A Model for an Evangelical Christianity Committed to Justice

In my first couple years of college I had a minor crisis of faith. I had grown up going to a large Southern church that prided itself on preaching the gospel, but leaders there did not talk much about systemic injustice or economic disparity. I was taking a class on poverty in the United States and another course taught by an avowed socialist passionately committed to radical politics. I was volunteering with a ministry that worked with undocumented immigrants and among the economically disadvantaged. I felt increasingly disconnected from my evangelical community on issues of nonviolence and social and economic justice.

One night, feeling frustrated and cynical, I walked into a bookstore and stumbled on a book titled “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” by Ronald J. Sider, which argues that vast global wealth inequality is a moral failure resulting from systems of oppression and sin. I didn’t know it at the time, but this book, which was first published in 1978, is considered a classic. In 2006, it was listed at No. 7 in “The Top 50 Books that Have Shaped Evangelicals” by the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today and has sold 400,000 copies in nine languages.

The book changed my life — probably not as much as it should have. Its call to generosity is something I still wrestle with and need to grow toward, even now. But more than the particular contents of the book, what discovering Ron Sider offered me was hope that there was a movement of Christians who cared deeply about the Bible and also about the Bible’s call to seek justice here on Earth. Sider introduced me to an entire world of Christians whose passion for God defies political and cultural categories.

Sider died last month at 82 and as I’ve read tributes to his work, I find myself grateful for his legacy and struck by how his countercultural voice remains vital and important even now. Christianity Today described Sider as the burr in “‘the ethical saddle’ of the white evangelical horse.”

Sider came across as courageous yet irenic. He seemed to be a natural bridge builder. As a graduate student at Yale, he became involved in the civil rights movement. “When he wasn’t reading Latin and German for his dissertation,” wrote Daniel Silliman, “Sider helped Black activists register voters and recruited” students in Yale’s evangelical ministry groups to join him. Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans described Sider as “a scholar who didn’t flee to the suburbs but raised his family in one of Philadelphia’s less privileged ZIP codes.”

In 1978, he founded Evangelicals for Social Action (now called Christians for Social Action) to work for nonviolence, economic justice and the holistic discipleship of Christians. For over five decades, he advocated for the poor and consistently called the church — and evangelicals, specifically — back to a biblical commitment to justice, generosity and the common good. He never shed the label “evangelical,” even as it came to be popularly associated with conservative politics. In 2020, he edited a collection of essays called “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth and Moral Integrity.”

It would be wrong to understand Sider as a “both sides” moderate. He was, for instance, critical of Jimmy Carter’s moderation during his presidency saying, “At crucial points where the Bible shows what justice means, Carter doesn’t go far enough.”

But he simply doesn’t fit neatly into any fixed political category. Like much of the evangelical left in the ’70s and ’80s, Sider was radically progressive on many social and economic issues, while remaining committed to traditional Christian doctrine and sexual ethics in ways that set him apart from both parties. He believed the church needed to be more holistically pro-life, publishing a book in 1987 called “Completely Pro-life: Building a Consistent Stance on Abortion, the Family, Nuclear Weapons, the Poor.” He affirmed a traditional ethic of marriage and did not see gay sexual relationships as biblically permitted. Sojourners Magazine stated that while some of his contemporaries “embraced progressive theologies, Sider remained committed to conservative sexual ethics.”

Yet, even in this contentious cultural space, he tried to seek peace. His final Substack newsletter called for amendments to the Equality Act that would preserve the religious liberty of traditional religious groups while also providing protections for L.G.B.T.Q. people. “We can affirm our rights to practice our faith and run our schools and charities as we believe we must, while also affirming and supporting L.G.B.T.Q. civil rights,” he wrote.

Sider’s faith led him to reject the political bundling and ideological categories of our moment. But though he was a unique and important leader, he was not — and is not — alone. It’s critical to understand that Sider represents an entire movement. He helped build this movement, to be sure, but his work was institutional and relational. It always involved others. Today, when what it means to be an “influencer” is bound up with individual, personal branding, a striking part of Sider’s legacy is that he was delightfully unhip and unbranded. Instead, he worked to build coalitions, organizations, communities and grass-roots change.

In 1973, Sider helped convene a group of Christian leaders in Chicago to issue “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern,” a pivotal document in the history of contemporary Christian political engagement. It was a formal statement of repentance for evangelical silence in the face of poverty and racism and called for a renewal of evangelical political priorities. It was signed by over 50 prominent leaders such as Carl F.H. Henry, Richard Mouw, Sharon Gallagher, Samuel Escobar, John Perkins and Jim Wallis.

In his 2012 book “Moral Minority,” David Swartz points out that this meeting took place “nearly a decade before the Moral Majority” overtook evangelical politics. These young activists in Chicago were “strategizing about how to move the nation in a more evangelical direction through political action.” But, he says, that direction was to the left, instead of the right. He continues, “Sider and his colleagues condemned American militarism, sexism, economic injustice, and President Richard Nixon’s ‘lust for and abuse of power.’”

The religion scholar Brantley Gasaway tweeted that Sider’s career was a “bitter reminder of what modern evangelical politics might have but did not become.” This is true, but also what Sider’s life makes clear is that there has always been an alternative current in evangelical political engagement.

This remains alive today. I am from a generation of younger Christians who have been shaped by people like John Perkins, John Stott and Ron Sider. There are many of us. In his book, Swartz points to a growing movement, often among younger evangelicals, that may “suggest the possibilities of a revitalized evangelical activism on poverty, the environment, and human trafficking.” “The Chicago Declaration,” he wrote, “underscores the persistence of a progressive impulse in an evangelical tradition often portrayed as uniformly traditionalist and politically right.”

Many Christians, including Sider himself, watched with sadness and a measure of horror as nuanced evangelical political engagement appeared to go up in flames in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. The willingness — and at times exuberance — of conservative evangelicals to vote for a bloviating bully who, at the National Prayer Breakfast, stated his disagreement with Jesus’s teaching to love your enemies seemed to be the death knell of the evangelical left’s decades of activism.

Still, with the large numbers of evangelicals in the United States, those 1 in 5 white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump, along with those who abstained from voting or voted for a third-party candidate, represented millions of people. For those Christians and others (whether or not they identify as evangelical), Ron Sider was an important model. His life was an encouragement to those who seek to follow Jesus in a complex and confounding American political landscape. Sider helped birth a movement and blaze a trail. And though at times it seems that trail has been hidden under Christian political partisanship, lust for power, cowardice and unfaithfulness, many Christians are still trying to walk the narrow path he left behind him.

Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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