Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This week’s epistle reading explicitly connects James’ interest in mindful speech with his concern for community harmony.

September 20, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a

This week’s epistle reading explicitly connects James’ interest in mindful speech with his concern for community harmony.

James has already addressed the right use of communication in 1:13, 19, 26, 3:1-12, and shortly after the end of today’s reading, 4:11. This consistent emphasis on ordering our communication to knit us more closely to others, rather than to alienate, finds its goal in a passage that spells out James’ call to live a life of integrated spirituality, with words, actions and sentiments that all correspond with the character of God.

James signals his concern about community harmony with the question in 4:1: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” Here James takes it as granted that his addressees experience dissension. Although this may be a strictly hypothetical query based on general experience, when it is read beside other passages in James, one gets the sense that the letter envisions a congregation in which richer and poorer participants find themselves at odds. Thus in chapter 2, James cautions the community against favoring the wealthy members and disregarding the poor, while the rich members “oppress you,” “drag you into court,” and “blaspheme the excellent name [of God?]” (2:6f).

James clearly sympathizes with the poor in this situation; they have been chosen by God to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, whereas James exhorts the wealthy to “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to them” (5:1). James’ warnings against boasting and in favor of lowliness (1:9-11, perhaps 3:5, 4:6-10, 4:13-16) resonate with this concern as well. Since James does not describe any specific persons or incidents, we ought not assert too definite a setting for these cautions, but they would fit perfectly in a situation in which wealthy members of the congregation were exercising their social power and riches in order to dominate poorer members. To such circumstances, James articulates a forceful rebuttal, with Scriptural warrants and dire eschatological warnings.

The lectionary begins this unit with the encomium of peacefulness in 3:13-18. James uses these verses to bind together claims to be wise with the stipulation that wisdom reveals itself in action, just as “faith” does (2:14, 17). James binds true wisdom to peaceable behavior and willingness to yield. Belligerence and contentiousness evince a worldly determination to win, rather than a faithful determination to build up harmony, gentleness, and mercy.

The theological value of patience and gentleness are not obvious to the most prominent streams of contemporary culture. Politicians — with keen attention to their constituents’ sympathies — outdo one another in adopting bellicose poses toward enemies, and partisans decry compromises that might alienate their core supporters. Church bodies regularly take their conflicts to secular courts without even a trace of self-conscious penitence for resorting to state power to resolve ecclesiastical problems. Behavior that most congregations take as self-evidently necessary, James condemns as antithetical to heavenly wisdom.

Would James suggest that disciples stand idly by while evildoers perpetrate such wrongs as slavery or genocide? Clearly not, since he himself excoriates the sins he sees afflicting his neighbors. But James emphatically does not justify the use of violence or coercion in support of godly purposes; like Jesus, and Paul, James repudiates the use of unholy means to attain allegedly good ends. Instead, James articulates a theology that refuses to sacrifice the personal righteousness that a disciple manifests in honesty, chastity, mercy, and faithful trust in God in order to attain social righteousness. Indeed, James warns that our struggles to prevail in worldly conflicts lock our loyalties to the sinful structures themselves, engendering self-congratulatory satisfaction with a world that is passing away.

But naming the truth isn’t mere “passivity,” and refusing to litigate or “win” isn’t a counsel of despair or complacency. Truth-telling entails acknowledging our own frailty and fallibility as integral aspects of identifying and condemning others’ misconduct. In the context of James’s theology of integrity, the exercise of coercion (whether by physical violence, state power, or even organizational process) in itself falsifies the claim that one is representing God’s will. The (violent) compulsion to attain victory over adversaries very quickly entangles us in lies, brutality, self-exculpating rationalization, and the boastful sense that God is on our side, against their side.

Thus the lectionary’s exclusion of verses 4-6 and 8b-12 (not to mention 4:13-5:12) eviscerates James’s rhetoric. James specifically warns against “friendship with the world” not because he mistrusts the goods of creation, but because he recognizes the all-too-human tendency to elevate temporal goods to divine status, and to misattribute our own judgments to God’s authority. In teaching this way, James actually stands up for the poor and disenfranchised, who do not have access to the full repertoire of worldly machinations that operate the engines of power.

One may not be rich, or important in the world’s eyes, but everyone has the capacity to adhere to truthfulness, peaceableness, and mercy. Our refusal to stoop to the violence that characterizes our oppressors, though, aligns us with God’s own power; and our willingness to endure hardship rather than shed blood or pass judgment aligns us with “prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”

The kind of unshakeable integrity that James describes is the furthest thing from passive acceptance of evils; contrariwise, the arduous commitment to persevere in the perfect freedom of a disciple who loves heavenly wisdom more than earthly power requires determined activism. This commitment to the truth will oblige disciples to make themselves inconvenient to the wealthy players of power games; in this, James echoes the characterization of “the righteous one” in the Book of Wisdom (2:12-20), who “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions” (and possibly alludes to Jesus as the Righteous One in 5:6). If (as Martin Luther King Jr. taught) the arc of the moral universe is long, James reminds us that we should patiently follow, anticipate, and bear witness to its curve, rather than forcing it to bend according to our specifications.