This article is from the introduction in Following Jesus: Journeys in Radical Discipleship–Essays in Honor of Ronald J. Sider, which includes forewords by Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo and contributing chapters by John Perkins, Samuel Escobar, Melba Maggay, and others. Reprinted here with permission from Regnum Books International.
Two pictures hanging in Ron’s Sider’s office attest to a remarkable journey. One is of Ron outdoors sporting a fishing vest and hat, smiling proudly from ear to ear as he holds up a trophy catch. It looks like a salmon or a steelhead. The picture shows Ron, the fisherman, the outdoorsman; it conveys serenity and simplicity, as well as adventure.
Another picture shows him with several others sitting around a conference table with then-United States President Jimmy Carter. He and the rest of those at the table were not passively staring at the president as he gave some speech; on the contrary, the picture conveys Ron as part of a select group of theologians, ethicists, and ministers engaged and interacting with the commander-in-chief, as they discussed crucial policy matters. The picture conveys Dr. Ron Sider, the brilliant scholar, churchman, political consultant, world-changer.
This book seeks to honor an ordinary person, a farm boy who grew up in (and still enjoys) the simplicities of rural life, whom God has used to accomplish extraordinary things in the ecclesial, political and cultural arenas.
A Life Sketch
Ronald James Sider was born September 17, 1939 in a farmhouse near Stevensville, a small farming community in southern Ontario, Canada. Raised in a Brethren in Christ family, Sider came to faith in childhood. “At about eight years of age,” he recalls, “during one of the regular revival meetings at my home congregation, I knelt at the altar and accepted Jesus Christ.”(1)
That faith was tested, however, during his undergraduate years at Waterloo College in Ontario (now Wilfrid Laurier University). If it were not for the arrival of Dr. John Warwick Montgomery to serve as the new head of the history department, Sider’s faith might have been snuffed out by the winds of secularism, which were blowing fiercely at the time. Instead, with Montgomery as his inspiration, Sider set out to be an historian and an apologist in a secular university setting.
With a BA in history from Waterloo and his bride, Arbutus Lichti, by his side, Sider went off to Yale University to become the Renaissance-Reformation scholar that he thought God was calling him to be. But sensing the need to integrate faith with his scholarship, he took a break at the two-year mark of his doctoral studies in order to get theological grounding at Yale’s Divinity School just up the road. He eventually completed a bachelor of divinity degree (the equivalent of an MDiv today), before resuming and completing his PhD in history. Amid his historical and theological studies at Yale, Sider immersed himself in the work of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, which provided the context for both the cultivation of his own spiritual growth and the working out of a more holistic understanding of the gospel.
The plan after Yale was to serve as a faculty advisor for IVCF while teaching history at a secular university. “But,” as Sider himself explains, “the Lord had other plans. A strong call to be an evangelical Christian in a renewal of biblically grounded concern for social justice began to grow within me.”(2) This sense of call guided his decision to accept an invitation from Messiah College to help launch an urban campus in Philadelphia in collaboration with Temple University. This decision, notes Christianity Today’s Tim Stafford, led him away from being a Christian historian-apologist in a secular university setting to becoming something of a crusader for evangelical social activism.(3) “Instead of publishing scholarly history,” writes Stafford, “he began to write for popular audiences—indeed Christian audiences . . . . He began to apply his knowledge of theology and history to the problems of justice and poverty and to the responses that Christians should make.”(4)
Scholarship and Activism
He communicated this vision both through scholarship and activism. He has written over 30 books, but the one for which he is most famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) is the celebrated Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, first published in 1977.(5) Voted by Christianity Today as one of the 100 most influential books in religion in the 20th century, Rich Christians has inspired and mobilized hundreds of thousands of Christians and churches around the world to care about the poor as part and parcel of the Christian life.
His books complemented his activities, which included organizing the Thanksgiving gathering of 1973 that produced the much-lauded “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” This crucial document did its part in reawakening the evangelical social conscience, particularly in North America but also around the world. With the Chicago Declaration as the founding document, Sider launched Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), an organization committed to maturing the evangelical social conscience. Much of Sider’s work has had to do with striking a balance between social concern and evangelism, i.e., holistic ministry.
Beyond doing works of compassion and justice alongside evangelism, Sider has also championed biblically-informed politics as part of his activist work, urging Christians to embrace a non-partisan consistent life ethic that should inform political involvement. In his own words, “A biblically balanced platform would be pro-life, pro-poor, pro-family, pro-racial justice, pro-peace, and pro-creation care since God cares about all those things.”(6)
I Am Not a Social Activist
Ron Sider is associated primarily with the evangelical reawakening of social responsibility and biblically-informed political involvement, and this is not inaccurate. However, Sider’s great contribution in this area is but a part of a larger vision—a vision of biblical, authentic, radical discipleship—that is, what it means to follow Jesus Christ faithfully and prophetically in the world. As Myron Augsburger said in the foreword to I Am Not a Social Activist, “Above all, Ron Sider is a disciple of Jesus Christ and dedicated evangelical whose passion for social justice arises from a deep commitment to Christ and the kingdom.”(7) His works, which span more than four decades, have guided the faithful to engage church, education, culture and politics by the guiding light of the gospel and its radical implications.
This book explores aspects of biblical discipleship that Sider has championed throughout his remarkable career. It brings together a group of people, both young and old, from diverse cultural and denominational backgrounds, who have been influenced profoundly one way or another by Ron’s vision of a community of disciples, living out the gospel in the world. Indeed countless Christians have been impacted by Sider’s works. But more than numbers, the vision has been embraced across conventional lines, as women and men, young and old, evangelical and ecumenical, and black, white and brown have attested to Ron’s influence upon them and their ministry direction.
Two such people, who serve as the editors of this volume, have had the privilege of working with Ron as faculty colleagues at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University and as program directors of ESA. It seems only fitting to give readers an opportunity to get acquainted with the shapers of this book.
Al Tizon: Proclaiming Jesus in Word and Deed
I was a promising young fundamentalist when I read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger in the early 1980s. Zealous to save desperate souls from the sinking ship called planet Earth, I went off to a Christian college to prepare for the task of getting as many people into the lifeboat of Christ as I could. As far as I knew, this wholly defined the church’s mission.
But then I read Rich Christians, along with a handful of other prophetic books. The multi-punch combination of these works knocked me off my feet, and my understanding of mission has never been the same. I got up from the floor a bit wobbly, but with a strange new clarity about God’s heart for the poor and a strong resolve not to order my life according to the false promises of the American Dream.
If it was the power punches of these books that profoundly realigned my thinking in terms of compassion and justice, then it was an on-location graduate course in Central America that propelled me toward a life of action. Amid the in-your-face poverty endured by so many people whom I had the privilege to meet, the God of the poor and oppressed spoke to me in a most profound and life-changing way. I returned home persuaded that if the gospel did not address human need in the here and now, then the good news was no good at all.
I could have easily gone the way of the bleeding heart liberal activist who advocates for the poor and who sees the ultimate human problem as socio-political, but my own personal experience of desperately needing a Savior, then and now, has prevented that. The evil that resides in my own heart, before and after my conversion, reminds me that the gospel is also a profoundly personal thing. It is a heart thing. It is repentance, confession and forgiveness. It is falling down and getting up again by the grace of God. Evangelism—to tell the good news in such a way that clearly invites persons to give their hearts to Christ and to join the new community—should not and must not be eclipsed by social action; just like social action should not and must not be eclipsed by evangelism. Herein lies the genius of the holistic vision that Ron Sider has championed for the past four decades. The good news of the kingdom of God touches every level of our fallen-ness, from the injustices of oppressive social structures to the sin of the human heart. If we are faithful to this gospel, then we will bear witness to it by both word and deed.
Armed with such a vision, my wife Janice and I sold most of our belongings and moved to the Philippines—my ethnic homeland—for almost a decade, as we engaged in in community development, healthcare, and evangelistic/pastoral ministries. As we worked alongside our Filipino sisters and brothers, we strove to live out the holistic vision. For both individual persons and the poor communities in which they lived needed the power of the gospel to transform them. This was true in the squatter communities that we served in the Philippines, and it remains true in the impoverished communities that ESA serves in North America. To help shape the church of Christ along the contours of these things is what gets me up in the morning.
I credit/blame Ron Sider for doing his part in wrecking my middle-class sense of normalcy and images of success. He did this by pointing the way toward the kind of discipleship that envisions the Body of Christ—the Church—addressing the full gamut of human need toward the transformation of the world and the glory of God.
Paul Alexander: Peace, Justice, and Simplicity
I grew up on eighty acres in southeast Kansas in a loving family, worshiping at least three times a week in the local Assembly of God (a Pentecostal church). And unfortunately, that’s where I learned most of my racist jokes. I was socialized well in the local culture and reified racism, militarism, nationalism, sexism, free market capitalism, and homophobia. I was a Jesus-loving, gun-toting, American-flag-waving, teller of racist jokes seeking to make my millions at the expense of the poor, if necessary. My parents prayed for me every day and I went on missions trips to Guatemala and Venezuela in my teen years, as well as to youth camp each summer and revivals throughout the year. While doing my MDiv and at the start of my PhD, my favorite three hours each day were the Rush Limbaugh show, an extremely right-wing television talk show, because finally somebody was saying what I believed.
Then I became an atheist, but also simultaneously found pacifism in the history of American Pentecostalism, and was introduced to the works of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Ron Sider. Ron’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger radically reoriented my understanding of wealth, accumulation, generosity, simplicity, poverty, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. I read it as a 25-year-old who was using student loan money to buy rental properties. I had also borrowed $50,000 and put it in an E-Trade account, margined it to $100,000, and was day-trading during the Internet boom of the late 1990s. I was working to become rich and telling myself that I would share the wealth, while doing graduate work in theological ethics and no longer believing in God.
Although I was skeptical of Rich Christians, and quite frankly thought it quite stupid at first, discovering Ron (along with many others like him, including many in my own faith tradition) challenged me and my ‘isms’ and phobias in new ways. Following the reading of Rich Christians, I ordered ten or so books on simplicity because it intrigued me and I wanted to learn all about it. After reading them, I realized that I should have just borrowed a book on simplicity and then shared it with someone else! Despite these books getting to me, I was still buying real estate to become a millionaire and was not yet committed to reconstructing my faith. It doesn’t all sink in at once. In fact, it’s still sinking in and I’m still trying to learn how to reify other ways of life even now. This journey of faith is life-long and we experience losses and even changes of mind, heart, and direction along the way, as the Spirit works in our lives.
Ron’s life has been one of prophetic challenge and invitation to both the church and society to genuine discipleship. And although we do not agree on everything (what fun would there be in that?), I am deeply thankful for the profound impact he has had on my life and on Christianity as a whole. At a crucial time in my life his work helped me find enough courage to follow Jesus in entirely new ways, and it helped embolden me to devote my life to working for peace with justice.
Our personal testimonies hopefully demonstrate a deepening of our faith in Christ in which evangelism, compassion, peace, justice, and reconciliation have become non-negotiables. Our stories, along with many others who have been influenced by Ron’s life work, attest to his core commitment—namely, biblical discipleship and its radical implications.
We believe that the church needs to hear a word about radical discipleship in Christ today more than ever before. At least two striking reasons readily come to mind. First, despite the death knell of Christendom being trumpeted by many, the embrace between patriotism and the gospel has only gotten tighter. Indeed, the cry to return to a Christian America has been shrieking louder than ever before. Something needs to counter this cry—a word of truth concerning authentic, biblical discipleship for those who have ears to listen needs to be proclaimed civilly and humbly, but boldly.
And second, if Christian nationalism is a misguided form of discipleship, then “virtual church” in the Internet age is a potentially shallow form that also needs to be challenged. In the Facebook, Twitter, and texting generation (the average teenager sends 3,339 texts a month), the exchange of information and knowledge seems to be predicated on the principle of quantity over quality, and width over depth. Consequently, we know so much and yet so little. The faith experience can also suffer these same consequences. This is not so much a critique of social media—indeed we have been willing and eager participants— as it is an acknowledgement of the need for a type of discipleship that requires deep biblical wisdom, human community and hands-on mission.
Radical discipleship—where evangelism, justice and reconciliation meet, where loyalty to Christ is stronger than loyalty to country, and where deep human community and wisdom reside—will be Ron Sider’s enduring legacy. Our hope is that the collective voices from Ron’s generation, as well as the younger scholars he has influenced, will present a clarion call to the church “to follow Jesus” authentically and prophetically.
1. Ronald J. Sider, Good News and Good Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 18.
2. Ibid., 19.
3. Tim Stafford, “Ron Sider’s Unsettling Crusade,” Christianity Today, March 1, 2000.
5. Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Downers Grove: IVP, 1977).
6. Ronald J. Sider, I Am Not a Social Activist (Scottdale: Herald, 2008), 203.
7. Myron Augsburger, “Foreword,” in Ronald J. Sider, I Am Not a Social Activist: Making Jesus the Agenda (Scottdale: Herald, 2008), 11.