As an undergraduate student in the mid 1970s I came into contact with the writings of several Christian leaders who were advocates of social justice, a concept that was new to me at the time. Accordingly, I began reading Sojourners, The Other Side, and, of course, Vanguard, which was published out of 229 College Street, Toronto. Among these leaders was Ron Sider, who died two months ago at age 82. Sider wrote a book called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977), which influenced a generation of young Christians to seek policies that would help the poor. Recognizing that our world belongs to God, Sider believed that we have an obligation to ensure that its wealth be justly distributed rather than concentrated in a few hands.
As a member of the Brethren-in-Christ, where his father had served as a minister, Sider was steeped in the Anabaptist tradition and thus advocated nonviolence. As I came of age near the end of the Vietnam War, I was favourably impressed by the Christian witness against warfare and briefly flirted with pacifism. Although I ultimately returned to the Reformed tradition of my childhood and continue to believe that some wars are justified, I admired Mennonites and other pacifist Christians who refused to take up arms against their fellow human beings, taking seriously Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44).
A consistent stance
Although Sider was long associated with other progressive evangelical leaders, he retained a certain independence from them, refusing to go along with the latest trend to bear the progressive label if he saw it to be in conflict with biblical faith. More clearly than some of his colleagues, Sider recognized that not every trend styled progressive would necessarily prove to be progressive over the long term. In this respect, he retained a strong fidelity to Scripture, even when this made him suspect amongst fellow progressives. In 2009, for example, he signed the Manhattan Declaration affirming religious freedom, opposing abortion, and affirming sexual complementarity as intrinsic to marriage.
He attempted to articulate a comprehensive pro-life ethic in opposition to abortion, capital punishment, and of course hunger. In 1987 Sider wrote a book called Completely Pro-Life: Building a Consistent Stance, in which he tied together several issues that would defy the conventional labels of conservative and progressive. Sadly, his efforts did not prevent especially evangelical Christians from dividing along the political lines familiar to us today.
I do not believe I ever heard Sider speak in person, although I no longer trust my memory of this. We were friends on Facebook, if that means anything. Yet even if we did not know each other in this life, I believe we will both stand justified before the throne of grace through our common faith in Jesus Christ.
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