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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ron Sider - A Response

This past Monday night, my college had a speaker on campus by the name of Dr. Ron Sider, who is the founder and director of an organization called Evangelicals For Social Action and also author of a controversial 1977 text entitled Rich Christians in an Age Of Hunger.   Our professor of our usual Monday night class had us attend this presentation, and although I have reservations about what was said, it is definitely something to pay attention to and therefore I felt maybe it was appropriate to give Dr. Sider a fair hearing.  And, so I did.  What I want to do now is to respond to Sider on some things, and I will reference an opposing text authored by Dominionist David Chilton (I normally don't agree with him either, but on this one he has some good insights) entitled Productive Christians In An Age of Manipulation, which he authored as a direct response to Sider's book.   Some good things can be gleaned from both Sider and Chilton, and I will concede that, but also both have some fallacies in their thinking that do not line up with God's Word nor do they comply with traditional orthodox Christian teaching.  It is time to rescue a lot of Christian convictions about economics, the poor, etc., from the extremes of both the Emerging Church people and the Dominionists, and to get a balanced perspective that is more in line with what Christ commands us to do.  And, that is why I am lead to write this.  I do not have Sider's book, but am instead going on some mental observations I noted from his presentation - that means I probably will not cover everything he said, but I feel I got the most important elements.  So, without further delay, let us proceed.

Essentially, Sider's presentation goes along the lines of his book, which I did read some time ago.  His main premise that he emphasized several times was that to be pro-life is to be pro-poor.   That's fair, and I do concur with that, to a degree.   Sider, to his credit, has been an outspoken voice for both traditional marriage and against abortion, and for that he is to be commended.  Although not as active in the pro-life movement as my dear friend Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life is, he nonetheless is a good voice for the sanctity of human life.   Also, it must be kept in mind that much of Sider's worldview is also consistent with his Anabaptist heritage - he does possess pacifist tendencies, and his insistence on ministry to the poor reflect that as well.  That being said, it would not be fair to hold Sider to the same degree of accountability as a Southern Baptist or a Pentecostal on those issues.   However, Anabaptists can be wrong too, and I say that with discretion as my own heritage was German/Swiss Dunkard on my mother's side and I appreciate much of that rich tradition of my own legacy.   But, I don't give blanket assent to my ancestors' church on everything either.   So, although I do concur with the basic premise of Sider's that to be pro-life is to be pro-poor, I also have to say I differ with how he expounds on that premise.  And, that will be the start of our discussion.

Sider's presentation was filled with a lot of statistics about the national debt, the fiscal budget, etc.   Some made sense, but unfortunately Sider's own shortsightedness came through when he reflected his blind acceptance of the Federal government's figures regarding foodstamps, etc.   I want to make a few observations about this if I may, and there are some specific items of his presentation I want to address.  First, he advocates more government programs, citing that only 5% or so of the Federal budget is earmarked for programs such as unemployment, foodstamps, etc.   Sider makes an error here right up-front - unemployment compensation is not Federal, but is a state program.   The individual states set up their own criteria basically for unemployment, and it is state funding that provides that.   As for the foodstamp program, Sider also mentioned that the average time a person receives that aid is approximately 8 months.  There is some validity to that, and having had to rely on that program myself in the past for brief amounts of time (3-4 months max), it makes sense.  The way the foodstamp program was organized initially was as a temporary assistance for families facing sudden hardship such as loss of employment, etc.   It was not meant to be permanent income for anyone, and people do have the option of exiting the program once their needs are met.   The foodstamp program, as it is supposed to be set up, is a good thing - it is not a handout, as many people who have to depend on it have paid taxes into it so it is their money, and sometimes even the most stable of families do get hit with circumstances that may necessitate temporary assistance like that.  Again though, for the most part the foodstamp program is a state program, although some Federal money is allocated toward it.  And, contrary to a statement that Sider made about Republicans wanting to cut the program, there are two things that don't substantiate his statement.  First, many Republicans don't have an issue with the foodstamp program - even the most conservative ones see that it meets a need, and no conservative politician to my knowledge has ever advocated the dissolution of the foodstamp (or SNAP) program.  The issue comes when some people do take advantage of it, and treat it as permanent income rather than as the temporary system it was set up to be.   Liberals often encourage that behavior, as it reinforces the individual's dependence on government and also empowers/enables government's intrusion into the right to privacy of the individual.  All conservatives want to do is to establish accountability for the program, both of the recipients as well as of the government.   Accountability is necessary too, because if someone is receiving these benefits who probably shouldn't, then a person who really needs the assistance for their very survival risks being denied due to lack of funding and other factors.  Which is why when the term "poor" is defined, we need to be more specific.  Chilton addresses that very thing in his text when he says there are different types of the "poor," and not all of them deserve the help.  Note what he says on page 55 of his text, in addressing the section "God's Law and the Poor:"

"The local administration of charity is crucial. It ensures that finds go to those who are truly needy, rather than to professional paupers. The charitable aspects of the tithe did not mean simply a handout to everyone who lined up. Charity is to be dispensed by responsible leaders of the covenant community who are in daily contact with the needs of the people. The general principle still holds: those who won’t work don’t eat. Those who attempt to live by a welfare ethic are quickly exposed in a locally-administered program, and will be unable to get away with “mooching.” Even in charity, God’s law teaches responsibility. This is in stark con- trast to the governmentally-financed “charity” promoted by Ronald Sider."
(David Chilton, Productive Christians In An Age of Guilt Manipulators, at, page 55)

I have to concur with Chilton on this one, in that the dispensing of charity by responsible leadership of Christ's Church must be done with a sense of discernment.   The idea of "professional paupers" seems to be one that is often enabled and encouraged by well-meaning Christians like Sider, but in reality it does more harm than good because the element of responsibility on the part of the recipient is missing.   There are, of course, many who are of legitimate need, and of course we should always have compassion upon such people because they did not choose to be that way, and in many cases if they are afforded the right opportunity they will rise up from it.   As a matter of fact, I would argue that the truly needy seek a hand-up rather than a hand-out, and the Church should seek to help people truly get back on their feet who are in these situations.   However, a weird mentality, brought on by the "Social Gospel" movement of Walter Rauschenbusch, from whom Sider draws much inspiration, is that in order for Christians to "understand" the poor, we have to get down on their level and wallow in it with them, as it creates empathy.  However, is that what the truly needy want??  Do they want idealistic Bible college students living in cardboard boxes for a period of time as an absolution of a non-existent guilt imposed on them by leaders like Sider, or do they want someone with a sign showing them how they can escape their situation?   I would say the latter, and I do so on good authority.  You see, I grew up poor myself, and I know what it was like to not have adequate food or clothing and to rely on monthly foodstamp rations, large bricks of government cheese and butter, and visits to church food pantries just to eat.  I also know what it is like to use an outhouse, cook on a wood stove, and to have to bathe in a huge metal tub with water heated on that wood stove.  But, today, I am a college graduate, am working on a master's degree, and have come a long way from all that - I owe that to the Lord Jesus Christ by sending people to enable me to rise above where I was to get where I am.  That is what the truly needy want and where Sider and others miss it by infinity - sleeping in a cardboard box to show "solidarity" with the poor is not helping them - the truly needy want to rise above the carboard box and not have some smartalecky punk college kid setting up housekeeping in one next to them!  If we want to truly help the poor, we need to empower them to stand on their own two feet and rise above their poverty - I don't see one instance in Scripture where Jesus wallowed around in the ditch with the indigent - what I do read is Him saying "rise, take up thy bed, and walk," and I also see Him taking Peter out of the raging waves rather than drowning with him.   Honestly, if I were poor and seen some rich, yuppie college kid trying to feel guilty about his blessings in life, I would be furious at the patronization and lack of answers such a person would be refusing to give me!  However, if another college kid were to come down the street and say something like "I have an opportunity for a free education if you are willing to commit to the course, and here is a key to a house - go home, get cleaned up, and we'll see you Monday in class!" I would say that this would be meeting a need.   Thus, on that subject, I rest my case.

Moving on, Sider is obviously a proponent of big government, and he uses the Bible to justify that.  He says the government has to help the poor because it would take $1.5 million added to the budget of every church and synagogue in the country to take on the task.   Again, there are some fallacies in that argument.  To begin, that whole thing violates Romans 12:4-5, which says there are diversities of ministries in the Body.  According to Sider's rationale, every church needs the same budget to do the same thing - logically it doesn't add up right.  Some churches are gifted with people who stress education, for instance, while others are enabled with the right people to have free clinics, market co-ops, or foodbanks.  Not every church is called to do exactly the same thing, and in many cases some churches have programs that cost more, others that cost less.  So, it makes no sense whatsoever what Sider is saying.   Another thing too is that Sider underestimates the capabilities of local communities getting behind church programs - business owners with good hearts are donating land, facilities, and other resources to churches all the time to implement programs that will benefit the community, and Sider underestimates that grossly.   An example of that was the church in my town that I attended when I was in high school - the church opened, with minimal budget as well as gratis services from local professionals, a counseling center that effectively helped many people.  And, to save money on professional staff, the local administrator of a state psychiatric hospital in that town gave all of us free training to counsel people, and some of our group received professional certification at no cost.   And, I hasten to remind the reader that all of that didn't even come close to costing $1.5 million!  As a matter of fact, the investment was only a few thousand dollars for the whole program, which we called Esther's House - it was a center that provided family counseling, distributed food and clothing to the needy, and we also established partnerships with other ministries such as Foodshare and Habitat for Humanity.  Other local churches of many denominations also pitched in and helped too.   I have seen other churches institute seminars for money management for families, have agricultural co-operatives, and other neat programs that served community needs.   And, the cost was peanuts!  So, Sider is sadly mistaken in his figures, and him making such a stupid stipulation underestimates and insults many good people and churches who are impacting their communities in profound ways with little financial base to work with.   And, there is also the "GOD FACTOR" as well - if a person or church receives a genuine vision from God to do something, I think it would be a word of wisdom to say that God will open the doors, provide the means, and set everything in motion to make that vision become reality - I have seen that on many occasions too.   However, Sider has given the impression in the past, and still seems to labor under that same delusion, that government is greater than God, and therefore we have to rely on the government for all things.   He is in for a rude awakening one day.

Chilton too is fallacious in his reasoning as well though, in that being a Dominionist he feels he has to "help God along" to make some utopian theocracy come to pass.  He is about as far off as Sider on that one, and to be honest although they differ on many issues the same message seems to be communicated - according to both, God is not able for some reason to take care of people, so we have to do it ourselves.  What an insult to our Lord and Savior!  To begin, if you desire to do anything for God or his kingdom, you'd gosh-dern better seek out his direction to do it, or it's going to fail!  Secondly, it is an insult to people of faith, because in many cases there seems to be a mentality that we either have emotional detachment (Chilton's position) from the genuine needs of people, or we misappropriate Jesus' commands and try to act like them and in many cases we reinforce bad behavior (Sider's position, at least what it potentially can lead to).   Neither of these extremes are healthy, nor are they Biblical.  Therefore, there are two further positions I want to put forward, and I believe they more adequately express where we need to be.

First, it must be understood that the United States Federal government is not eternal, and indeed, if one reads the proverbial "writing on the wall" it could easily be determined that America as we know it is in decline.   Some years back, I began to study a book by journalist Joel Garreau entitled The Nine Nations of North America, and essentially the case was argued that each region of the US has attributes and resources that could sustain it independently of the USA as a nation-state.   The school of thought behind this is called bioregionalism, and it has a number of theories attached to it.  Although none of the bioregional positions foresee directly a dissolution of the US as a governing entity, all do present a scenario for that dissolution in various models - Garreau says there are nine, but I would argue for as many as 30.   A similar, more pessimistic scenario was put forth in Robert Ferrigno's Prayers for the Assassin in which he paints a future fragmented USA, the majority under Islamic rule, with the breakaway regions in armed conflict with each other.  And, it could happen easily, considering the US is losing its influence on the international stage and the European Union and China are starting to step in to fill the void.  How does Sider plan to reconcile his endorsement of big government programs to do what the Church should be doing when the USA no longer has a big government with the resources to make his little vision happen?   He needs to rethink that some.

Second, Sider discussed the issue of Social Security, and I have some thoughts to share on what he said.  He advocates, for one thing, an actual tax on Social Security for the elderly, and there are a couple of issues with that.  First off, the elderly pay a social security tax that is supposed to contribute to their benefits, so it is ludicrous to say that you want to tax a tax.  Second, although he recommends that this tax be only for the wealthiest recipients of Social Security, and again there is a problem.   Like many of the big-government liberals Sider seems to endorse, he seems to possess some confusion as to what "wealthy" is, because I can tell you personally that often it is the Democrat liberals in government that place unnecessary tax burdens on people who cannot afford them, while a Republican Presidency tends to give that money back - after all, when both Clinton and Obama were in office, I got hit with tax bills every year of their regimes (in many cases I didn't make sufficient income then to cover that unnecessary burden on our family finances either), and many times I made under $20K/year when that happened.   Yet, under the Bush Administration, I always received a tax refund, and it was Bush who sent the American people rather than the big corporations (like Obama did) stimulus checks - in 2008, one of those stimulus checks paid for our Christmas holiday!  So, according to Sider and his Democrat friends, I guess anyone who makes twenty thousand dollars a year is wealthy - I am personally flattered, but not feeling the wealth, my friends!  That being said, I want to go on record as saying that I know many elderly people, and almost all of them I know would not be considered millionaires. Therefore, this 15% tax on Social Security that Sider proposes (the man must have been eating toadstools out of his backyard to even propose this, honestly!) would kill most seniors in this country.  Yes, some do live more comfortably than others, but living comfortably doesn't necessarily equate their situation with wealth - a 15% tax burden would cripple these people despite appearances.  Besides, taxing Social Security would also be ludicrous because the benefit is a tax itself that many of these elderly people have worked lifetimes paying into - is Sider off his rocker, proposing a tax on a tax???  It simply makes no sense whatsoever. 

Another thing I noticed Sider did not address that I will is VA benefits.  I am taking it that Sider doesn't have a high regard for veterans, despite the fact he (like the rest of us) owes them much for their sacrifice.  Both of my parents served in the military during the Vietnam conflict, and I am very proud of them for doing what they did to insure my freedom.   Sider, the consistent pacifist, was hollering about the defense budget though, and what I would ascertain from him doing so is that he would advocate cutting VA benefits too - I can't say if he would say that or not, but if he does he needs therapy.   I find it all interesting in Sider's talk Monday night that he targeted defense but chose to totally ignore the real "fat" that needs to be trimmed in the budget - funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood, as well as bogus "research projects" such as the effects cow farts have on the ozone layer or the sex habits of some obscure species of Japanese quail.  We could save literally billions annually if programs like those were cut - foodstamps, education, and defense are not the issues with the Federal budget, but rather junk like that.  If someone wants to hold a gas meter to a cow's backside to measure the potency if its flatuence, I say to each his own, but at least get private funding to do it!  I don't want my tax dollars paying for such nonsense.  Also, it's time to maybe reduce some salaries of useless public officials - Senators and Representitives get paid way too much and don't do the job they are getting paid for, as do judges, Presidents (Michelle Obama's myriad vacations alone at taxpayer expense would have save millions of dollars too), and other officials, some of which there are no real purposes for in the first place.   That, along with term limits for Congressmen, would save a bundle for the American people.   And, our deserving but under-appreciated veterans could get real help when they needed it.  So, Dr. Sider, what about the vets - do you care about them?   Just some humble thoughts.

Much more could be said on these matters, but we will stop there because I believe I hit on the major issues I wanted to address regarding Dr. Sider's talk, and hopefully this will bring some perspective to that table of ideas.  I probably will not be too well-endeared toward some over these issues, but you know something, I don't care about what some people think sometimes because I hear them running their mouths about stuff that doesn't amount to a hill of beans and somehow I and others with similar convictions are not worth their time to hear because they are like a ravenous pack of piranha when someone speaks something disagreeable to them.  Well, this someone has chosen to disagree, and I do not follow the well-worn trail of popular hero-worship many of the people who oppose something like this would follow.  Take it or leave it - it is just my perspective.  God bless and have a great day.