Discover more from Contents and Containers
A burr in the side of Evangelicals, Ron Sider taught me to be the same
“Broken marriages, corrupted cultures, unjust systems, drug-scarred bodies and polluted rivers are not the last word. Jesus is coming back.”—Dr. Ronald J. Sider
Yes, Dr. Sider, none of those things have the last word. And neither does death. I remember that today, as I write to remember you.
I remember talking to a campus minister my freshman year at Temple University. He was a run-of-the-mill right-wing minister out of State College. I was a thorn in his side, to be sure. I came to Temple on the heels of the War on Terror, ready to rebel against the Evangelical impulse to support the deadly war. I was committed to keeping my faith, but I wasn’t going to go along with the Evangelical playbook (not much has changed in 18 years, I have to admit). In one discussion I mentioned Ron Sider’s “Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger,” his 1977 widely acclaimed and deeply influential text. The pastor called a guilt trip (fascinating for a guilty-purveying pastor to say), an apparent nod to David Chilton’s much-less-influential critique of Sider’s book, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulator. This pastor’s resistance made me want to find more Christians like Sider. I didn’t think I’d have the honor of being one of his students at Palmer Theological Seminary. To this day, it is one of my greatest honors.
Sider cared for his students and wanted to help us all be Christians that didn’t stop at personal salvation but pursued justice of all kinds. He took the words of Jesus seriously, and led a life of service to the poor, one full of compassion, and committed to justice. Sider was before his time and a maverick among his Evangelical enclave. His passion demands respect and admiration. And he fought until the end, even editing a series of essays that crossed the theological and political spectrum called The Spiritual Dangers of Donald Trump. He was an advocate for justice and for peace. May he rest in that same peace and may his memory be eternal.
I’m grateful that Sider is being remembered so well by Christian publications and the mainstream press. Without fail, these memorials remember Sider’s commitment to justice: his opposition to war, his uplifting of the poor, and his care for creation. They also don’t fail to mention his conservative views on abortion and gay marriage, however. Though I deeply disagreed with Sider on such matters, I can tell you that Sider approached both with generosity and never partisanship. He voted against his convictions on such matters, and never indoctrinated his students to hold the same views. He was committed to teaching us about peace and justice and was open to how we might apply that. I am not excusing Sider’s prejudice, but rather naming that he was gracious with me when I disagreed. Sider was an ethical and open professor, and I deeply appreciated his ability to create space for me and others.
I am ashamed, however, that despite Sider’s generosity, some Christians are expressing quite the opposite. Tish Harrison Warren wrote for the New York Times that “he simply doesn’t fit neatly into any fixed political category” because of his regressive views on reproductive rights and marriage. She writes for her own benefit, since she holds the same views, and is rightly criticized for them. The difference, of course, is that Sider never let his views compromise his clear allegiance to justice and his own political practicality. I am amazed that Warren could write, “faith led him to reject the political bundling and ideological categories of our moment,” despite Ron Sider’s consistent advocacy to vote for progressive candidates. It seems to me that Sider put aside his personal politics for the sake of the greater good, and didn’t buy the grift that Republicans were selling (I can’t say the same for Warren, who insists on "both-sidesing" existential issues). Warren concludes by telling us that Sider represented millions, including “those who abstained from voting or voted for a third-party candidate.” It’s as if she never read his work and his plain advocacy for common sense voting. The opportunism that Warren exhibited is quite the opposite of what Sider taught and advocated for.
So while Warren tries to paint Sider in the lens she wants to be viewed, a person without a political home, leave it to Al Mohler to tell us quite the opposite. Mohler smeared his brother in Christ on his personal blog. Mohler smugly opens his hit piece implying that Sider was a person “with bad ideas” who was “kind, gracious, and principled.” (He goes on to describe another person who has “good ideas” who is “rude, unprincipled, and ungracious” – I’m not sure if he means himself or Donald Trump, though). Mohler describes Sider as a leftist and a Marxist, influenced by liberation theology (I can’t find the critique here, to be honest). Mohler goes on to criticize his ideas as “inconclusive.” Mohler writes that Sider helped us see that Evangelicalism can’t survive with Sider’s ethic – and he is right – even though Sider never shed the label, his ethics were fundamentally opposed to the Evangelical project. Mohler is right, Evangelicalism’s main goal is to pursue right-wing policy, and we shouldn’t mistake it otherwise. Mohler helps us see that.
Unlike Warren, Mohler rightly tells us that Sider’s conservative views didn’t fit with the GOP, in fact, they were so opposed, that they’d never find a home with the U.S.’s right-wing political party. Mohler writes, “he widened what he called pro-life concerns to include just about every political interest of the economic progressives, including climate change. He would eventually support the most radically pro-abortion presidential candidate in American political history.”
What Mohler hates about Sider, is what I loved. And what Warren says about Sider isn’t even true. Let’s remember Sider for who he was, “a burr in the ethical saddle of the evangelical world,” who didn’t let his occasional conservative views pollute his greater mission. As a queer man, I do wish Sider would have seen people like me as God did. I wish that he wasn’t swept up in the right-wing propaganda machine that opposed women’s reproductive rights. Despite these stains on his legacy, his legacy isn’t fundamentally marred, he fought for climate change, wealth redistribution, against police brutality, and war until the end of his life.
I’m inspired by his words when he asked, how he keeps going.
“I hope that I have, by God’s grace, allowed Jesus’ resurrection to shape the way I live — it certainly has shaped the way I hope. I expect to see Jesus. I believe that he will make good on his promise to complete his victory over the devastation Satan has caused in God’s wonderful world.
You see Jesus now, Dr. Sider. Death has been defeated. Rest in peace, my dear teacher.