The title of this book caught my attention. It seems to sum up the internal struggle I have these days – Christians claiming one thing, and then living completely different. It’s not so much the idea that rich Christians are bad people. It’s more the idea that we live in a land that is quite literally the richest nation that has ever been and yet, we are surrounded by a large population of people who lack basic necessities. It raises the question – Why? And that’s not counting the people outside of this nation who are struggling to survive. This book isn’t about individual people, but rather a rich nation that claims to be Christian and a large population of people who are poor and hungry. How is this possible? That’s what this book is about.
This is the sixth edition of this book, which was first published in 1997. This edition was published in 2015, so it’s a little dated, but really the main idea still holds.
“We still live with more than a billion desperately poor neighbors. Another 1.2 billion struggle near poverty with very little hope for a decent life. Nor has God’s special concern for the poor changed. Hundreds of biblical texts tell us that God still measures our societies by what we do to the poorest.” (Pg. xv). How do we treat our neighbors? What are we called to? None of this is new. Not by a long stretch. Scripture has been talking about all of this for a long, long time. It’s just inconvenient for a wealthy nation. Or maybe we tell ourselves that taking care of the world’s poor goes against our national interest. Or maybe we tell ourselves we don’t have enough money to feed the world, all while spend huge amounts of money on weapons that can literally kill every living thing on this planet multiple times over. We always seem to have more than enough money for weapons that kill and destroy, but we never seem to have enough money for things that heal, food that ends hunger, housing to keep people from being unhoused, and other things that actually lead to thriving lives and communities. Maybe we just feel threatened that if anyone else is doing well, it must mean that we are not doing as well, as if such things were an all or nothing comparison.
Right off the bat, I do want to say there are parts of this book that I found myself asking questions about – questions that made it seem just a bit off. There would whole sections in which there was discussion on poverty and how to help people, but there would be thrown in a quick line like, “…how you and I can assist the poor to help themselves…” (Pg. xvi). Hmm. Well…yes…and… Is the goal for people to be alone, doing things on their own? That sounds so very western in outlook – that individualism is the highest value. But that’s not the case in other cultures. Lines like this felt like they were put in there to try to satisfy someone in the publishing process who is really attached to individualism. I could be off on that of course.
Having said that minor critique, I found the book to be a wonderful and humanizing look at poverty, wealth, and what our faith calls on us to do. The author has obviously done a great bit of research over the years and offers not just an impressive array of data, but also brings that data down to a level that anyone can digest – to move us from an abstract idea to a practical application. In that respect, Sider has done us a service.
The book is broken into four sections. The first part is called “Poor Lazarus and Rich Christians.” The description of the section goes as follows: “We usually compare our budgets and lifestyles with those of our affluent neighbors. Part One invites you to compare yourself with the poorest one-third of the world’s people.” (pg. 1). In the course of two chapters, Sider lays out a sketch of who the poorest in the world are and how they live, some of the systems that contribute to their poverty, the limited control and influence they have over those systems, and other impacts outside of their control and then moves in our affluence. Yes, our affluence – not some anonymous rich person in a far off place. So often we in America and other places think we aren’t all that affluent. But compared to our 1.2 billion neighbors who are living on the equivalence of $1.25 a pay, we are very affluent with our tens of thousands of dollars in income every year.
Sider gets to the heart of the matter with this statement: “The increasingly affluent standard of living is the god of twenty-first century North America, and the adman is its prophet. Advertising reclassifies luxuries as necessities.” (Pg. 28). Want and need are blurred. An idol tells us things we want to hear, an imagined past or future that it can never fulfill.
Part two is titled, “A Biblical Perspective on the Poor and Possessions.” The title really says it all. Sider has this to say in addition: “Most wealthy Christians have failed to seek God’s perspective on the plight of our billion plus desperately poor neighbors…But I refuse to believe that this failure must inevitable continue.” (Pg. 43).
Over the next four chapters of this section of the book, Sider examines the numerous biblical passages about God’s preference for the poor, what economic fellowship and economic justice really is from a biblical perspective, how we can think about prosperity and what it is used for from a biblical perspective, and systemic evil and its role in the world and how God responds to this.
Throughout this, Sider reminds readers of what has always been in Scripture: “The God of the Bible cares when people enslave and oppress others.” (Pg. 47). “The God of the Bible wants to be known as the liberator of the oppressed.” (Pg. 48). “The explosive message of the prophets is that God destroyed Israel because of their mistreatment of the poor. Idolatry was an equally prominent reason, but too often we remember only Israel’s ‘spiritual’ problem of idolatry and overlook the startling biblical teaching that economic exploitation also sent the chosen people into captivity.” (Pg. 48). Over and over again, these themes scream from the texts of Scripture, regardless of whether we are considering the Old or New Testaments. It doesn’t matter if we are hearing prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, or Jesus’ own words. The message is the same – God cares how the poor are treated and does not look kindly on those who exploit the poor for their own benefit because when this happens, the exploiter is not only rejecting their neighbors who bear the image of God, but are in essence and practice rejecting God and putting themselves in place of God.
It’s easy to read all of this and just see an angry God. But that’s not the whole story. Sider offers us Good News. “God requires radically transformed economic relationships among his people because sin has alienated us from God and from each other. The result is personal selfishness, structural injustice, and economic oppression. Among the people of God, however, the power of sin is broken. The community of the redeemed is to display a dramatically new set of personal, social, and economic relationships. The quality of life among the people of God is to be a sign of the coming perfection and justice that will be revealed when the kingdoms of this world finally and completely become the kingdom of our Lord at his Second Coming.” (Pg. 71). Yes, indeed, salvation is not just limited to personal, individual salvation, but the transformation of the core of everything. Too often I think we western Christians make God out to be far too small when we end up making God only concerned with us individually while forgetting or ignoring what God is not only capable of, but also has a desire to transform. It’s about making everything right again. It’s about putting everything back into a right relationship with God and others – shalom. That’s not just individuals, but also systems, the planet, our economics, and more.
Part three of the book is titled “What Causes Poverty?” Here Sider compares and contrasts the typical conservative and liberal views on the poor and poverty asking “Who is right? And wrong? Both. There is no single cause of poverty.” (Pg. 127). Over next two chapters he looks as both the individual’s contribution towards poverty as well as things well outside of anyone’s control that are factors towards poverty. And it’s quite a range that he covers including personal choices, disasters, western colonialism, and more. In addition, he looks at structural injustice including market economies, international trade, environmental destruction, war, racism, and more. Given the complex nature of all of these, Sider is barely scratching the surface on any one of them. But I think it’s important to bring these up to show the complexity of the cause of poverty. Which also means that “solving” poverty isn’t a nice easy solution either and there are no quick fixes.
In the last part, which is titled “Implementation,” Sider says, “We need to change at three levels. Appropriate personal lifestyles are crucial to symbolize, validate, and facilitate our concern for the hungry. The church must change so that its common life presents a new model for a divided world. Finally, both here and abroad, we must make the structures of society more fair.” (Pg. 179).
Sider offers some practical options in the face of overwhelming odds. Will they work? I don’t know. And I sense he doesn’t either. And that’s not the point. It’s not about that. They only have the possibility of having an impact if they are tried at all. And my takeaway from his chapters on implementation is this – what are you willing to commit to actually doing? He offers suggestions, but I think he would be thrilled if individuals, the church, and society at large just did something that moved us toward care for the poor and hungry in our world. It seems like inertia is our biggest problem. And that the problem seems too large, so why start at all.
In order to combat this, Sider starts with a chapter on things that we can do individually. And most of what this comes down to goes back to that line about affluence is the God of 21st-century North America. If that is the case, then rejecting that god means a simpler lifestyle that rejects the false promises.
I appreciate that Sider has a call to the church in this matter too. This is one of the best paragraphs in the book: “The church should consist of communities of loving defiance. Instead it consists largely of comfortable clubs of conformity. A far-reaching reformation is necessary if the church is going to resist the materialism of our day and share God’s concern for the poor.” (Pg. 206). Amen! It’s a call for the church to live into what it claims to believe. Can you imagine how impactful that would be? It would change the world if Christians just embraced what Jesus calls on us to do and be.
The last chapter of this section talks about making the world fairer and has a focus on larger matters and systems in the world – things like foreign policy, economics, trade, multinational corporations, and more. It’s a pretty heady section in which it’s easy to get lost mostly because these are such large considerations. But I think they are important to talk about here. Sider started with individual actions, moves to individuals in community and church, and finally those having an impact on large systems. That’s the message. We may not be able to solve poverty individually, but if we all do our part and we add those parts together, it makes an impact. There is hope. There is a promise that we hear about in Scripture too – so that we know that this isn’t a lonely effort on our own and just with our own work. No, this is a call from God to participate in what God has always been up to. We have our part.