Ron Sider is a nice guy, and honest enough to admit that he has been mistaken on some things. His best-seller 20 years ago, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, treated market systems the way dogs treat hydrants. (And I have sometimes treated Ron's group, Evangelicals for Social Action, the same way.) But Ron's "20th-anniversary revision" of Rich Christians shows a partly new perspective.
His own words in the new edition tell the story best: "Communism has collapsed. Expanding market economies and new technologies have reduced poverty.... Many Asian countries have adopted market economies. The result has been a dramatic drop in poverty in the world's most populous continent. In 1970, chronic undernourishment plagued 35 percent of the people in the entire developing world. Twenty-one years later-in spite of rapid population growth-only 20 percent were chronically undernourished."
With that change in facts, Ron writes, "My thinking has also changed. I've learned more about economics.... I have thought a lot about what the Bible tells us about equality and equity. I never thought that biblical revelation demanded absolute equality of income and wealth. But I used to be more concerned than I am today with the proportion of income and wealth that different groups possess."
Ron's new position stresses opportunity in a way that allows for productive dialogue with many conservative Christians. He wants every person or family to have "access to the necessary resources (land, money, education) to be able to earn a decent living and participate as dignified members of their community." So do I. The questions are, how can they gain such access to resources? What kind of help do they need?
The revision of Rich Christians emphasizes the provision of micro-loans to very poor people. Ron points out that loans of $500, made with discernment to creators of industrious small businesses, can dramatically improve living standards. That's true. But money can't buy changes of heart, mind, and soul, and that is often what is most needed.
Two recent stories in the journal Together, published by the relief and development agency World Vision, show what is often a bigger barrier to progress than the lack of $500.
The first story concerns development experts who came to a village to introduce agricultural innovations that could double the yield of sorghum. The experts explained to the villagers everything that the experts thought was scientifically relevant: the seeds, the chemical content of the fertilizer, and so on. Most of the villagers were hesitant, but one farmer plunged ahead. He planted the seeds and showed the increased yield. World Vision folks rejoiced: Now the rest of the farmers would follow the example of the successful innovator.
It did not work out that way. The farmer's son, sadly, died within a year. Infant mortality is 20 percent in that culture, so such a death was not unusual. But the other villagers connected the child's death and the increased crop. They concluded that the World Vision experts were offering a useful form of witchcraft, but sacrificing a son to improve yields was too high a price to pay.
The second story concerns a village with huts that had only little holes in their walls. When villagers lit small fires in their huts for cooking and heating, smoke was trapped inside; eye and lung problems ensued. Development experts came, explained that the villagers needed ventilation and light, and offered to put in windows. The villagers agreed.
Three weeks later, however, the little holes were back and the windows were gone. The villagers understood that their small holes led to poor physical health, but they had thought through the spiritual consequence of having big windows: Evil spirits would come in. The price of protection against spirits was bad health, and it was a price the villagers decided to pay. Plus, they were happy to have free windows that they could then remove and sell to people in other villages who were foolish enough to risk spiritual damage.
These stories do not suggest that Ron's idea of sending money for micro-loans is not good; it is. But it is at least as important to support a good missionary, or a school like African Bible College that is training native preachers, or the work of the modern martyrs described in this issue by Mindy Belz.
I believe Ron is all in favor of solid activities of that sort. I'm in favor of good micro-loans. I like being on the same side with Ron in some battles, and I suspect the 40th-anniversary version of Rich Christians, if Christ tarries, will be even better.