Ronald Sider was a Mennonite. His views on certain things might not be what I would agree with today, but 30+ years ago, he was instrumental in my personal journey towards being ‘almost Amish’. How could that be? After all, I never met the man and have no idea (without looking it up) whether he is still living.
Ronald Sider was also an author. Soon after I was married, I came across a book in my local Christian bookstore, called ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger’. It was written by Ronald Sider. In it, there was a short line which summed up the whole book: ‘Living simply, that others may simply live’. He explained how doing our little bit as individuals can have a knock on effect on world poverty After all, if everyone said that their ‘bit’ was so insignificant that it would make no difference, then poverty would continue to increase worldwide.
It was through reading that book we started eating a vegetarian meal once a week. Sider’s reasoning said that a family of four can eat 1lb of beef at a single sitting, but they could not consume the amount of grain needed to create that 1lb of beef in a single meal. He gave facts and figures about how much grain it took to feed a beef animal – and it made perfect sense.
He also talked about something called ‘voluntary poverty’. He showed that Christians in the western world are extremely affluent compared with their counterparts in the developing world. He took into account the differences in cost of living and said that if Christians in the west chose to live simply, it would have a major effect on world poverty. He gave examples of what others had done to simplify their lives in order to meet the needs of those who had nothing.
This was the first time I had come across the word ‘Mennonite’. I had no idea who they were, but I found a leaflet about the Lausanne Covenant. On reading it, I knew that this was the kind of lifestyle I wanted to follow; I wanted to sign up to that Covenant, but I was about 20 years too late! But that could not stop me living a life that held that Christians should not just be theologians who know doctrine inside out, but that they should also have a social conscience; who believed that Jesus meant what He said when He told people to 'Sell your possessions and give to the poor' (Luke 12v33 NIV).
Back then I did two things. First, I tried, without success, to find out who the Mennonites were – I wanted to be part of a church that taught responsibility towards our neighbour as well as the other Christian doctrines of salvation; a church that encouraged right living as well as right knowing. Secondly, I determined to try to put into practise what I had learned. Again, I was not thoroughly successful. I sit here at my computer, surrounded by more books than I have shelf space for; I have many labour saving devices in my kitchen; I have plenty of comfort in the rest of my home. So am I failure as a Christian? Personally I believe I am. Jesus said ‘give to him that asks’ and ‘if you have two coats, give to him who has none’ (Luke 3v11). I have more than two coats; I even have two coats that are almost identical (due to inheriting them from relatives that died). For countless thousands of people, that is a luxury they could never attain to. So how can I justify having so much when others have so little? In short, I can’t justify it and I am guilty of having riches that easily distract me from living a true Christian life. Jesus said ‘if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out; if thy hand offend thee, cut it off’’ (Matthew 5v29,30). Most people do not believe He meant that literally, but He most certainly did mean we should rid ourselves of all encumbrances that prevent us from pursuing His Kingdom. Our possessions tie us to the kingdom of this world; to get rid of excess would free our minds, hearts and actions, not to mention all that wealth that is tied up in property and ‘things’, to serve Him better.
How much is too much? Have I a ‘junk room’ where things that I have no proper use for end up? Do I have possessions I don’t even remember owning? Is my home so cluttered that I can’t find things and end up buying a new one? Have I a bedroom that is permanently empty? Have I two coats, where one would do? Do I have so many clothes, it is hard to decide what to wear each day? Do I have a ‘healthy’ bank balance stashed away for a rainy day? Have I so much food that I am putting on weight?
As I see it, the Amish have it (mostly) right. They live in simple, uncluttered homes; they supply their family’s needs first and then the wider community and beyond; they buy only what they need and not what they might simply want. Family, Church and Community have a high priority in their lives. They dress simply, they live simply, they don’t accumulate possessions. They are free from the oppression of 'style', which causes people to buy new and 'better'. They heat and light one room in their homes, and they dont invest in expensive electronic gadgets that only serve to waste time and resources. Their work is simple too – farming or a family based business in most cases. They do not have high powered jobs with the aim of accumulating wealth. The money they do have, they use for the benefit of their community (barn-raisings are a good example and paying the medical bills of community members) and, when disaster strikes, they use their own funds to assist those in need in other places, Amish and non-Amish alike. In short, their lifestyle does not take from the poor and give to the rich (or keep for themselves), as so many of those who call themselves Christians do.
In asking those questions above, I am aware that when I point a finger away from myself, there are three fingers pointing right back at me (try it and you will see what I mean). So I am not trying to send my readers on a guilt trip. Rather, I am looking within – and what I see is not pretty. Remember the old school reports ‘could do better’? It’s time to start right now and do better in loving my neighbour, feeding the poor, seeking the lost.