Ron Sider on Inequality

Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, wonders if “economic inequality of opportunity” is a sin.  Here is a taste of his nuanced answer:

In my book Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget, I argue that the bible does not promote equality of income or wealth. When laziness and other forms of sin result in less income, inequality is appropriate. When parents rightly pass on an inheritance of skill and wealth to children, some inequality is proper (although we certainly should keep the estate tax!). When the economic rewards of work create incentives for creativity and diligence, some inequality is desirable.

On the other hand, I believe the Bible suggests at least two limits on inequality. For one, the biblical principle of justice demands that every person and family have access to the productive resources so that if they act responsibly, the can earn a decent living and be dignified members of society. Whenever the extremes of wealth and poverty make it difficult or prevent some people from having access to adequate productive resources, then that inequality is unjust, wrong, sinful and must be corrected.

The second limitation on inequality flows from the biblical understanding of sin and power. In our broken world, whenever one group of people acquires excessive unbalanced power, they will almost always use it for their own selfish advantage.

And then Sider provides the sobering statistics, as he did so well in his classic Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.  (You may also want to watch this video for some context).

Between 1993 and 2007, more than half of all the increase in income in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent. Between 2002 and 2007, 66 percent of all increased income went to the richest 1 percent. And in 2009-2010, 93 percent of all the increased income in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent. The richest 1 percent of Americans own more than the bottom 90 percent.

Over the last three decades, the average annual income of the richest 1 percent has jumped by $700,000 while the average Joe has actually lost ground. The poorest 20 percent had less income in 2009 than they did in 1979. Over 46 million Americans are in poverty.

Today there is much greater inequality and less equality of opportunity in the U.S. than in “aristocratic” Europe.

Then Sider offers some action steps:

There are ways that public policy could move us away from today’s gross inequality and back toward more equality of opportunity. We should maintain effective programs that care for and empower poor people. We should spend enough on minority urban education so that everyone, not just white suburbanites, receive an education that offers vastly expanded equality of opportunity. We should increase taxes somewhat on rich Americans and tax income from dividends and capital gains at the same rate as other income. Yes, we must greatly reduce our ongoing federal budget deficit over the next five years, but we need not — and should not! — do it on the backs of the poor.

And he finally concludes with an answer to the original question:

It is time for evangelical preachers to label today’s gross inequality what it is: SIN. If we believe what the Bible says about God’s concern for the poor; if we believe what the Bible says about justice; then we must denounce the gross inequality of opportunity and income in our country today as blatantly sinful.

9 thoughts on “Ron Sider on Inequality

  1. I'm not confusing it at all. You're just ignoring it because it conflicts with what you want to believe. I find most conservatives have that problem. Then again I find most liberals have that problem. Cafeteria Christianity is nothing new in the world, but then again, it always comes down to choice and determining how to live our lives.


  2. The only thing you are doing is defending the right of the wealthy to get wealthier at the expense of everyone else. That is the sin that Sider is speaking of.

    If you think the poor have enough then you are missing a large swath of life in America. Gripe all you want about the rich being greedy and engaging in sin, but when they use their political power to get wealthier at the expense of everyone else and the nation itself, then that is a sin.

    Let's let the words of Jesus speak for themselves. If you don't like them then go argue with Him. I think it is very clear from reading Scripture where He stands on the issue.


  3. But where do you get equating wealth with sin?

    Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who gave his own tomb for Jesus to be laid in, was he a sinner?

    Bad theology. The problem is not that the rich have too much, only that the poor have enough. The biblical dynamic is that of being fruitful and multiplying, not of mean-spiritedness, cheapness, beancounting. Curse poverty if you will, but to curse God's bounty isn't unbiblical.

    And where do you get we should use politics–force, really–to take the rich man's stuff? Not the Bible.


  4. 17 He was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put this question to him, 'Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'

    18 Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

    19 You know the commandments: You shall not kill; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not give false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.'

    20 And he said to him, 'Master, I have kept all these since my earliest days.'

    21 Jesus looked steadily at him and he was filled with love for him, and he said, 'You need to do one thing more. Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'

    22 But his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.

    23 Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, 'How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!'

    24 The disciples were astounded by these words, but Jesus insisted, 'My children,' he said to them, 'how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

    25 It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God.'

    Mark: Chapter 10, verses 17-25


  5. The point is that by maintaining the incorrect system of taxation the projected problems of revenue starvation will continue to exist. Sider is right about calling the issue of the rich fixing the system to sustain their wealth generation at the expense of everyone else a sin. That is where the true problem is today and historically has been at the heart of more than one form of revolution.

    As long as the wealth continues to flow to a small group of people there will be problems. The current right wing rhetoric is an abomination due to its protection of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else including our government.

    Yes, it is sin and the wealthy should be called out for their sin.


  6. “Nuanced” indeed. Also from 2013:

    Sider has very publicly resigned from the Association of Retired People (AARP) to protest its refusal to compromise on entitlement reform.

    Calling AARP “selfish and guilty of intergenerational injustice,” Sider chides the self-professed lobby for seniors over its adamant opposition to any reform of Social Security and Medicare. He notes that the “federal government spends about $4 on every senior over 65 and only $1 on every child under 18.” And he notes that the 22 percent poverty rate for children percent is much higher than the 9.7 percent rate for seniors.

    Sider describes what is obvious to most but still resisted by much of the Religious Left. “We have a large, unsustainable federal budget deficit,” he writes for Huffington Post. “If we continue current patterns, by 2025 all federal income will be needed simply to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid (health care for poor Americans) and interest on the national debt!”

    Frankly, like many on the right, I respect Ron Sider, who calls 'em as he sees 'em —theologically, he's pro-life and has resisted the gay marriage fad

    And I think he's almost there about equality of economic opportunity—if some are held down by bad schools that's unacceptable, although if some people are more able or privileged, that's going to be inevitable.

    IOW, helping the poor is not the same thing as sticking it to the rich. I think he'd do better to join Benedict XVI's Caritas in verite in urging care and justice for the poor but admitting that Christianity—“the church” in the largest sense possible—

    The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.”

    Theology [or sentimental love of man] cannot tell us whether Karl Marx or Adam Smith has the best solutions*. Mr. Sider should lay off the wonkage a bit and perhaps do a little separating of church and state of his own.

    *In fact to date, history is quite on Smith's side.


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