Prophetic resignation: Ron Sider's outgoing plea for intergenerational justice

Article Highlights

  • Demographic maps and today's trendlines show that Medicare & Social Security are unsustainable in their current forms.

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  • Sider's denunciation of AARP practices comes from his own biblical, principled rootedness.

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  • Fundamental entitlement reforms are essential because spending is growing at a faster rate than our economy.

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This week Ron Sider, founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, resigned from the America Association of Retired People (AARP). Tuesday afternoon he went public with his rationale on HuffPo's religion blog.

His post is worthwhile reading, for at least four reasons.

First, Sider is being consistent with his lifetime scholarship. My Jesuit grad school advisor once said every Christian must undergo three conversions: first personal, then ecclesiastical and finally public. From early on, Sider has clearly recognized that the Scriptures speak to public life, a conviction clearly evidenced by his landmark 1978 book "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger."

Two years ago, Sider co-published a short letter that foreshadowed this week's resignation: "A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis." As some of this blog's readers may recall, that piece sparked a wonderful AEI panel, organized by Values & Capitalism and available in its entirety here.

Second, Sider points to specifics. Most of us know from compelling demographic maps like this one and today's trendlines that Medicare and Social Security are unsustainable in their current form. For the AARP to use its "huge lobbying muscle to oppose reasonable changes" is unjust, Sider claims.

But to be specific? Sider wants seniors making over $85,000 to increase their Medicare payments by $50 or $100 a month. Certain doctor visits and medical tests shouldn't be covered by "Medigap" insurance companies—especially when the AARP nets "tens of millions" by endorsing with its recognizable brand-name. When the federal government spends $4 per senior for every $1 per child under 18, seniors making $100,000 or more should pay tax on Social Security income. But today they don't.

Third, Sider's denunciation of AARP practices comes from his own biblical, principled rootedness. As it happens, I don't agree with every one of Sider's tax recommendations, some of which border on outright income redistribution that I think undermines the kind of economic growth we need to lift all ships. By its own declaration, Evangelicals for Social Action—I get nervous just reflecting on the organization name!—has a lot going on: "We are pro-life and pro-poor, pro-family and pro-racial justice, pro-sexual integrity and pro-creation care." 

But those who know Ron respect him deeply—for good reason. From 2004-06, I had the pleasure of getting to know Ron and his wife, Arbutus, in Philadelphia. I was welcomed into their home, and saw them truly "practice what they preach." Borrowing Eugene Peterson's memorable twist of Nietzche's famous line, Ron Sider has practiced "a long obedience in the same direction," giving lucrative book royalties to charities, and living a simple, quiet life of obedience. His personal integrity augments his public witness, beckoning those of us who may disagree with him on matters of political economy to listen more carefully. 

Fourth, on this issue Sider's morality squares with cries from the policy wonks.

Any budget expert would agree—like Alex Brill, who served on the Congressional Ways and Means Committee and co-authored "The Real Tax Burden: More than Dollars and Cents." Brill met yesterday with 14 students from Hope College visiting AEI—and told our group that fundamental entitlement reforms are essential for many reasons, "but from an economic way of thinking, because Medicare and Social Security spending are growing at a faster rate than our economy."

That's a clear recipe for disaster—one that calls for plenty more prophetic voices like Sider's. But those are few and far between, and Sider will leave a big hole when he retires this summer

Especially as the Lenten season begins this week, Sider's prophetic warning deserves a broad hearing. Sadly, with no end in sight to our ongoing trillion-dollar annual deficit spending, it appears we lack the cultural and political will to demonstrate the national sacrifice needed to secure a hopeful, more promising future for Millennials and future generations.

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