After a recent foray into the book of James, I am struck by the timeliness of this epistle to our present socio-politico-economic reality.
There are various theories offered for when James was written, likely the late first or early second century. The letter, which assumes a context of extreme social stratification, is notable for its teachings on the rich and the poor. These points become strikingly relevant when one considers that income inequality in the U.S. is now greater than it was in Rome when James was written. Whereas in the year 150 CE the top one percent in Rome controlled 16 percent of society’s wealth; the top one percent in the U.S. today controls 40 percent of the wealth. 1 Is it synchronistic that ancient history and biblical theology are converging in the present to press for economic reform?
The epistle begins with the recognition that “every generous act of giving . . . every perfect gift” comes down to us from God above (1:17). Although the language (“down”; “from above”), reflects the three-tiered cosmology of antiquity, from a quantum view the “act of giving” is God’s ongoing “word of truth” incarnate in us; that, is, experienced, or felt, as coming from within—James’ phrase “implanted word” (v.21) captures this beautifully—which we can either turn from or embrace.
But James takes it further, giving faith an active dimension that is familiar to both process and liberation theologians. That is, God is a guiding presence in every moment (process folks call this the initial aim), and in every moment we decide what to do with that guidance. We can ignore it, or reject it, or dare to incorporate it into what we become—thereby making that decision an ingredient in the world, a stubborn fact to be reckoned with in the next unfolding. Rejecting the aim, ignoring the aim, incorporating the aim—these become trajectories in the world that grow stronger with repetition, but also weaken with neglect. We see this in the ebb and flow of history and social movements. Issues like racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny go through times when they are less socially acceptable, but they don’t go away. They are ready to erupt whenever the spirit of the times again makes it possible. We are living in one such era.
So when James, in verse 22, urges the community of faith to be not just hearers of the word, but doers, he is telling us to activate God’s word of truth in the world. And in case we need it, James reminds us what being a “doer” means. In verse 25 he refers to the “perfect law,” which many biblical scholars believe is a reference to Jesus’ great commandment— to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . and your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 28:29-31). And in case we need to know what that actually looks like, James gives us the great synthesis from the prophets: it is “care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Doing is actively caring for the vulnerable, especially when they are distressed. In other words, to love is to do—to dare to respond to God’s love by activating God’s word of truth in the world.
No matter what religious belief people profess, or the pieties they use to disguise their policies, if their acts do not reflect the mercy and compassion of God, “their religion,” James proclaims, “is worthless” (v. 26). The point is reinforced in the gospel of Mark. If people honor God “with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (v. 6) they are hypocrites. If they teach “human precepts as
doctrines”(v. 7)—which is to say, if they pass off, say, an immigration policy, as biblical, 2 they have abandoned the commandment of God (the law of love and the imperative to care for the vulnerable) and substituted a “human tradition” (xenophobia).
Is there any message of hope to be found amidst these words of judgment? I’ll dip again into a process metaphysic. If God’s guidance (aim) can be ignored, giving rise to waves of racism and prejudice, then even when pernicious movements engulf whole nations, God’s “word of truth” can still be heard and activated, making all the difference in the world. It happened one person at a time in Europe during the Nazi horror (remember Schindler’s list). It happens in every act of resistance against every tyranny in the past or unfolding in the present.
What we choose, how we act, what we dare, matters—as in materializes, is actualized in the
world. My act becomes conjoined with your act; the actions of our congregations become
stubborn facts in the world, and they are augmented by the actions of other people and
organizations who are also committed to compassion and mercy. God’s power is God’s
implanted word; our power is activating that word. And God’s word is love.
1 See “Income Inequality in Ancient Rome,”
2 See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/us/sessions-bible-verse-romans.html.