Ron Sider, Historian
How a Reformation scholar became an evangelical social activist
That I thought to mention theologian Ron Sider in yesterday’s newsletter is partly because he passed away last week at age 82. Most of the immediate obituaries emphasized his work as the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA, later renamed Christians for Social Action). Here’s Christianity Today, for example:
For nearly 50 years, Sider called evangelicals to care about the poor and see poverty as a moral issue. He argued for an expanded understanding of sin to include social structures that perpetuate inequality and injustice, and urged Christians to see how their salvation should compel them to care for their neighbors….
Sider was a key facilitator of the born-again left that emerged in the 1970s. But he lived to see American evangelicals largely turn away from concerns about war, racism, and inequality. He continued to speak out, however, and became, as a Christianity Today writer once described it, the “burr in the ethical saddle” of the white evangelical horse.
But perhaps because the CT author, Daniel Silliman, is himself a historian, he lingered a bit longer than others on Sider’s training in that discipline, first at Waterloo Christian University in Ontario and then as a graduate student at Yale University, where he earned a PhD in history under the direction of Jaroslav Pelikan. In fact, being accepted to that graduate program with a full scholarship initially made Sider “[fall] to his knees ‘breathless with gratitude’ for this opportunity to be a faithful witness to Christ in the secular academy.”1
I didn’t know Sider personally and have read only a fraction of his vast written output, almost none of which ended up centering on the subject of history. But I wondered just how much his first academic love continued to influence Sider, his theology, and his approach to social action. So earlier this week I spent some time surveying a few of his many books and articles, looking to see how his understanding of the past influenced his prescriptions for the present.
Inspired by Pelikan, Roland Bainton, and the pioneering Dutch scholar Heiko Oberman, Sider joined a wave of historians committed to revising conventional interpretations of the Protestant Reformation. For his dissertation (published by Brill in 1974), he studied the thought of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, the fiery theologian who first supported Martin Luther and then broke with him when Luther proved insufficiently radical. One reviewer praised Sider for providing “a needed antidote to [the] ill-concealed contempt” that some Reformation historians still had for Luther’s rival, while avoiding “the other extreme of heroic exaggerations… Sider shapes his Karlstadt strictly according to available evidence, so that whatever his picture lacks in lively caricature it gains in credibility.”
But the arc of Sider’s long career was probably shaped more by his experiences living in an African American neighborhood of New Haven than by his time studying history at Yale. Teaching classes on poverty and racism at Messiah College’s satellite campus in Philadelphia helped lead the new professor further into social activism and away from his original career aspirations. He did edit a collection of Karlstadt’s papers in 1977, as he took a position teaching theology and ministry (not history) at what’s now Palmer Seminary, just before he published the book that brought him to wider attention: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
That influential work set the tone for many of its successors in drawing from economics and other social sciences, public policy, and biblical theology to frame the problem and propose solutions to it. While Sider alluded to the role of European colonialism in causing global economic inequality and the Enlightenment in fostering the values of laissez-faire capitalism, most of his illustrations and explanations were contemporary. If he turned to earlier eras for guidance, it was almost always the biblical past: the principles of Sabbath and Jubilee in the Torah, and the “new social order” inaugurated by Jesus, whose first followers experienced “redeemed economic relationships” that could still be a model for modern Christ-followers.
“It is scriptural teaching,” Sider emphasized, “not the action of the Jerusalem church, that is normative.” But to some extent in that book and others like it, he also highlighted continuities between the Christian social ethic of the 1st century church and that of later eras. In Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, for example, a section on repentance starts with the stories of British abolitionists John Newton and William Wilberforce, which “demonstrate powerfully that evil structures can be changed by dedicated Christians.” As Sider explained to Christianity Today readers in November 2016, the fact that such Christians in the 18th (and 19th) centuries combined “a passion for evangelism and a commitment to work vigorously for justice in society” is what helped convince him to hold onto the evangelical label in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.
But it’s the earliest chapters in church history to which Sider most often returned for inspiration. In Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, he quoted the 2nd century apologist Aristides of Athens (“He that hath, distributeth liberally to him that hath not”) and cited evidence of the church’s ongoing commitment to the poor in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He repeated several of the same examples in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (2005) to help illustrate how, even after the apostolic age, “the early Christians lived profoundly transformed lives” whose “astonishing quality… attracted people to Christ.”
Perhaps most importantly, the church before Constantine exemplified for Sider the ethic he articulated in Completely Pro-Life (1987). The son of a Brethren in Christ pastor who later joined a Mennonite congregation, Sider wrote frequently about pacifism alongside economic and racial justice.2 Most often, he appealed to the non-violent example of Jesus, as in Christ and Violence (1979). But late in his career, Sider edited The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment (2012). “We cannot simply assume that the early Christians accurately understood Jesus’ teaching,” Sider admitted.
But it seems plausible to suppose that Christians much closer to the time of Jesus… would be more likely to understand Jesus’s teaching on loving enemies than those who lived centuries later. Finally, in a world where devastating violence has wreaked terrible havoc over the centuries—and continues to do so in the present—the witness of the Christians in the first three centuries provides one source of ethical guidance on a topic of current significance.3
While that project was a rare example of Ron Sider returning so fully to his original academic discipline, I think we can still learn from his entire career about the larger significance of history for Christians.
First, absolutely central to Sider’s sense of calling and his approach to social action was his conviction that “the biblical story shows that history is a purposeful process moving toward a final glorious destiny.” Making that argument in The Scandal of Evangelical Politics (2008), Sider repeatedly described history as the setting for the creative, liberating, and redemptive actions of God, culminating in the sending of his Son:
When Christ finally arrived, he waged successful battle against evil and promised to return at some time in the future to complete the victory. Now as history moves toward this final victory, God invites persons and societies to find their own meaning by embracing God’s grand historical plan and becoming willing co-workers, as God shepherds the historical process to its ultimate goal. Every human decision and activity can find meaning in this linear movement of history.”
“Every human decision and activity” including those of Ron Sider. In one ESA column he explained that he dropped his initial goal to become a historian because of this view of history:
When new opportunities in evangelical social activism opened up, leading me to modify my earlier vocation as an apologist for historic Christianity in the secular university world, I resolved to keep the full, biblical Christ at the center of my theology and work….
Because that is the agenda of the risen Jesus—because we know history is heading in that direction—we work now to establish signs of that coming complete transformation, not just in individuals but also in the new society of the church and even in the total social order and the creation itself.
Second, then, history itself provides “signs of that coming complete transformation” — the inspiring, teachable stories of earlier Christians whose obedience to Christ led them to work for his “agenda” in this world, even at great personal cost.
The strategy of looking to the post-biblical past to expand our “great cloud of witnesses” is a common one in Christianity. But it’s particularly noteworthy that Sider preferred to seek his exemplars on the margins of church history, among persecuted martyrs who would rather die than kill, radical reformers who didn’t fit the magisterial narrative of Luther and Calvin, and iconoclastic activists who rejected the allure of affluence and attacked the exploitation that produced such wealth.
Peace be to the memory of Ron Sider.
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So reports my friend David Swartz in his acclaimed history of politically progressive evangelicalism, Moral Minority, where Sider’s story features in ch. 8.
More than that, Sider argued for the interconnections between those commitments. Calling for a commitment to active peacemaking during the late Cold War, he warned fellow Mennonites in 1984 that “the affluent are regularly tempted to separate peace from justice. We affluent Anabaptists, in North America and Western Europe, can do that by focusing all our energies on saving our own skins from nuclear holocaust and neglecting the fact that injustice now kills millions every year.”