Throwback Thursday: Ron Sider Interview
Originally published Mar/April 2002 Issue #180
As we struggle as a nation to rebuild, we decided to seek the counsel of Dr. Ron Sider, one of the most respected and passionate advocates of holistic biblical faith in the Christian world. His groundbreaking book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was hailed as one of the single most important Christian books published in the ‘70s.
The good doctor has published more than 20 books and has written more than 100 articles in both religious and secular magazines on a variety of topics including the importance of caring for creation as part of our biblical discipleship. So, Door Contributing Editor Becky Garrison gave Ron a call to see what insight he could shed on how to live a Christ-filled life post-Sept. 11.
THE DOOR MAGAZINE: What is the significance of the declaration called
A Religious Response to Terrorism?
RON SIDER: We felt it was important to urge the nation not to respond with the kind of force that evokes a reaction that simply escalates the violence. So we urged caution and restraint. We acknowledged that it was a terrible tragedy and that the terrorists need to be brought to justice. But we wanted to be sure that we would do that in a way that was concerned with justice and not vengeance and also respected the Islamic faith, I think the scariest, most dangerous long-term possibility is that the vast majority of the people in the Muslim world simply see this as a Christian/Muslim clash of civilizations. If that mode of thinking develops over a long period of time, thatcould be very, very dangerous. So, it’s important that President Bush say what he has said quite effectively -- that this is not an attack on Muslims; this is not Christianity versus Islam. Rather, it’s a resistance to terrorism. We've also been in favor of course of continuing dialog with Muslim citizens of the United States. So, it was those kinds of concerns that prompted the statement.
DOOR: Now, as you know, the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson tried initially to lay a portion of the blame for this attack on the different “liberal” groups that were trying to secularize America. How do you respond to these type of comments?
SIDER: I did a piece called “How Should Christians Respond” in Evangelicals for Social Action’s bi-weekly e-pistle. (www.esa-online.org) First of all, the most basic point that Falwell was making explicitly is simply wrong-headed. The Bible does not give us warrant today for saying that the specific evils that happen in the world are the result of specific sins. Jesus dealt with that sort of thing in the story where somebody asked him, “Who had sinned to produce this illness?” The common view was that if somebody was ill, it was because of sin. And Jesus said that it’s not because of his sin or his parents’ sin. So, don’t try to connect a specific evil in the world with a specific sin.
DOOR: Is there a moral order, though, to the universe?
SIDER: It’s crucial to say at this point in time that there is a moral order in the
universe. The Creator has embedded ethical norms in the creation. When we go against those ethical norms, there are consequences. But that does not mean that anybody today knows enough to say what the connection is between a specific evil or tragedy and specific sins.
The other comment would be that unfortunately Jerry Falwell was selective again as he usually is when he talks about sin. He should have talked about racial sin and economic injustice and neglect of the poor, as well as sexual sin. He seems to always get kind of one-sided when he talks about sin.
DOOR: So, how do YOU define sin?
SIDER: Sin is acting contrary to the will of God. The will of God has been revealed to us in God's special revelation in the Bible. Yes, adultery and homosexual practice are sins.
DOOR: Uh ...
SIDER: But racism and neglecting and oppressing the poor are also sins.
SIDER: But the Bible says that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” Also, Peter said fairly soon after Pentecost, “There is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved.”
DOOR: What opportunities are there then for interfaith dialog and joint ministries between Christians and Muslims?
SIDER: Part of the problem is there is confusion between tolerance and relativism, and between pluralism and relativism. We have a pluralistic society. There are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, as well as a majority of Christians in this society. If we respect the First Amendment, which affirms religious freedom or more basically, if we believe what the Bible says about God giving us freedom to choose, to say yes or no to Him, then it seems to me that we should say that everybody must be free to accept or reject Christ. They must have religious freedom. But that doesn’t mean you are a relativist and that you think that one idea is as good as another. This kind of confusion is part of what's going on in this society.
DOOR: How can interfaith dialogue take place if you disagree with the basic tenants of another person'’s faith?
SIDER: Some people think that you’re not tolerant, you're not respectful of others if you say they’re wrong. Thats silly. I can believe and say that my Muslim friends are wrong theologically, and I can believe that homosexual practice is sin...
SIDER: ... and still say they are citizens to be treated fairly and respectfully in this society. They have full rights as citizens, and I will work with them on occasion, as one citizen to another to do things where we agree. I work cooperatively with Muslims and Jews, and lots of other folk. For example, if it's an issue where we agree on a piece of legislation to help the poor get a better wage if they work responsibly, I'd be glad to work with anybody on that. But that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything they say, do, or think. As I said before, tolerance and relativism are totally different things.
DOOR: How can Christians go to a place like the Middle East and evangelize without offending the deeply held religious beliefs of the Muslims and Jews?
SIDER: A lot of it depends on how we do it. Partly it depends on whether or not the other people are thinking clearly and fairly. I got a call from a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the person said, “We understand that evangelical Christians are going to New York City and doing evangelism, and there is a lot of negative reaction to that. What do you think?” I said, “Well, first of all, you can do evangelism in more than one way. You can do it in a way that is psychologically manipulative and disrespectful of other people's views. I think that's wrong. We should not try to manipulate people psychologically. Instead, we should always respect the deeply held beliefs of other people. But that does not mean that we can’t share our belief that there is only one way to God and that is through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. So, it depends on how you do it.”
DOOR: And let’s not talk about the “Scientology Volunteer Ministers” who were handing out literature at Ground Zero under the guise of “providing counseling services” and say we did. OK, do continue.
SIDER: I said I thought the First Amendment on religious freedom was central to America, and that it was at the very core of our society to say that we respect people of different religious viewpoints, and we all have the freedom to share those beliefs with others. “Is it unAmerican to do that?” I asked the reporter. A second crucial aspect is what I call servant evangelism.
DOOR: Servant evangelism?
SIDER: Jesus, after all, made the most amazing claims. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and that “nobody comes to the Father but by me.” But he did that as a servant ministering to prostitutes, lepers, the poor and marginalized, disadvantaged people in society. Evangelical Christians need to be known as the people who are most active in caring for the poor and demanding justice for them, and as the people who are most committed to serving people suffering and dying of AIDS. For example, if the secular feminists thought of evangelical men as the husbands most loving their wives in the servant style of Jesus, and in the way Ephesians 5 says we should, that would change things dramatically. So, I believe in servant evangelism where we love other people, serve the needy, and then say with quiet conviction, “Jesus, the only savior of the world, is what you need most, and let me tell you about Him.”
DOOR: In some instances, certain Christian groups set up prayer stations at Ground Zero. At times, rescue workers just wanted to sit and have a bit to eat and rest but instead, these people forced pamphlets on them instead. Do you think that’s a failure of the Christians in general or just the specific ministries?
SIDER: It’s a failure of specific ministries. There are lots of Christians doing it gently and sensitively. And then I'm sure there are people doing it in an insensitive way. Its counter-productive, and a violation of the gospel, particularly when it’s done poorly.
DOOR: Should Christians go to repressive regimes like Afghanistan and proclaim the good news?
SIDER: Of course we should go everywhere. We also must be wise servants. So, one has to pray and discern when and how one should go to a particular place. Evangelical Christians should not be talking loudly about sending hundreds of missionaries under the protection of American guns. Instead, we should go as servants loving and meeting the desperate needs for food, clothing, shelter and education. In time, as we are gentle servants, the Holy Spirit will open hearts.
DOOR: How would you counsel a female missionary who felt called to evangelize in Afghanistan?
SIDER: I would certainly want to ask very carefully about the call that was being expressed and how that call had been discerned and that this call has been confirmed by praying, Spirit-filled, mature Christians. I would encourage them to go as gentle servants, who are careful to let their acts of kindness open the door for words of witness.
DOOR: President Bush received some flack from the Religious Right because he went to a mosque.
SIDER: The President going to a mosque does not mean that he endorses the religious faith of Islam. He's the president of the whole country and it means that he issaying as president, this is a free nation. We allow religious freedom for everybody,and as citizens in this government we respect all religious beliefs. To say werespect them doesn’t mean to say that they are equally true. That is just silly anda fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment. For the Religious Right to criticize the president for going to a mosque is silly. It would be an entirely different thing if he said that all religions are the same or if he started praying to Allah. But to be threatened by the president going to a mosque is absurd and ignores a very good thing about this country, which is religious freedom for everybody and respect for persons of all religious beliefs even when one disagrees with some of their beliefs.
DOOR: Post Sept. 11, some churches have initiated inter faith dialogue by inviting an Imam to give a reading or to deliver a sermon during the church service. In your mind, is that an appropriate response for trying to create some kind of interfaith dialog or does that kind of cross the boundaries a little bit?
SIDER: I think we need interfaith dialog. Completely committed biblical Christians need to understand more clearly what Muslims, Buddhists, etc. believe. And we need to have personal relationships and friendships with such people. But we need to do that in a clear way that does not suggest that one religion is as good as another or that all are equal paths to salvation. So, we need to engage in dialog that’s respectful, while clearly maintaining our central Christian convictions, especially the uniqueness of Christ.
DOOR: What do you see as the mission of an organization like Evangelicals for Social Action?
SIDER: What ESA has been doing all along is to say, our bottom line commitment is to Jesus Christ, true God and true man, our risen Lord and Savior, and to God's whole revelation in the Bible. Because Jesus healed the whole person, body and soul, we are committed to social action and evangelism. We're also committed to what I call a biblical balance. We are concerned with justice for the poor but also concerned for the sanctity of human life. We're not just concerned with overcoming racial injustice but we are also concerned with family. I like to say we're pro-poor and pro-family, pro-racial justice and pro-life. And we advocate caring for God’s cre-ation, so we're biblical environmentalists.
DOOR: How do you apply this biblical balance now that our nation is at war?
SIDER: ESA continues to bring that kind of biblical balance to our agenda specifically in the present situation. It’s absolutely crucial that we not become so focused on the issue of terrorism that we neglect the poor here and abroad. What about the poorest in our society, who are now losing their jobs? As tragic as it was that over 3,000 people lost their lives on Sept. 11, we cannot forget that there are 35,000 children who die from poverty around the world every day. Again and again, the Bible is clear that if you claim to be God’s people but don’t share God's love for the poor, then you are probably not God's people.
DOOR: How do you reconcile the Old Testament notion of retribution with the New Testament attribute of Jesus that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself?”
SIDER: I start with the fact that the one who said this is God become flesh, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, and God's final revelation to us. Then I pray for the grace to follow his command to love my enemies.
DOOR: How can a politician profess his faith in the workplace?
SIDER: This is assuming that a politician is a serious Christian. Many politicians are not really serious Christians.
SIDER: But thank God there are serious politicians who are serious Christians. They know Jesus Christ should be Lord of all. He can’t just be Lord of my family life and my personal life, and not Lord of my political life so that means careful thought to let one see how to submit all of one’s political decisions to the teachings of Christ in the scriptures.
DOOR: Given that a politician is elected to represent all the people, how can he use his personal faith to render political decisions that will affect all Americans, even those who are not of his particular faith persuasion?
SIDER: At Evangelicals for Social Action, we have a variety of publications on how to think biblically about politics (www.esa-online.org). Among other things, it is important to realize that there is a difference between how one arrives at basic political conclusions (Christian norms must be central for Christians in politics) and how one explains and defends one’s conclusions in a highly pluralistic society.