“Please, don’t become social activists!!”
This is not what I expected to hear from a “left-wing,” anti-capitalist who helped launch the Christian social-activist movement in the early 80’s. Ron Sider, author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, had been asked to be the devotional speaker for a conference on Faith and International Development at a local Christian College. Those opening words riveted me but settled like a foreboding fog over the mostly young and zealous audience. Obviously, it was not what they had been anticipating either.
The next line was almost as surprising. To socially conscious, left-of-center, nominally Christian listeners, it was perhaps more so. It seemed to startle and throw off the amiable balance of ideological solidarity. Arguably, it ought not to have been such a shock, Sider was only complying with the last part of the conference’s tag line: “walking humbly and turning tables.
”The scandalous denoument to Sider’s provocative introduction was: “Be Jesus people! (instead).” His point was simple. If your ultimate commitment is to justice you will inevitably fail in addressing the ultimate needs of those in need of justice. The basis for his plea was this: there is nothing more important in the whole world than being in right relationship with God, which only is possible through a commitment to and a love for Jesus Christ the Lord. At the heart of his challenge was a sturdy conviction to something the church has believed since its inception over 2,000 year ago. Sadly, when he made the assertion, it hung in the air like something toxic. It received the response reserved for those who wave banners at an Al Gore convention declaring that global warming is a farce.
Man’s fundamental need, Sider declared, joining his voice to the ancient church fathers and mothers and all their faithful family over the centuries, is located first in the heart not the stomach. Man’s most defining hunger, his uniquely characteristic longing is for God, not bread, or money, or education or clean water. It is not even the desire for just socio-political and economic structures. By prioritizing a relationship with God through Jesus, he told the audience, you get to experience the joy of introducing people to the One their souls are thirsting for, the One for whom they were created, and you help them establish a relationship with their infinite Lover. You are addressing eternal needs and redressing infinite wrongs.
When you focus primarily on social activism, he explained, you are treating the poor as half-persons. You are acting as though man and his needs are essentially or exclusively physical. That is actually the saddest things one can do: convince people that their hope is in that which is passing away, in that which satisfies momentarily, that which provides temporary, false security. In biblical terms it is to make people drink water out of filthy cisterns and rely upon powerless, and ultimately destructive idols. To support his argument, Sider quoted the current religious icon of social activism—Jesus Christ, who told His followers that it was no good at all to empower the poor to gain the whole world of justice if at the end of the day they would forfeit their very souls.
But, that was all just a warm-up for the really heretical message. For those like myself who cut their social justice teeth on Sojourners magazine and Liberation Theology, it is one of the most scandalous things he could have said. Sider concluded that the fundamental problem in the world is not exclusively economic, political, religious or educational. What the Christian committed to social activism must recognize is that structural sin is only a manifestation of personal sin. There is a direct and unbreakable connection between “private” ethics and structural evil. Not only that, personal sin can be as destructive as systemic sin.
This iconic leader of the Christian social activist movement encouraged collegians in the maelstrom of gender politics, sexual identity confusion, and compelling alternative lifestyle proponents, to be as committed to sexual purity as to social justice. He shockingly equated the damage produced by immorality in the bedroom with that which flows from immorality in the boardroom. Sider’s astonishing assertion seemed to take everyone by surprise. But, having been married for 30 years to the same woman, what he said next made me want to cheer. I uttered a silent prayed that this heretical and counter-cultural challenge would not fall on deaf ears. “If you want to change society,” he declared, “one of the most important things you can do is to be faithful in marriage.”
Sider’s final plea had that poignancy of a compassionate father begging his prodigal children to reconsider their foolhardy and self-confident ways. “I beg you, be a new generation that will truly (and fully) embrace biblical values; that will combine the priorities of worship and prayer with social action; that will be as committed to personal morality as to social justice—Be that generation that will stay centered on Jesus.”
In today’s intellectual climate it took great courage to say what Sider said and deep humility to do what he did. An icon had become an iconoclast and in the process surrendered iconic stature. The speech had veered so radically from the materialist rhetoric demanded by multiculturalism and a pluralistic post modernity that many could only conclude he had joined forces with religious fundamentalism–the mortal enemy of activism. What many missed is that Sider had simply been following in the steps of the father of social activism who scandalized friend and foe alike by boldly flipping over the tables of political correctness, an act that was as offensive and outrageous to the poor as to the rich.
In his brief talk, Sider exposed himself to many as a heretic. He had had the temerity to link together what hardly anybody dares do within the community development world—following Jesus, with sexual purity, with doing justice, with transformation of societies. In doing so he flipped over a room full of tables. As he concluded, over the stunned silence you could almost hear the sound of coins hitting the parquet floor. But if you were listening closely, when that grey-headed professor walked away from the podium you could make out something else, the sound of feet walking humbly in the comfortable company of his Lord and God.