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The legacy of Ron J. Sider

Five elements shaping transformational mission today.

LAUSANNE MOVEMENT AUTOR 396/Al_Tizon 24 DE OCTUBRE DE 2023 10:34 h
All images via [link]Lausanne Movement[/link].

The history of the worldwide journey of evangelicals toward a holistic understanding and practice of mission cannot be told without taking into account the legacy of a North American theologian-activist by the name of Ronald J. Sider. His death on 27 July 2022 at age 82 gives us occasion to celebrate a life meaningfully lived and to reflect upon the lasting impact of his work on the mission of the church.



Though he was a distinguished professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary near Philadelphia for almost 45 years and founder of Christians (formerly Evangelicals) for Social Action, Sider never served as a cross-cultural missionary. His research and ministry focused predominantly on his own context of North America, as he called for a full-orbed Christianity that addressed both soul and society. However, North America could not contain his message—Sider’s influence crossed continental borders and made an impact on the church’s global mission.



This was not purely incidental. He was present, for example, at all three international Lausanne congresses. I personally went with him to the Third Lausanne Congress in Cape Town in 2010. In between the first and second congresses, Sider organized two consultations in 1980 on simple lifestyle and community development as part of his work with the Unit on Ethics and Society of the World Evangelical Fellowship (now the World Evangelical Alliance). So, although he appropriately focused on his own cultural context, the global scene was certainly within his purview.



[destacate]Sider organized two consultations in 1980 on simple lifestyle and community development[/destacate]By far, his most indelible mark on global mission was the part he played in catalyzing the transformational movement, which has manifested in such enduring entities as the International Fellowship for Mission as Transformation (INFEMIT), the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, the journal Transformation (of which he served as first editor), and Regnum Books International.


The transformational movement, or ‘mission as transformation’, can be defined as a loose global network of reflective-practitioners of integral, contextual, and relational mission, wrapped in theological scholarship. Driven by a vision of God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and salvation, transformationalists ‘refuse to understand evangelization without liberation, a change of heart without a change of structures, vertical reconciliation (between God and people) without horizontal reconciliation (between people and people), and church planting without community building.’[1]



When one digs around the roots and fruits of this movement, one will unavoidably and regularly run into the person of Ronald J. Sider. Of course, he was not alone; other friends and ‘co-conspirators’ of ‘mission as transformation’ would include Rene Padilla, Samuel Escobar, Vinay Samuel, Melba Maggay, Kwame Bediako, and Peter Kuzmic.   



With a transformational understanding of the whole gospel as both foundation and backdrop, let us consider five key ways in which Sider uniquely shaped the movement.



Transformation and discipleship: I am not a social activist



The first element is that a holistic understanding of the gospel is a discipleship issue. When people associate Sider with social justice, they are not wrong. But Sider’s response was clear: ‘I am not a social activist.’[2] This response was as puzzling as it was declarative. For if Sider did not consider himself a social activist, then what was he? In his own words, ‘I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord of the universe.’[3] His motivation for social transformation came not from humanist altruism, but ultimately from authentic, Christian discipleship—a deep desire to follow Jesus faithfully and radically in the world.





Wealth and poverty: Rich Christians in an age of hunger



Now in its sixth edition, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger is on Christianity Today’s Top 50 Books that have shaped the evangelical world. In light of its impact alone, few would argue that Sider did more than any other to make economic life central to evangelical mission. Wealth and its pursuit are a sacred cow in capitalist societies—to challenge it would be to do so at one’s own peril! Nonetheless, Sider called it for what it is, a powerful idol that hinders the work of the gospel. ‘The increasingly affluent standard of living is the god of twenty-first century North America, and the adman is its prophet.’[4]



[destacate]His motivation for social transformation came not from humanist altruism, but ultimately from authentic, Christian discipleship[/destacate]Sider’s critique honed in on God’s people who unquestioningly pursue wealth according to the rules of capitalism and not the rules of biblical faith. He writes, ‘In an age of affluence and poverty, most Christians [. . .] are tempted to succumb to the heresy of following society’s materialistic values rather than biblical truth.’[5] In the spirit of the biblical prophets, Sider called the church to repent and to begin living out the economics of the kingdom—in short, to return to Jesus.


Sider’s calling of rich Christians to account has had enormous impact on the church’s worldwide mission. First of all, it translated into a call for many Christians (myself included) to sell everything they had and to give the proceeds to the poor in order to follow Jesus who resides among the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and traumatized (cf. Mark 10:17–27; Matt 25:31–40). Implied here is that our wealth is more a hindrance than it is an asset for mission. While Jonathan Bonk’s classic Missions and Money[6] made the definitive case for the consequences of affluence to missionary work, Sider’s Rich Christians has served as the inspiration for economically conscious mission, not just for those called to work directly among the poor, but for the missionary community as a whole to think more critically about its attitude and management of material resources. Are the abundant resources entrusted to us gospel-serving or self-serving?[7]





Simple lifestyle: Living like we care



Sider’s warning regarding the unquestioned pursuit of wealth and his practical commitment to the poor converged in his call to a simple lifestyle as essential to missional faithfulness. How we live our lives testifies to how we truly love (or don’t love) our poor neighbors around the world. Sider did his significant part to reinforce this conviction in the worldwide evangelical community.



He took to heart The Lausanne Covenant, which says, ‘All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism’ (Covenant pt-9).



[destacate]How we live our lives testifies to how we truly love (or don’t love) our poor neighbors around the world

[/destacate]Convicted and inspired by this, Sider organized two consultations on simple lifestyle—one in 1979 in New Jersey (US) and the other in 1980 in London. The guiding question for these gatherings was, ‘Will we dare to measure our lifestyles by the needs of the poor and unevangelized rather than by the living standards of our affluent neighbors?’[8]


Simplicity refers to living more with less, and being happier for it. For Sider, simplicity lends credibility to the church’s mission, as it demonstrates solidarity with the needy in the world. Indeed, it bends our hearts toward the poor and needy. It also better poises us to more fully engage in mission with freed-up time and resources. And it cultivates an orientation of people over product.





Peace and nonviolence: If Jesus is Lord



Sider’s commitment to nonviolence provides yet another contour of mission for which he is significantly responsible. Famous for his unwavering pacifism, Sider defined nonviolent action as ‘an activist confrontation with evil that respects the personhood even of the “enemy” and therefore seeks both to end the oppression and to reconcile the oppressor through nonviolent methods’.[9] His book Nonviolent Action features examples in history of the effectiveness of nonviolence to bring about social change, such as the People Power Revolution that toppled a cruel authoritarian government in the Philippines in the mid-1980s.[10] But ultimately Sider based his belief on the lordship of Christ.



His absolute commitment to nonviolence notwithstanding, however, he went beyond the tired pacifism-versus-just-war debate and called the whole church to peacemaking. A true just-war perspective places the use of violence at the very end of its tactical list; meaning that all nonviolent possibilities should be tried before reluctantly resorting to violence. The call to nonviolent action, therefore, beckons pacifists, just-war theorists, and everyone in between to link arms and ‘wage peace’ upon the earth.





The politics of Jesus: Sociopolitical involvement [11]



Finally, Sider urged fellow Christians to enter the public square with the politics of Jesus. Though he primarily spoke to believers in the North American contexts regarding sociopolitical involvement, the message is clear for the global church: participate in the political process of their respective contexts to advocate for the needy, speak truth to power, and help build the kind of society that reflects God’s peace, justice, and righteousness.[12]



[destacate]Speak truth to power, and help build the kind of society that reflects God’s peace, justice, and righteousness

[/destacate]This challenged the common misconception among evangelicals that they should not get involved in politics. It also challenged some of his fellow Anabaptists whose ‘social ethic’ was reduced to providing an alternate society by simply being the church. Sider, who served on a team of policymakers under the Carter administration, was adamant that being the church also meant proactively engaging mainstream politics in the name of Jesus.


That said, Sider discouraged partisan politics.[13] The sociopolitical involvement of Christians must transcend political membership, for our kingdom citizenship already carries with it a politic that does not respect party lines. He often said to me, ‘Al, if you get people on both sides of the political line angry, then you know you’re on the right track!’ Refusing to become ideologically captive or to tow the party line, he strove to be faithful to ‘the politics of Jesus’. In his words, this kind of politics is ‘pro-life, pro-poor, pro-family, pro-racial justice, pro-peace, and pro-creation care since God cares about all those things’.[14]





Building on a strong foundation



In summary, I have highlighted five elements in the work of Ronald J. Sider that have helped shape evangelical global mission today. As one of the pioneers of the transformational movement that championed a truly holistic, contextual, relational, and theological approach to mission, Sider contributed significantly, (1) as he located integral mission in the realm of discipleship; (2) as he centralized the issues of wealth and poverty on the missionary agenda; (3) as he did more than any other in developing the Lausanne Covenant’s statement on simple lifestyle; (4) as he advocated for nonviolent peacemaking as part of the justice work of the church in the world; and (5) as he urged Christians to get involved in the political process of their respective contexts for the sake of the vulnerable, as well as for the sake of social change.



I had the privilege to speak at Ron Sider’s memorial service. I spoke and cried for all who have been impacted by him when I thanked him for leaving us with plenty of resources to live radically and uncompromisingly for Jesus in the service of the whole gospel.



Al Tizon, affiliate professor of missional and global leadership at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois (US), and lead pastor of Grace Fellowship Community Church in San Francisco, California, where he and his wife reside. Al worked with Ron Sider for nine years at Palmer Theological Seminary and Christians for Social Action.



This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online at www.lausanne.org/analysis.



 



Endnotes




  1. Al Tizon, Transformation after Lausanne: Radical Evangelical Mission in Global-Local Perspective (Oxford et al: Regnum, 2008), 6.

  2. See Ronald J. Sider, I Am Not a Social Activist: Making Jesus the Agenda (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2008).

  3. Sider, I Am Not a Social Activist, 21.

  4. Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity. Sixth edition (W Publishing, 2015), 28.

  5. Sider, Rich Christians, 25.

  6. Jonathan Bonk, Missions and Money. Revised and Expanded (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006).

  7. Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘A Holistic Approach to Poverty Alleviation in Asia’ by Kumar Aryal inLausanne Global Analysis, July 2022, https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2022-07/a-holistic-approach-to-poverty-alleviation-in-asia.

  8. Ronald J. Sider, ‘Introduction,’ in Living More Simply: Biblical Principles and Practical Models, ed. Ronald J. Sider (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1980), 16.

  9. Ronald J. Sider, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2015), xv.

  10. Sider, Nonviolent Action, 63-77.

  11. This section is adapted from ‘Leading Evangelicals for Social Action,’ in Religious Leadership: A Reference Handbook, ed. Sharon Henderson Callahan (Los Angeles et al.: Sage reference, 2013), 459-460. Used by permission.

  12. Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘Working for Freedom in a World of Exploitation and Trafficking’ by Marion L. S. Carson in Lausanne Global Analysis, July 2022, https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2022-07/working-for-freedom-in-a-world-of-exploitation-and-trafficking.

  13. However, he was quite clear about his opposition to the elections and presidency of Donald J. Trump in the United States. But even in that rare occasion, he did not oppose the then-current president on the grounds of party affiliation. See The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity, ed. Ronald J. Sider (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020).

  14. Sider, I Am Not a Social Activist, 203.


 

 


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