Republican presidential contenders – Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann – profess their Christian fundamentalist faith, but denounce efforts by the government to restrain the power of the rich. The Rev. Howard Bess looks at this enduring contradiction between Christianity’s principles and its alliance with the wealthy.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
Today in America, we have an unholy concentration of wealth in the bank accounts of the few. This concentration of wealth is not earned wealth, but wealth acquired by manipulation of the economic system, the abuse of labor and the evil of inheritance.
What has taken place also is not merely the result of a benign economic system; it is the evil of greed at work. Parallel to this corrupt system is a view among too many confessing Christians that the Book of James – with its emphasis on good works, not just faith – doesn’t belong in the New Testament of the Bible.
Recently, I reread the Book of James and reviewed the history of this five-chapter epistle, as I pondered the controversies that have surrounded it in Christian church history. I found James’s words challenging and exhilarating in their insistence that Christians do good in the world.
Yet, over the centuries, many church leaders have doubted that the Book of James was worthy of inclusion in the New Testament. It was clearly not written by one of the disciples of Jesus, nor by the James who was thought to be a younger brother of Jesus. The best scholars today simply say we don’t know who wrote this collection of sayings.
Because of its emphasis on good works, the Book of James is criticized as “too Jewish” in its perspective and divergent from Paul’s writings about salvation by faith and faith alone. In the 16th Century, Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, concluded that James was not worthy of inclusion in the New Testament collection.
Contradicting Paul’s teachings on faith and faith alone, James states very plainly that faith without good works lacks value.
“What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has no works? Can his faith save him?” James asks. “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Often moving from issue to issue without clear connections – much like the Old Testament book of Proverbs – the Book of James takes on a variety of questions relating to what is necessary for a true Christian faith. If there is a central theme, it could be characterized as “what does a Godly life look like?”
The writer leaves us with snapshot after snapshot of that life. What is never in doubt is that a confessed faith must be matched by behavior patterns that are consistent with that faith.
In James’s writings, jealousy, bitterness and selfish ambition all come under criticism. They are delegated to the unspiritual and devilish.
War and greed are treated in some length – tied together by the author who leaves no doubt that a true Christian faith is completely incompatible with war and greed. There is also no place for gossip among the people of God.
The Book of James can best be understood in its moment of early Christian history. The audiences for whom James wrote were third and fourth generation Christians.
Understandably, the first generations of Christians were absorbed in trying to figure out who Jesus truly was and the significance of his death. They were aggressively evangelistic and spread the new religion with amazing rapidity.
In addition, early Christian believers were apocalyptic, convinced they would be translated into the next life without suffering death. By the time of James, reality had set in. Christians were going to live out their years and pass away just as people had before Jesus.
Recognizing that fact, James had the courage to ask the crucial question for Christians: How are we to live our lives?
Rereading the book of James was a reminder of the writings and work of Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister who taught at Rochester Divinity School in upstate New York in the early 20th Century. His most famous book was entitled Christianity and the Social Crisis, published in 1907. It set in motion the Christian social gospel movement in America.
Observing that dominant Christian churches were allied with the powerful and the wealthy, Rauschenbusch called for a new social order that addressed the evils of concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. He noted how child labor and other abuses made the wealthy even wealthier.
As I reread the Book of James, I realized that James was challenging the social evils of his own day, evils that were being commonly embraced by confessing Christians. In his messages to his fellow Christians, he railed against confessing believers who gave deference to the rich.
Walter Rauschenbusch was merely restating the message of James for the 20th Century. Like James, he was speaking primarily to his own fellowship of believers, knowing full well that John D. Rockefeller was a prominent member of his own denomination.
It is worthy of note that great American civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., credited Walter Rauschenbusch as being one of his mentors in the Christian faith. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King pointed his finger not at racists but at fellow clergy who counseled patience toward racial bigots.
James, Rauschenbusch and King all spoke as deeply religious people and used the language of faith. They called sin sin and evil evil.
However, in today’s America, we do not have someone like a James, a Walter Rauschenbusch or a Martin Luther King Jr. to speak the Truth to power.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.