(Published in Christianity Today Online October 25, 2016)
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is so well-known to Christians that we often forget that it was given in response to the question of the scribe: “Who is my neighbor?” It was common in that time to view one’s neighbor as somebody who was part of a social network. One helped one’s neighbor when he was in trouble because, at least potentially, someday one’s neighbor may return the favor. In contrast Jesus offered a new and radical view of “neighbor”: your neighbor is someone with whom you may share few existing ties. You neighbor may not even be a fellow countryman. Your neighbor may be someone whom it is risky to love; and the love of your neighbor may call you to make inconvenient sacrifice.
Kent Annan’s “Slow Kingdom Coming” (InterVarsity Press, 2016) is the latest in a sequence of books that have helped to teach us about loving our global neighbor. As such, it is important to place Annan’s book in context with its literary parents and grandparents, books that have emerged as modern classics and themselves have new editions that are must-reads for Christians who choose to become involved with the poor.
Two generations ago it would seem that much of American evangelicalism had the same view of “neighbor” that was shared by the very audience to whom Jesus addressed his famous parable. This contentment, this complacency with the view of our neighbor as merely our localized neighbor, was shattered by Ron Sider in his Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Originally published in 1977, it was one of those books you hardly had to read because even its mere title seemed to elicit a call to action. The greatness of great books is almost always influenced by their timing, and Sider’s book appeared at an important early period of globalized media. This was a period when new technology allowed us to witness the lives of the poor in the developing world at a time when Americans had begun to attain a state of affluence that allowed them to feel capable of caring for people on the other side of the world who neither looked, nor spoke, nor lived like us.
The main impact of the early editions of Rich Christians was, frankly, in producing a kind of holy guilt. The strength of the first edition of the book was not in its economics, which was often terrible. It was not in its understanding of the causes of poverty, which were often wrong. It was not even in the interventions and action for which it advocated, which were often naïve. The greatness of the early editions of Sider’s book was simply in its challenge: Here are your global neighbors, rich Christian. How are you going to respond?
Rich Christians, however, turned out to be not so much a single book, but a living organism. It has matured over its six editions, in many aspects radically so (even to the extent that international trade is now seen as good!), and its latest edition, published in 2015, contains vastly improved chapters on the causes of poverty and what are likely to constitute successful interventions at both micro and macro levels. As Sider has learned, his readers have learned. And the 2015 edition is a book worth reading, even if one was powerfully influenced by the first edition nearly two generations ago.
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