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Religion | Q & A with RON SIDER

Dealing With Hunger in a Time of Affluence

September 27, 1997|From Religion News Service

Christian academic and activist Ron Sider's first book, published two decades ago, has sold nearly 350,000 copies, a rare accomplishment for a title that's not an inspirational novel or a "how-to" guide on losing weight or finding wealth.

"Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" (Word, $15.99), which was recently re-released in a revised 20th anniversary edition, stirred the evangelical world with its serious and sometimes disturbing examination of American affluence and consumerism in light of biblical teachings on care for the poor.

An ordained minister in the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominations, Sider has been a professor of theology and culture at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in St. David's, Pa., since 1978. He is founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which publishes Prism magazine as well as the Christian environmental journal Green Cross.

In a recent interview, Sider spoke of how he and the world have changed since "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" was first published.

Question: How much does a person have to earn, spend or own to be rich?

Answer: Wealth and poverty are relative. We would all agree that there are some very poor people in this country, but they have a lot more to live on than half of the world's people, who live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Q: Don't certain Bible passages call riches a blessing from God?

A: If we live the way God wants us to, there's the real likelihood we will have a sufficiency of the good Earth's bounty. But there are also sinful oppressors around, who take people's land and don't allow them to earn the resources they need to make their way. So being poor doesn't mean one has been sinful or disobedient.

The Bible does say that God rewards obedience with material abundance. But there are more verses which say that people are rich because they have oppressed others.

Q: What's so bad about riches anyway?

A: The most serious problem is a growing materialism and consumerism. North Americans are enormously wealthy. Ours is one of the richest societies on Earth. And we are more and more seduced by that, and by the constant advertising that tells us we get joy and fulfillment through more and more things. That's fundamentally unbiblical, it's contrary to every major world religion, and it flatly contradicts Jesus, who made it very clear that joy and fulfillment come through right relationships with God, then right relationships with our neighbors and with the Earth.

Materialism and consumerism drive us into a rat race where we destroy ourselves, neglect our families, ruin the environment, and neglect the poor.

For example, the giving patterns of American church members have been in a steady decline since 1969, even though there's been a steady increase in our income during the same time.

Q: What's changed in the world--and in your thinking--about these issues in the past 20 years?

A: As for the world, there's good news and bad news. Fewer people are chronically malnourished today, down to 20% of the world's population, and health and immunization programs have wiped out some diseases. But we've still got almost a quarter of the world's people living on a dollar a day.

As for me, I know more about economics now. And I am more clear in this edition of the book that I favor free market economies over any other alternatives. I don't think the Bible specifically prescribes democracy or market economies, but I do think biblical principles, along with careful analysis of our world, pushes us toward these things.

Also, the first edition of the book stressed total equality of income more than I would today. Every person should have equality of economic opportunity, but the fact that we're free and make choices means that some will have more and some will have less. Still, at least a quarter of the world's people have virtually no capital, and another quarter have very little. The richest 20% of the world's people have the vast majority of capital, and the bottom 60% have very little.

Q: On a personal level, what do you and your family do to live a simpler lifestyle?

A: We try to follow the graduated tithe, a practice described in the book, which says the more you make, the higher percentage you give away. We don't always succeed, but we've been trying to give away a third of our income.

Q: Can a Christian own a BMW?

A: This Christian could not. I'll let other people wrestle with that for themselves, although I suggest they answer that question by carefully looking at what the Bible says about the poor.

In connection with the anniversary edition of Sider's book, Evangelicals for Social Action, along with Habitat for Humanity, World Vision and other Christian charities, has launched the "Generous Christians Campaign." A campaign kit, including information on poverty and hunger as well charities combating both, is available for $25. For information, call (800) 650-6600.

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