An age of hunger
When Ronald J. Sider wrote Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity in 1977 he made a lot of Christians uncomfortable. The book, which has sold 400,000 copies in earlier versions, raises thought-provoking questions about wealth and poverty in light of JesusÕ teachings. An updated and revised version of the book came out this year, again exhorting Americans to use their material wealth to alleviate the suffering of the impoverished and malnourished. Sider, who has published 26 other books, is a professor of theology at Palmer Seminary in Philadelphia. He recently spoke with Evangel News Editor John W. Kennedy.
PE: YouÕve been talking and writing about hunger for a long time. What have Christians failed to learn since this bookÕs first printing?
SIDER: Thirty years ago chronic undernourishment plagued 35 percent of the population in the developing world; now itÕs only 17 percent. WeÕve made some genuine progress in health care and immunization. But 30,000 children still die every day from starvation and diseases we know how to prevent. ThereÕs just a lack of will to correct that.
PE: Why should Christians — and not just government — be part of the solution?
SIDER: Government canÕt begin to solve the problems of hunger by itself. We need nongovernmental institutions in civil society, starting especially with the church, to do a variety of things. I like what President Bush has said: ThereÕs a poverty of the wallet that the government can help; thereÕs a poverty of the soul that the government canÕt touch. In order to overcome poverty we must have the proper inner spiritual transformation as well as the external economic transformation.
PE: Talk about your concept of a graduated tithe in regard to helping the poor.
SIDER: ItÕs one concrete mechanism my wife, Arbutus, and I have found helpful. I propose that families sit down and figure out the amount on which they can live modestly. Give the standard 10 percent tithe as part of that. Then for every $1,000 a year in income above that amount give an increasing 5 percent to support brothers and sisters in need.
PE: Are too many Christians more concerned about getting ahead and preserving their future?
SIDER: We should ask how can we cut back substantially on our spending so that we can share far more dramatically in the task of global evangelism and global economic development, including poverty in our own country. The typical American middle-class family could give away 20 percent of their income and still not be close to poverty.
There is cultural conformity in the American church today. Advertising and materialism are so powerful in our society. WeÕre living mostly like the world lives. WeÕre not really living like Jesus. The Bible talks about having a radical transformation when we accept Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is flowing into our life.
PE: Are liberals and conservatives wrong in some approaches toward the poor?
SIDER: Absolutely. The basic argument of liberals goes that people are poor because of unfair structures. Conservatives tend to say that individuals are poor because they made bad moral choices about drugs, sex and alcohol.
IÕve lived in the inner city or lower-income interracial sections of our country since 1966. Some people are poor because theyÕve made bad choices and donÕt work responsibly. At the same time, itÕs clear that continuing racism, as well as changes in the global economic world (especially with the decline in wages for those without a college education), have powerfully hurt the lower-income sections of American society. Globally, there are unfair structures preventing people from owning their own land or getting an education.
PE: Have you seen changes in the response of conservative Christians?
SIDER: ItÕs a widespread stereotype that conservative Christians are one- or two-issue people, concerned primarily about the sanctity of life and family. But a major change has been going on in the evangelical world in the last 30 years. There has been a massive increase in the number of relief and development organizations in the evangelical world.
Increasingly, evangelicals are saying what the new National Association of Evangelicals document, ÒFor the Health of the Nation,Ó says — that there must be evangelical civic engagement on the issues God is concerned about. That includes economic justice, the poor, environmental care and peacemaking. The second most common theme in the Bible is God has a special concern for the poor.
PE: Do some people not want to get out of poverty?
SIDER: Well, there are a few people who have gotten trapped by drugs or alcohol who now are almost unable to make choices. Other people have grown up in an oppressive context in which they repeatedly hear the message that they have little value. So they have little inner strength to climb out of poverty. For instance, the untouchables at the bottom of society [in some cultures] are told they must clean toilets for respectable people, that they need to walk on the other side of the street.
But nothing is more powerful at that point than the gospel, which says to the most broken person: The Lord of the universe died for your sins and right now loves you. This Savior is God of the poor. He is unhappy with injustice and He wants to empower you to make the right choices. He wants to help you change the unfair structures around you.
PE: It seems some government programs to help the poor have been ineffective.
SIDER: No question. It would be silly to automatically endorse just any government program that comes along. Some have failed and need to be dropped as fast as possible. The welfare system in the Õ70s clearly undermined marriage and family and needed to be changed. But some programs have worked very well. Social Security has improved peopleÕs lives dramatically. Forty years ago 50 percent of the elderly were poor; now only 9 percent are.
PE: How can issues related to hunger, such as a lack of health insurance, be fixed?
SIDER: If we really cared about poverty — and we have a higher poverty level than any other industrialized nation — we would do the kinds of things we know we need to do. The poverty level has increased in each of the last three years by a million or more people.
The conservatives are partly right. Part of what we need to do is restore wholesome two-parent families. There is a high correlation between living in a single-parent home and being poor.
Those who work responsibly full-time ought to be able to get out of poverty and have affordable health insurance. There are millions of people who work full-time who canÕt get up to the poverty level. It seems immoral for the richest nation in history to have 45 million citizens without health insurance.
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