The Parable of the Good Samaritan is so familiar, we often forget what prompted it. It was Jesus’ response to a scribe’s question: “Who is my neighbor?” In Jesus’ day, one’s neighbor was someone in your social network. One helped one’s neighbor because, at least potentially, someday the neighbor may return the favor. In contrast Jesus offered a radical view: Your neighbor is someone with whom you may share few existing ties. Your neighbor may not even be a fellow countryman. Your neighbor may be someone whom it is risky to love, and loving your neighbor may call you to make inconvenient sacrifices.
Kent Annan’s Slow Kingdom Comingis the latest in a sequence of books that teach us about loving our impoverished neighbor, especially those overseas. To grasp the significance of Annan’s book, though, we need to look at its literary parents, books that have emerged as modern classics (and in new editions), books that have become must-reads for Christians who choose to become involved with the poor.
Two generations ago it would seem that much of American evangelicalism had the same view of neighbor as did Jesus’ hearers. This view was shattered by Ron Sider in his Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Originally published in 1977, it was one of those books you hardly had to read, because its mere title suggested a call to action. Great books almost always become so because of timing; Sider’s book appeared at an important early period of globalized media. It was a period when new technology allowed us to witness the lives of the poor in the developing world just as Americans had begun to attain a state of affluence that allowed them to care for people on the other side of the world who didn’t look or speak or live like them.
The main impact of the early editions of Rich Christians was, frankly, in producing a kind of holy guilt. The strength of the first edition was not in its economics, which was often terrible. It was not in its understanding of the causes of poverty, which were often wrong. It was not in the interventions and action for which it advocated, which were often naïve. Certainly Sider’s biblical teaching about justice awoke the conscience of many Bible-centric evangelicals. But even more than this, the greatness of the book lay in its challenge: Here are your global neighbors, rich Christian. How are you going to respond?
Rich Christians became a living organism. It has matured over its six editions, in many aspects radically (early editions, for example, criticized international trade; later additions see it as a good). The latest edition, published in 2015, contains vastly improved chapters on the causes of poverty and what micro and macro interventions are most likely to be helpful. As Sider has learned, his readers have learned. The 2015 edition is a book worth reading, even if one was powerfully influenced by the first edition nearly two generations ago.