says and the need of the world both in evangelism and overcoming poverty. And we need to have our leaders visit other countries and see firsthand how desperate poverty is and what we can do to change that.
Moving forward, how can we sustainably maintain our momentum and passion for social justice?
I think the best way to sustain Christian social action long term is to keep it solidly biblical. Keep it grounded in solid, historic Christian theology to keep it grounded in the clear understanding that people need Jesus and a job, that we need to do evangelism and social action. All of that’s crucial.