Reviewed by Andrew J. Spencer
Ronald Sider’s book, Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement is a second edition of his 2008 book, published by Baker under the title The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? Sider cites the proliferation of evangelical treatments of politics in the four years since the first edition. Indeed, Sider’s second edition references many of the recent books on political philosophy as he attempts to encourage evangelical political involvement (9).
Sider divides his book into an uneven four parts. The first part consists of one chapter that relates Sider’s disappointment at the lack of a cogent evangelical political theology. Sider cites the varied approach of some evangelicals, moving between libertarian and statist approaches to government on different issues. Part Two begins to lay out Sider’s vision for an evangelical political philosophy. Here Sider argues for a positive view of natural law that establishes a normative framework accessible to all in a society. Beyond natural law, Sider finds a broad study of the world, a well-developed political philosophy, and detailed analysis on specific issues to be a necessary part of an evangelical approach to politics. Sider then moves to an overview of Scripture to show how the Bible supports active political engagement through its progression from original creation to the final consummation.
In the third part, comprising the majority of the volume, Sider focuses in on nine specific issues that must be dealt with in the contemporary political context. He presents chapters on basic definitions of the role of the state and the nature of justice. Sider also moves to more specific issues such as marriage and family, religious freedom, and creation care. Each of these chapters is an overview discussion in which Sider attempts to present a case for the content and importance of an evangelical political witness. The general pattern of these nine chapters follow Sider’s prescribed methodology, moving from a normative foundation to a broad discussion of the issue using his political philosophy along with some specific data about the issue. Part Four consists of a single chapter as a conclusion, which aims to present a summary and path forward for evangelical political engagement.
Sider effectively argues that there are issues that need evangelicals to engage politically. However, Sider does not provide the significantly improved evangelical political philosophy he is searching for. The failure to develop a cogent approach to politics results from methodological problems.
First, in order to cover some important topics in his new edition, Sider inserts chapters that were insufficiently researched. For example, his chapter on creation care Sider has eight footnotes, most of which do not relate to scientists or theologians specifically grappling with the issue of creation care. This chapter does not reflect the detailed analysis that Sider prescribes.
Second, Sider’s arguments rely on an inconsistent hermeneutic. For instance, Sider advocates a discontinuity view of Scripture, such that the Old Testament prescriptions of capital punishment are not normative (125). At the same time, Sider’s basis for advocacy for the redistribution of wealth is largely founded on his reading of the Old Testament (90–98). No sufficient explanation for the inconsistency is provided.
Third, Sider fails to develop a coherent vision of justice throughout the diverse issues that he discusses. Early in the volume, Sider argues that justice to the poor requires they have access to the means of production (90), yet later in the volume, he calls for taxes on fossil fuels that would “be high enough to double or triple the prices of these products” (178). Sider fails to discuss the disproportionately negative effects such energy costs would have on access to means of production for the poor.
Fourth, at times Sider does not structure his arguments carefully. In one instance, while arguing for God’s preferential option for the poor, Sider shifts from an illustration about parents tutoring their children differently based on academic ability to God’s concern to end apartheid (86–87). The example seems to indicate that differences in academic or economic outcomes are equivalent sins to systemic racial discrimination.
Just Politics does several things well. First, Sider rightly recognizes the importance of evangelism along with the pursuit of social justice (8). This includes his recognition that humans, as made in the image of God have a greater inherent worth than non-human creation (177).
Second, Sider is correct to recognize the importance of a political philosophy and active engagement by Christians. His book is a significant call for meaningful evangelical political engagement and an illustration of the need for a coherent approach to politics.
Third, Sider’s reliance on Scripture as a source demonstrates a helpful beginning point for the development of an evangelical political philosophy.
Ronald Sider has made a contribution to the ongoing conversation about evangelical political engagement with this volume. This will not be the definitive work on evangelical political philosophy. Still, Just Politics is worth reading as an introduction into many of the most important political questions of the day.
Andrew J Spencer is a PhD student studying Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.
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Just Politics: A Guide For Christian Engagement