Ron Sider's Unsettling Crusade
Ron Sider doesn't seem the type to upset people. A short, balding seminary professor with a quick smile and thick glasses, he talks in a relaxed, low-voltage way. Professionally he is a hybrid, a historian who teaches theology and talks and writes about politics and economics. His academic credentials are exemplary: a Ph.D. in Reformation history Yale; articles published in prestigious journals. Theologically he is a heartland evangelical, deeply committed to an inspired Bible, to a passionate communication of the gospel and to a transforming personal faith. Politically he is mainstream Democratic party except for conservative stances on homosexuality and abortion.
In short, Sider is no flaming radical. Yet it would be hard to think of another evangelical who has been more ardently criticized for being "radical."
In reality, Sider takes flak from both the Left and the Right, particularly when he upholds evangelical positions at ecumenical meetings. "I've been picketed twice," he says, "by theonomists [who believe in applying Old Testament law today] in Australia, and in Minnesota by gay-rights [advocates]." The bulk of the criticism, however, comes from the Right. David Chilton, a conservative thinker, has honored Sider's best-known book, Rich Christians an Age of Hunger, with a book-length response, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators. With each of updated editions of Rich Christians, Chilton has sued a new edition of his critique, going so far as to mimic the cover art of each edition so that the response looks like a precise replica of the original. Another example is Lloyd Billingsley's A Generation That Knew Not Josef, which compares Sider at length to Americans who naívely promoted mass murderer Josef Stain.
Sider even upsets people who aren't particularly conservative. The Wittenburg Door, in mid-interview, grew irate enough to accuse him of promoting legalistic Pharisaism.
They aren't reacting to the man however. Sider promotes his political and personal agendasimple living, for examplemost graciously. "I live in a very nice house," sociologist and speaker Tony Campolo says. "I have no problem inviting Ron over to the house for dinner. I don't have the sense that he's walking in, looking around and saying, 'Oh, Campolo, how can you live like this?' Instead of feeling judged for where I am, I always feel affirmed in terms of where I'm going."
Still, Sider's message is uncomfortableno matter how he presents it. His crime, so to speak, is that he applies evangelical moralitysin and repentance and the need for transformed livesto the unfamiliar subjects of politics and economics. If Sider were moralizing about sex, no evangelical would object; but when he moralizes about wealth, that's legalism. If he took strong stands on an antifamily bill before Congress, few would be troubled; but when he says the righteousness of God demands that we change America's tariff structure, he upsets people.
Sider strongly resists being typecast as a political liberal. He points out issues where he is conservativeregarding homosexuality and abortion, and on issues like school vouchers and child-care. Still, says Campolo, who deeply admires Sider, "If you want to know Ron Sider's view on capital punishment, you don't even have to ask. If you want to know his view on El Salvador, you don't have to ask. If you want to know what he thinks about disarmament and the military, you don't even have to ask. If it looks liberal, and it smells liberal, and it tastes liberal, it's liberal." While Campolo doesn't think liberal is so terrible a word, a lot of evangelicals do. The identification of conservative theology with conservative politics is powerful, and some get rattled hearing politically liberal positions supported in the name of God.