< September 30, 2018 >

Commentary on James 5:13-20


Whenever I think of James’ picture of the poisonous tongue (James 3:1-12), I think of the way human gossip works, or the way, in small groups, we will speak uncharitably about others, our neighbors or so-called friends.

It seems like a preeminently churchy sort of text, where we spend a lot of time talking, often to no good end and maybe to some evil ends. Slander, malicious talk -- or just talk that only begets more talk -- that’s deadly, according to James. Maybe we conclude that speech is antithetical to James’ conception of community: “Be doers of the Word!” (James 1:22a). Indeed, when we last heard James address the topic of human speech, it was not encouraging.

According to James, the tongue, so seemingly small, produces massive disasters: “A forest is set ablaze by a small fire. And the tongue is a fire” (James 3:5b-6a). Of all the creatures of the world, the tongue alone refuses to be tamed -- “it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8b). The speech that flows from the tongue is like well-water contaminated with salt; it cannot produce potable water (James 3:12).

And, yet, according to James 5:13-20, there are forms of speech that produce good things. A positive view of speech in James may surprise us because we don’t often associate this letter with speech. However, in James 5:13-20, James exhorts the community to form itself in non-abstract speech acts, including gathering for prayers among people who know pain, or offering songs of praise, and sharing confessions of sin, that the community might be reconciled, that it might actually and physically exist. Not least, he says, remember the stories of your ancestors as you face your own trials and tribulations. Elijah was just like us! In other words, speech that is peaceful, pure, gentle, and just contributes to the restoration of actual community.

Maybe the kind of speech recommended in James 5:13-20 is the antidote to the double-minded speech of James 3:1-12. The latter, he will say, comes from below while the former comes from above. For James, there is a clear line of demarcation between the two. You know the difference by what they, respectively, produce. Wisdom from below produces division, disorder, and rancor; the other, wisdom from above, is pure, peaceable, and gentle -- it produces a harvest of righteousness for those who make peace (James 3:16-18).

Speaking of speech that produces rancor rather than a harvest of righteousness ... a recent article by Yale historian, Timothy Snyder, criticizes the “happy talk” that heaps praises the so-called connectivity of the internet: “... the Internet has not spread liberty around the world. On the contrary, the world is less free, in part because of the Web.” According to Snyder, the intelligence of the internet (or its tongue) is not merely a parallel or rival to its human counterpart. The “tongue of the internet” isn’t so much used as it is a systemic user; we are not consuming its products, but instead, through myriad interactions, algorithms, and data bases, we are the product that is being manufactured and ultimately consumed.

It may not be too much to say that the Internet is a rival creator, that would make us in its own image. Snyder argues that the rise of the Internet coincides with what he calls Fascism 2.0:

Traditional fascists wanted to conquer both territories and selves; the Internet will settle for your soul. The racist oligarchies that are emerging behind the Internet today want you on the couch, outraged or elated, it doesn’t matter which, so long as you are dissipated at the end of the day... The Internet creates a sense of ‘us and them’ inside a country, and an experience that feels like politics but involves no actual policy.1

He acknowledges instances in which the Internet has, in fact, fostered community organizing. Nevertheless, he argues that those who use the internet in this way are actually undermining the Internet’s systemic logic. Moreover, when communities (like churches) use the Internet to organize actual movements -- read human movements that join disparate people in acts of solidarity with the exploited -- political leaders may call those involved on the ground “paid actors” or “professional protesters” rather than concerned human beings assembling together to create a better community: “In the age of the Internet, stretching one’s legs with strangers is a frightening political act.”2

It seems that James exhorts the community to engage in precisely those kinds of “frightening political acts” -- and with James it isn’t merely the feeling of politics but its actuality, the flesh and blood (often awkward) expressions of community that seek to reflect the radical love of God. What other purpose could we assign for the warning against showing partiality in James 2:1-13? Where else do we find this issue? In the gated communities of privilege? Or in the grinding poverty of exclusion? James envisions something wildly out of sync with the segregated ways of worldly wisdom.

What is the source of this alternative existence? Like the prophets of Israel, the writer envisions the alternative community of faith as one forged in the image of God. The writer mentions Christ only twice, once in the greeting (James 1:1) and as a warning against partiality (James 2:1). According to Luke Timothy Johnson, James writes for the formation of intentional community in the image of God -- and he is rigorous in supplying a theological warrant for the practices and politics of community, with 24 explicit references to God (theos, pater, kyrios) out of 108 verses. And these references to God supply the driving force for the moral action being recommended.3

How do our speech-acts as a community formed in the image of God reflect God’s speech (for example the mirror analogy of James 1:23-25)? Reading James’ instructions on speech in community suddenly becomes almost revolutionary in its implications. It is deceptively simple.

If someone is suffering, let them pray. If someone is happy, let them sing songs of praise. If someone is sick, ask the elders to come and anoint them with oil and pray for their healing. Confess your sins to one another. Be reconciled. Be renewed. Be whole. Learn from people like Elijah, who was just like us, and whose prayers were powerful and effective amid natural and political droughts. Restore one another to the community forged in God’s image. In other words, our theological language is meaningless apart from the way our language fosters the whole human experience, including the testimony of those the powers call orphans, widows, and immigrants.

James might say that testifying alongside those who are robbed, deported, or discriminated against is a profoundly theological act. We are organized indeed! One experiences a kind of simplicity in testimony of this kind. And likewise, the church born of this testimony, reflects a form of God-shaped humanity which flourishes, against the grain, in contexts of exile.


  1. Timothy Snyder, “Fascism is Back. Blame the Internet” in The Washington Post (21 May 2018) accessed on June 12, 2018 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/21/fascism-is-back-blame-the-internet/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9244fcf96b24.
  2. Timothy Snyder, “Fascism is Back. Blame the Internet” in The Washington Post (21 May 2018) accessed on June 12, 2018 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/21/fascism-is-back-blame-the-internet/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9244fcf96b24.
  3. Luke Timothy Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 245-8.