With the death of Ronald Sider we say ‘adieu’ to one of the most significant Christian voices of the last 60 years.
Born in in Erie, Ontario, Canada in 1939, he became known for his rejection of any dichotomy between evangelism and social action and his claim that the gospel encompassed the whole of life.
Since the 1970s he has been urging evangelicals to recognize the imperative to social justice, peace-making, and advocacy for those on the margins.
Sider was raised in the Brethren Church and went to Yale University, where he did his doctorate in history. In 1973, Calvin College organised a conference on politics which drew around 40 evangelical leaders from different backgrounds, including Sider. Time magazine observed wryly that it was probably the first time in the twentieth century that 40 evangelical leaders spent a whole weekend discussing social action.
Out of this gathering came the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, a far-reaching document which called for evangelicals to work for an end to racism, economic injustice, western materialism, militarism and gender inequality. Signed by dozens of evangelical leaders, the declaration confessed that evangelicals had not ‘demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.’
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger
Sider’s impact grew throughout the 1970s. In 1977 he wrote a book that New Testament scholar Gordon Fee said was one book every North American Christian should read. And, in fact Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger quickly became a global resource.
In it, Sider argued that global economic injustices cannot be addressed simply through individual social ethics. They must be tackled structurally.
Consequently, he called upon evangelicals to come together to lobby governments, not least the US Congress, to take active measures to alleviate poverty and bring justice to the dispossessed. Among many other measures, it argued for a reduction in military spending and the dropping of barriers to imports from developing nations.
Sider’s Rich Christians did not convince everyone. Loved by radical Christians who wanted to see an effective outworking of their faith, it was roundly rejected both by those who identified with right-wing individualism and those who espoused the ‘prosperity gospel.’
In March 1981,The Trinity Foundation had devoted a lengthy article to critiquing Sider as economist, theologian and historian. The author John W Robbins wrote
“Sider’s movement is the ecclesiastical tail on the socialist political dog. Far from being the vanguard, it is the rear-guard of the socialist movement. God promises to prosper those who obey him, and the prosperity of the West is obvious evidence of God’s faithfulness. Sider regards it as evidence of our immorality.”
In the same year David Chilton produced a scathing critique, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators: a biblical response to Ronald J Sider. He asserted that Sider’s book took a position contrary to the biblical teachings on economics, poverty, and giving, and that the economic model it provided was untenable.
Justice of God
The divergence between Sider and the right-wing stance of his Christian critics continues into the present day. Sider was ready to revise some of his arguments in the light of critical points, but never revoked his stance that the justice of God found throughout the scriptures should be the touchstone for understanding and responding to global issues.
Many of those who agree with him continue to see in the ‘prosperity of the West’ the impact of exploitation, abuse of power, impact of the arms trade and the legacy of a post-colonial world.
Other social issues
Issues of economic justice were not the only ones which Sider pursued. He wrote 30 books, on a wide range of topics. In Completely Pro-Life, for example, published in the mid-1980s, Sider called on Christians to be consistent in not simply opposing abortion, but standing against nuclear weapons, hunger, and other conditions that are anti-life.
Peacekeeping was also high on Sider’s agenda. He gave a keynote address at the 1984 MWC assembly where he suggested that Anabaptists’ were following a ‘risk-free pacifism.’ Whilst refusing to participate in war, they took no action prevent violence. For him, poverty alleviation and pacifism went together. His message insisted:
“Unless comfortable North American and European Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are prepared to risk injury and death in nonviolent opposition to the injustice our societies foster and assist in Central America, the Philippines, and South Africa, we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands. Unless we are prepared to pay the cost of peace-making, we have no right to claim the label or preach the message.”
Response to Trump
Over the last decade Sider’s public leadership has continued. In 2020 Sider publicly criticised Donald Trump in a book he edited, The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity. In an interview he said “Our plea is to white Evangelicals to please take another look and ask,
‘Does this person measure up to biblical norms?'”
Tragically, so many of those leaders have not faced that question.
Integrity and personality
Although I have focussed on Sider’s writings and public addresses, these were only one aspect of his Christian discipleship. As his friend Tony Campolo said reflecting on the time when Sider’s family moved into a disadvantaged black area,
‘It wasn’t just an academic perception of the Bible. It was living out his beliefs in a way that became a model for many of us.’
His personality itself spoke volumes. When I first met him in the 1990s, the constant label he was given of ‘radical’ and ‘non-compromiser’ had conveyed someone stern and perhaps austere. I was struck instead by his gentleness and the way he engaged with and encouraged others.
For his friend, Craig Keener, this was his way of life: in his own excellent obituary in Christianity Today he observes:
‘I found him ready to embrace what he saw as the best solutions from either side of today’s (tragically polarized) political aisle, and he maintained contacts on both sides of that split. He always remained the consistent evangelical Anabaptist that he was—living simply and sacrificially and working on behalf of the needy.’
In 2021, Ron Sider was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and underwent radiology and chemotherapy treatments. On July 27, 2022, he died following cardiac arrest. He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Arbutus Lichti Sider, their three adult children and their families.
We offer our deep condolences to them and we offer heartfelt thanks to God for a life so well lived.
Elaine Storkey is a broadcaster, lecturer and author. She was President of Tearfund from 1996 to 2014 and is an Ambassador for Restored. Her most recent book is Women in a Patriarchal World (SPCK). See elainestorkey.com.
A longer version of this obituary was originally published on Fulcrum.