This week, Nikki Toyama-Szeto chats with Ron Sider, the author of the acclaimed book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and the founder and President Emeritus of Christians for Social Action. Nikki and Ron talk about lessons learned from his 50+ years of scholar-activism—from the fight against apartheid in South Africa to non-violent resistance, to understanding the graduated tithe, this conversation is one you do not want to miss.
You can check out Ron's blog and sign up for his mailing list here.
20 Minute Takes is a production of Christians for Social Action.
Host: Nikki Toyama-Szeto
Producer/Editor: David de Leon
Music: Andre Henry
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (00:11):
On this episode of 20 Minute Takes, we're joined by scholar activist Ron Sider. Ron is the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Christianity Today named Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, one of its top 100 books of the century. He has also had a front row seat as the church has tried to engage with some of the greatest justice issues over the last 50 years, giving that long historical perspective. He gives some in
sights that might help inform us about how we can respond today. Ron Sider, thank you so much for coming to join us here on 20 Minute Takes.
Ron Sider (00:53):
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (00:54):
Ron is a professor emeritus at the Palmer seminary at Eastern University. He's the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. The fact that is most dear to us at Christians for Social Action is that Ron is the founder and emeritus president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which is now called Christians for social action. What would you say is the thing that most people know you from?
Ron Sider (01:21):
No doubt about it, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger is the book I'm identified with. I think it's the best thing I did. Almost every trip I do, somebody comes up and says, “Thank you very much. It has affected my life.”
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (01:37):
Your book was how I got to know you. I remember picking it up in college and it really expanded my worldview. Can you tell me a little bit about what prompted you to write Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger?
Ron Sider (01:55):
Well, it started in 1967. I was filling in preaching for a little Baptist church in Connecticut that was merging with another. One Saturday I decided to preach the next day on world hunger. I had a little section on the problem, a little section on the biblical material, and I always thought a sermon should have something that you can do. The idea of the graduated tithe came to me a few years later. I said, “Hey, I'd like to do a book called The Graduated Tithe.” We thought it would be three chapters, 80 to 120 pages. But when I wrote it, it grew like topsy and the biblical section became the four chapters. I think that's the best part from the beginning. It's the only time I think in my life when a publisher just accepted my title without proposing something else.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (03:00):
Can you explain for those who aren't familiar with the graduated tithe?
Ron Sider (03:08):
Yes. The idea was to give 10% on a reasonable amount and then for every thousand dollars that your income is above that amount give an increasing amount - give 15% on the next thousand, 20% on the next thousand, and so on. That's the basic idea. In my own lifetime Arbutus and I have had to modify the basic amount as we had children, they went to college, and they're..
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (03:48):
Expensive, aren't they!
Ron Sider (03:50):
We tried to practice that.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (03:52):
Most folks think when I'm making more money, I'm spending more money, but it sounds like the idea that you're putting forward is that making more money enables you to be even more generous.
Ron Sider (04:10):
That's exactly right. We've never lived in poverty. We’ve had a modest middle class lifestyle, but we've been able to give away a lot of money and we're grateful for that.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (04:28):
You mentioned the scriptural section of the book. Can you unpack for us a couple of the key themes in biblical principles that informed Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger?
Ron Sider (04:39):
The most basic one is chapter three, which talks about God being on the side of the poor. It doesn
't mean that God doesn't like the rich, but in very special ways God has a special concern with the poor. He calls followers, His people to have a special concern for the poor.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (05:14):
We have a lot of listeners who care about poverty, about a growing gap between the rich and the poor. What do you think is the role of Christians and what are one or two things that you think folks can do that might have the most impact?
Ron Sider (05:35):
When I wrote the book in ‘76, it came out in early ‘77, I'm not sure how hopeful I was. But in the last 40 years we have made enormous progress in reducing poverty in the world. China alone has lifted 600 - 800 million people out of poverty. That’s true in a lot of countries in Asia. It's not nearly as fast in Africa, but they’ve had some progress. Now we still have a large number of people in poverty- that's unacceptable. That poverty is grinding and you have a crisis, like COVID, and more people fall into poverty. So there's still a big problem, but it's not as large a percentage of people in the world as it was when I first wrote the book. I’m thankful for that, but it doesn't mean for a moment that we shouldn't be working at poverty both in this country and abroad.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (07:03):
There's something about the pandemic that really brought into the light the real disparities that exist in the world. For some folks poverty was kind of conceptual, but I think the pandemic really sort of put a face on the impact of these in income inequalities and access to healthcare, these sort of things.
Ron Sider (07:29):
Well, we saw most blatantly who got vaccinations, right. The majority of people in wealthy countries got it. Only a small percentage of people, especially in Africa, got the vaccine and that's wrong. The U.S. could have decided to help make vaccinations available more quickly and widespread. It didn't and that's just one current example. It's very clear that in over the last 40 years the bottom third to one half of the population has not gained anything while the richest 20 percent and especially the richest one-percent have gotten enormously we
althy. We know what to do to change that. We need to change the tax structure, but that's very hard to do.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (08:45):
How do you respond to people who say, “Well, Jesus said you'll always have the poor with you.”?
Ron Sider (08:54):
He probably was referring to Deuteronomy 15, which talks about forgiving - that is releasing Hebrew slaves every seven years so they can go back. The text says, if you obey me there will be no poverty among you. But then it goes on just a few verses later to say there will always be poor among you. It's clearly saying I know you are sinners, I know you're not going to do what I tell you in order to not have poverty among my people, so when there is poverty be generous, care for the poor. Jesus wasn't for a moment saying don't care for the poor. I think it was alluding to that text, which clearly means that we're supposed to be generous when there is poverty.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (10:07):
I know a lot of folks in the United States and in other areas with school debt, living paycheck to paycheck, they might not feel like they are “rich Christians.” Is there an invitation to folks like that?
Ron Sider (10:24):
You mean the people in the U.S. who are living paycheck to paycheck?
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (10:29):
Yeah, or young people - they're navigating a lot of school debt or other financial obligations. The job market is a little tricky right now. Folks who might not feel like they identify as “rich Christians”- is there an invitation for folks in that situation?
Ron Sider (10:48):
I think one has to make some distinctions. Almost everyone in the United States is relatively well off
compared to the half a billion or more people in the world who live on $1.75 a day.
But to live in this country and earn minimum wage means you're quite poor and you have a lot of problems. I want to say two things. One, the significant number of people in the U.S. who are at the poverty line, or just a little bit above it, they should give something to overcome poverty. But they don't have the same obligation as people who are making $80,000 a year or $150,000 a year, not to mention the people making millions and billions. That's where the idea of the graduated tithe comes in. Everyone should give a modest amount to the work of the kingdom, but the more income we have the higher percentage of that income we ought to be giving.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (12:32):
The invitation for generosity is for everyone, and how that looks for each is different. I know I personally would say that Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was really formative. As I travel around in the cities I am in I often have people who come up and tell me about the impact that book has had on their life. So I think that has been so foundational, especially for the Christian justice movement. So thank you so much for writing
that. I think there's a couple of other parts of your story that I find fascinating and informative for us today. Can you tell us about what your work in South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement? Do you think there's any insights for us today as the United States is going through sort of a racial reckoning? Is there anything that you think emerged from that time and the fight against apartheid that might be helpful wisdom- either similarities or takeaways that were true then that you think might be relevant or poignant for this moment?
Ron Sider (13:47):
That's an interesting question and I'm not sure that I have a really clear answer. I was there in ‘79 to speak to a huge gathering, the South African Christian Leadership Assembly. They brought together people from all the different churches trying to deal with apartheid. They didn't really do much. In the middle ‘80’s we got in touch with a group of young black evangelicals that were very much working to end apartheid. Moss, who has been the head of the Evangelical Fellowship of South Africa for about 25 years now, was one of the leaders. And he came to the U.S. to travel to about 20 or more Christian colleges in about a month and talked about supporting economic restrictions on South Africa. That was at the time Falwell was urging Americans to buy Krugerrands to support the government, to defend against communism. I think the fact that when Mendela was released and became president, he chartered a course of not getting even and punishing, but saying let's find a society that can move forward.
The marvelous work by Archbishop Desmond Tutu - the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
- that's a model for working at terrible societal injustice. We could even use that now in terms of Black Lives Matter and how we're dealing with the racial question. I just get angry when white evangelicals attack critical race theory and refuse to deal with an awful history. We need to deal with that history in a way that moves toward reconciliation and I think that an acknowledgement of what we did that was wrong along with we will forgive and move forward. There's a clue there for how we could move forward in this country, affirming Black Lives Matter and acknowledging that there has been a terrible racist history. acknowledging that there's also been some really good efforts and a lot of people are wanting to change.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (17:34):
That importance of having some boldness to come around truth and a common understanding of history, and then repair the relationships. You're a Mennonite and sort of well known for your pursuit of peace and Shalom. There was a quote, or a challenge, that you threw down - I'm going paraphrase it, but I would love for you to correct me and tell us a little bit about it. You gave a charge to the peacemakers encouraging them to pursue peace with the same strength and vigor that those who pursue violence, pursue violence.
Ron Sider (18:38):
Mennonites have every seven years the Mennonite World Conference - thousands of people come from around the world. In 1984, I was asked to give a peace lecture. In that lecture I called us to move beyond a kind of nonresistance to evil, to a very activist confrontation with injustice. That address led to, after a couple years, a very major analysis and study by the top leadership of the Mennonite church in Canada and the U.S. that activist nonviolence is in keeping with our Mennonite tradition. Christian Peacemaker Teams was formed as a result.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (19:37):
Thank you, Ron Sider. You are a scholar, an activist, and one of the folks who really stirs our imagination to dream bigger dreams and new dreams about what it means to follow Jesus faithfully in this day. Thank you for your example and spending time with us here on 20 Minute Takes.