A Response to Ronald Sider’s Just Politics

Ronald Sider is an evangelical Christian speaker, writer, and professor of theology and politics. In his recent book, Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement, he argues that in the past twenty years or so evangelical Christian engagement in American politics has been either non-existent or else very poor.1

Some evangelicals have decided that “saving souls” is more important than any political issue and thus have resolved not to enter the political arena at all. Other evangelicals have chosen to enter the political arena but have done so with little systematic reflection, taking what Sider calls a “ready, fire, aim” approach.2 This latter option is clearly undesirable, but Sider argues that the former is no better, especially within a democratic society:

If Christ is my Lord, if Christ desires the well-being of all, and if my vote has the potential to encourage political decisions that will promote the well-being of my neighbors, then the obligation to vote responsibly follows necessarily from my confession that Christ my Lord calls me to love my neighbor.3

Sider thus sets as the main task of his book putting Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, in a position to vote responsibly and act well politically.

To do this, Sider attempts to develop a biblical political philosophy. This is best done, Sider argues, not by proof texting from the Bible on every political issue but instead by developing a biblical view of both persons and the world as a whole and applying this view to politics. Sider does not start from scratch in arriving at these views but uses the political ideas of historical Christian thinkers to guide him (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin). Sider recognizes as well that it would be insufficient to simply provide a set of theoretical principles and thus also applies these theoretical principles of his Christian political philosophy to the specific issues facing the contemporary world. In all of this, Sider primarily addresses an evangelical Christian audience, that is, those who view the Bible as the primary authority for moral questions, and thus takes the authority of the Bible as a foundational assumption throughout his book.

While assuming this authority throughout his book slightly weakens Sider’s ability to engage non-Christian political thinkers, it also strengthens his ability to address his primary audience and thus accomplish his main goal: facilitating better evangelical Christian engagement in politics. Furthermore, he also notes that even non-Christian members of our “pluralistic society” should still not be able to easily dismiss his conclusions or even find them all that surprising, in part because these claims should be “written on the hearts” of all people, and in part because he thinks his arguments for these conclusions can be modified in order to be made appealing to others coming from different starting points. For these reasons I do not find his decision to work within an evangelical framework, rather than argue up to it, to be detrimental to his book’s success.

As alluded to above, Sider’s systematic approach allows him to challenge what he considers to be oversimplified notions of which political actions are right and wrong, notions that he understands to result from non-systematic Christian engagement in politics. On this front I find Sider to be very successful. By starting with the biblical story and a general political framework instead of a particular political party or a particular political issue, Sider avoids any hint of immediate partisanship while also gaining the respect of the diverse readers from within the evangelical tradition through his patience and thoughtfulness, characteristics so often lacking on the surface of any political engagement today. Consider, for instance, his treatment of distributive justice: he argues that, “from a biblical perspective, distributive justice demands adequate access to productive resources for those able to earn their own way…”4 Sider identifies land as one of the most important, if not the most important, productive resources in ancient Israel. By tracing the treatment of land in various Biblical texts (e.g., Ezekiel, Leviticus, Deuteronomy), Sider makes a compelling case that God’s vision for ancient Israel was for every family to enjoy a decent, dignified life in the community if they acted responsibly. He identifies two main structural checks to help ensure this was possible: the year of the jubilee and the sabbatical year.5 Sider’s approach to ownership of productive resources clearly cuts across party lines, as he advocates for occasional dramatic structural measures while also placing responsibility on individual families to use their resources well and bear the consequences of using them poorly. Beginning to apply this approach to life in America today, Sider identifies knowledge as one of the main productive resources.6 Thus, he identifies the institution of education as one in need of deep reform at the national and local levels in order to ensure that every child can receive a quality education and thus have access to one of the main resources, knowledge, crucial to success in our society today.

By recognizing the importance of a systematic framework in answering difficult political questions, Sider lays a foundation for more thoughtful Christian engagement in the American political sphere. Leaving much of the application of the principles he lays out to his readers, however, Sider places a tall burden on the public to carry out the task he has here only begun. While I found myself disagreeing with Sider on particular issues throughout the book, I nevertheless felt Sider giving me the space to do so. In this way Sider was able to cultivate in his readers the sort of care and thoughtfulness he sought to exemplify, thus enabling them to be active in the political sphere while remaining thoughtful, reflective, and Christian.

 

1. Ronald J. Sider, Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012) 3-10.

2. Ibid. 11.

3. Ibid. 9.

4. Ibid. 90.

5. Ibid. 91-93. The year of the jubilee came once every 50 years mandating that land be returned to its original owner (92; see also Lev. 25). Similarly, the sabbatical year came once every seven years, at which time debts would be cancelled and slaves released (93; see also Deut. 15).

6. Ibid. 94.

 

Hayden Kvamme ’14 is from Excelsior, MN. He is a Mathematics and Philosophy double major.

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