It is now just thirty years since Carl F.H. Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Evidently there is still a good bit of uneasiness on the more conservative and evangelical side of the church. Some of it concerns the proper use of wealth and property, especially in a world ever more conscious of poverty and deprivation. The two main elements of this uneasiness are the biblical teaching on the one hand and the contrast between the affluence of some and the poverty of others on the other hand. Ronald J. Sider’s book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: A Biblical Study, is an exploration of both of these elements. The 253-page paperback has been selling quite well (at $4.95) since it was issued a few months ago by Inter-Varsity Press.
One thing that struck me repeatedly is that, for all of Sider’s recurring talk about structural evil, institutionalized sin, and so forth, he does not appreciate the extent to which an economic system is a system. That is, it is a pattern of relations in which a change at one point will generate corresponding and compensating changes at other points.
This failure, I think, makes Sider too ready to accept a crude “devil theory” of poverty, which attributes every economic pain to some evil machination. The corollary of this is a too facile optimism, which supposes that we can eliminate the pains by getting rid of the machinations. It also leads to a series of curious inconsistencies. For example, when Sider talks of the prices that developing countries pay for the resources they need (as India needs oil) he complains that our use of such resources pushes up the world price. But when he writes of the developing countries selling resources, he complains that we keep the price too low. He suggests that the United States’ reduction of foreign foodstuffs is “naïve or perverse” because it would result in higher unemployment abroad. Yet he also complains that we are importing food from countries that suffer from malnutrition and should be keeping their food for themselves.
Occasionally Sider recognizes these contradictions. He warns that providing wheat free or at artificially low prices in a poor country may stifle the local production of grain and make that country permanently dependent on outside supplies. (I understand that the rules of mainland China have charged that the U.S. does this.) His proposal, however—require the recipients to work in exchange for the grain—probably will not have the desired effect. If the required work really is locally useful and if the poor were able to do it, then they could have earned enough to buy grain. But if such required work is not locally useful, then local production will still be stifled.
Despite that, Sider usually seems unaware that his policies may have different results than he intends. Suppose that we voluntarily increased the price that we pay for crude rubber (a recurrent suggestion of Sider’s), then, Sider says, rubber workers would get higher wages. Fine. But wouldn’t rubber producers scramble to increase production? And wouldn’t land and labor be diverted from other enterprises, such as food production, to cash in on higher rubber prices? Since we don’t need more rubber, the increased production would represent a waste of resources. Sider seems not to notice such consequences.
I mentioned the “devil theory” of economic pains. There is also a theological and biblical point involved here, which Sider does not treat at all in the book and which needs some consideration. Repeatedly I found the suggestion that poor countries are poor because rich countries keep them that way. He appears to think that people in the developed countries have some magical means of keeping prices low for Fourth World products. But by and large, that is not true. The coffee prices that we have paid over the past few months have shown that the desire of American consumers for cheap coffee counts for practically nothing in the face of a good hard frost. Sider admits that the causes of poverty and affluence among nations are complex. The real causes belong to two classes. “Natural” factors for one. Weather and topography alone make it overwhelmingly probable that farming will be a more remunerative enterprise in Iowa than in Nepal. Compared to these factors such things as tariff policies and the management decisions of United Brands are minor. The other major factor is the fact that—for reasons still not well understood—science and technology developed much more rapidly in the West than elsewhere. For these main reasons the U.S. is a richer country than Nepal.
Sider sharply criticizes Garrett Hardin of “lifeboat ethics” fame. Perhaps some of his criticisms are cogent. But Sider himself makes a proposal that has the flavor of Hardin about it. He proposes that we adopt, nationally, a “New Food Policy.” As part of this policy, the United States and Canada would provide outright gifts of grain to countries in emergencies. But he then says that “The United States and Canada should announce that food aid will go only to countries which are implementing the internationally agreed upon world plan of action drawn up at the UN’s Population Conference (Bucharest, 1974) and the UN’s World Food Conference (Rome, 1974)” (p. 216). And so Sider is apparently willing to let the poor of a certain country starve (no food aid), if that government objects to the imposition upon it of population and agricultural policies worked out in Bucharest and Rome and mandated from Washington and Ottawa.
The principle that seems to underlie this doctrine of Sider’s—that we must sometimes leave undone a good that we might have done to allow for a long-range good—is fundamental to Hardin also. More importantly, if Sider really does hold this principle, I wish that it had been more in evidence elsewhere in the book. I think that we are not yet well accustomed to thinking that way about Christian duties, and we need all the help we can get in learning when to use it—and when not.
Sider makes several interesting proposals for changes in our lifestyles and he includes a helpful list of ways to cut down on spending. And he gives us some criteria for giving. I will concentrate on what Sider calls the “graduated tithe” that he and his family practice. “We started,” he says, “by sitting down and trying to calculate honestly what we would need to live for a year. We wanted a figure that would permit reasonable comfort but not all the luxuries.” That “base figure” for their family of five is now $8,000 per year. On the first $8,000 of their income, then, they give a tithe of 10 per cent. On the next $1,000 of income they tithe 15 per cent, 20 per cent on the next thousand, and the tithe increases by five percentage points on each additional thousand. This system culminates at an income of $25,000. The tithe on the last $1,000 of that income is 95 per cent. Any income above $25,000 would be tithed at 100 per cent. Under this scheme a gross income of $8,000 yields an after-tithe “take-home” income of $7,000 and a gross income of $25,000 yields $14,850 after tithe (these figures are presumably before taxes, though Sider is not explicit about this). It should be noted that Sider does not seek to impose this program on any of us. Moreover, the level of giving represented here exceeds that of 99 per cent of Christians, including me. It stems from a love for our Lord that is not often matched. From one viewpoint, I can hardly say that Sider gives too little and that he keeps too much for himself. Yet it seems to me that in the light of what Sider himself says elsewhere, the “graduated tithe” proposal is simply not able to help in any significant way.
Consider an example used by Sider. He reports and accepts what he calls the “conservative calculation” of Irving Kravis that the average “real” income per person in the United States is seventeen times as great as that in Kenya. This calculation has taken into account such things as the different purchasing power of money in the two countries, and is supposed to represent the real, not just the monetary, difference in the goods and services that accrue to people in these two places.
What is the average Kenyan family’s real income in dollars? The median income of U.S. families in 1975 was close to $14,000. Applying Kravis’s ratio of seventeen to one to this figure we get a median family income for Kenya of under $1,000. Remember that this figure is the real income, and already takes into account the different purchasing power of a dollar in Kenya. Sider’s base figure for his family, “what we would need to live,” is $8,000. After the tithe there is $7,200 left. But that is over seven times as much as the average Kenyan family’s income. Sider, then, apparently begins by assuming that his family needs seven times as many goods and services as the average Kenyan family. Furthermore, though the graduated tithe rises steeply, it still allows a maximum income of $14,850 (on a gross of $25,000). This is almost fifteen times the real income of the average Kenyan family.
Now let us look at the Bible. More than once Sider refers to Paul’s statement in connection with the offering for the poor of Jerusalem: “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply their want, that there may be equality” (2 Cor. 8:13, 14). It looks as though he takes Paul to mean that the rich (such as the average American) should transfer their incomes to the poor (such as the average Kenyan) until they come out with equal incomes. But Sider’s graduated tithe proposal would leave him with between seven to fifteen times as much money for goods and services as the average Kenyan would have. Such a disparity is grossly and blatantly unequal, and remains so no matter how one modifies the command or the data.
The personal behavior that Sider practices, reports, or suggests seems radical when compared with ordinary lifestyles in North America. But when compared with the impression I got from Sider’s biblical exegesis it seems inordinately weak and conservative.
There are, of course, two possible ways to read that. Perhaps it means that all of us, Sider included, have been so corrupted by affluence that we can no longer hear the Word of God. Or maybe it means that what God is saying to us is not what Sider thinks he is saying, but something else that Sider, and maybe others, understand better in practice than they have yet succeeded in articulating in theory. Sider’s provocative book raises for us the question of what God is really saying to “rich Christians” but it does not adequately answer it.—GEORGE I. MAVRODES, professor of philosophy, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.