Originally published in 1977, Rich Christians, now in its sixth edition, is perhaps the most important book within the Christian genre calling for social justice. While everything from environmental issues to politics is addressed, the thrust of the book is alleviation of poverty throughout the world. Sider’s book has been studied, critiqued and embraced for decades now and needs little review from me. However I will contribute a few thoughts.
While Sider admits that much progress has been made since the original publication of Rich Christians (p. 5), much more needs to be done. There are a number of balanced and helpful ideas within its pages including admissions of the benefits of market economics, although he has several problems with it (pp. 150-156), and nevertheless still calls for redistribution of wealth (pp. 232, 235). He rightly draws attention to the vast need of the poor throughout the world and multiple ways poverty can be addressed. And I appreciated chapter seven (pp. 129-143) which highlights several causes of poverty. It is easily the most fair and balanced chapter in the book.
However Sider’s bent is toward liberal social solutions. While admitting that his thinking has changed over the years (p. xiii), he still blames most poverty on the affluence of the West (pp. 28, 39, 105, 107, 163) and calls for changes that are completely unrealistic, and would if implemented lead to global economic collapse, something even he seems to realize (pp. 243-247). Sider uses Scripture sparingly but when he does it is usually a mess. His favorite passage of course is Matthew 25:31-46, which is taken totally out of context (pp. 52-54, 64). His misinterpretation of James 5:1-5 is similar (pp. 57, 176). He often turns to the Old Testament for support, even calling for Jubilee and Sabbatical remissions of debt (pp. 109, 141). However he seems to miss that Israel’s economy was completely focused on Israel, and that the New Testament church alleviations of poverty was focused on Christians not on society in general. Yet he ends chapter four by applying what Scripture teaches concerning God’s people to the world at large. In other words, biblical support for many of Sider’s views are not found in Scripture. But that does not seem to deter him.
The most disturbing aspect of the book is the promotion of works salvation. Even though Sider denies it once (p. 112), he repeatedly states that one cannot be saved and not tend to the poor in line with the prescription he has given (pp. xv, 41, 52, 60, 62, 66, 105, 147, 183). In the preface the author writes, “Jesus’ words still say to those with abundance that if they do not feed the hungry and clothe the naked, they go to hell.” (p. xv). This is an unconscionable lie. It is no wonder that Sider, while not denying the need to preach the gospel, sees it as equal to relieving poverty (pp. 51, 191).
This is a book worth reading primarily because of its influence. But Sider’s solutions are dangerous and lack biblical support, perspective and balance.
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald Sider (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 342 pp + xxii. $15.99 paper
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel.