A Too Balanced Way for American Christians?

I have a lot of respect for Ron Sider. I’ve been a fan of him and his writings for years. He’s the kind of Christian who truly “gets it.” He understands and articulates the biblically prophetic call for Jesus’ followers to give a damn about the well-being of others. He conveys Jesus’ passion for loving our neighbors and he works well as a bridge between generally conservative evangelicals and generally liberal mainline Protestants.

Sider’s latest book, Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way To Balance the Budget, is a must read for American Christians who have love of both God and country.  The book in some ways is a Christianized version of Matthew Millers‘s book The 2% Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love (2003). That is, it offers a common sense, moderate approach to getting a handle on our growing national debt and addressing the looming economic crisis that will take place if we fail to address it. The difference is that our national debt has dramatically accelerated since Miller wrote his book, and Sider writes from an overtly Christian perspective primarily to overtly Christian readers.

There is much to praise in this important and urgent book. In a mere 148 pages (not counting endnotes) Sider bluntly and matter-of-factly spells out the stark realities that are before us. He shares how we got into this crisis and outlines what we can do about it. His approach is “balanced” in that he shows the inadequaces of both the ultra-liberarian (Ayn Randian) “cut taxes and cut program spending” approach and the ultra-liberal (socialist/communist) “raise taxes and increase program spending” approaches. He then offers a sensible “middle way” that can in fact be effective in lowering our national debt in ways that avoid putting all of the burden on the poor or the rich, and that ensure that we’ll be able to provide needed social services, while allowing our nation to still be the dominant military super-power.

In reality, I suspect that political conservatives will be less thrilled with his proposal than political liberals will be. In fact, this book could well be one that will be owned by many of the leaders of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Sider calls for increasing capital gains taxes, and tax rates in general and maintaining a prominent role for the federal government in addressing social problems. I am on board with his recommendations – yet, I fear that too many conservatives have become too rigid in their loathing of government for this to sway them very much.  However, to the extent that it sways them at all, this book will be well worth it.

Where the book falls short is precisely in its attempt to be balanced. Sider calls for roles for both the federal government and for the Church to play in addressing our social problems and yet he ends up falling short in providing significant ways for the Church and non-profit sector to actually step up and help. Only a tiny percentage of the budget of most local churches goes toward helping provide for the housing or health care needs of poor people in their communities – a really tiny percentage. The average Christian church-goer doesn’t tithe to their church, they don’t even give half of that. They give a paltry 2.4% of their income to their local church. I was surprised not to see Sider call churches to task for failing to live out their proper missions. That said, Sider also failed to mention that recent studies indicate that church attendance and involvement is declining and we may well end up like Europe with many empty church buildings before long. With that in mind, it may be just as well that Sider didn’t mention much about what churches could and should be doing… however, I’d submit that if more churches were to actually roll up their sleeves and dig into their wallets to help the poor in their communities, church attendance would increase significantly.

While some may view Sider’s call for the U.S. to decrease military spending by $100 billion a year to be “extreme and radical,” it still leaves us with a military that would still be “the only force capable of patrolling the world’s oceans, deploying hundreds of thousands of ground forces anywhere on the planet, dominating airspace, and managing intelligence and logistics worldwide.”

Why should a Christian nation be that kind of nation? By not addressing the elephant in the middle of the living room, Sider’s book comes across as tacitly condoning the unjust staus quo of U.S. imperialism. The unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (yep, even Afghanistan was unnecessary as it was a combination of intell work, coordinated police action, and a small special ops team that captured Osama; i.e., we didn’t have to invade that nation in full out war) amassed $10 trillion of our national debt. Sider’s failure to condemn our policies of waging wars was notable. It is our nation’s tendency to wage wars that drives our military spending so high. We are 5% of the world’s population yet we consume over 1/3 of the world’s natural resources. That is an unsustainable and unjust reality.

The U.S. is today’s Roman Empire and frankly, American Christians need to get out of the empire business. Not long after Christianity took hold in ancient Rome, their empire collapsed. Granted there were lots of reasons for that (ones that we’d do well to read up on) but, even though the patriarchal form of Christianity that was established there was somewhat corrupted and diluted from Jesus’ teachings, it was still potent enough to help end the world’s first major territorial empire.

We Christians are not called to be “balanced.” We’re called to be faithful and being faithful means being radical. It means radically loving the unloveable, forgiving the unforgiveable, not seeking retribution, and it means radically being willing to “live simply, that others may simply live.” Bottom line, our national standard of living has to go down in order for the standard of living of others in other nations to rise.

I’m not prepared to give up my indoor plumbing or my access to helpful governmental services. But I am prepared to live far more modestly, to pay more in taxes, and to no longer raise my son in the homebase of an unjust, and ungodly, empire.

Perhaps my efforts to point out what a truly radical Christian approach looks like may help realize Sider’s more balanced one.

I look forward to studying this book with the college students that I work with and recommending to others. It really is an important one.

In pax Christi, not pax Americana,

Rev. Roger Wolsey

Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor. He is the author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity. He blogs for Patheos, Huffington Post, and Elephant Journal and is an active member of The Christian Left Facebook page.

About Roger Wolsey

Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who serves as the director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He's the author of "Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity."