Should Christians Defend the Rich?

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 hdbss@mtaonline.net.      

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10 comments on “Should Christians Defend the Rich?

  1. I keep asking the question that Rev. Bess bring up….where are the Christians when the rich continue to get tax breaks and the budget continues to be balanced on the backs of the sick, seniors, and children including their education!!

  2. Thanks for the insight. I looked for the Book of James… but all I found were commentaries on the Book of James… maybe the Book itself was buried in the comments, but the comments dwarfed the Book itself.

    Any idea where I might find Book without comments? Is it a part of the ‘Bible’ as packaged by sect? If so, which sects admit it? And which do not? I remember… “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing”. Apparently that is from 1 Corinthians 13:2. I must admit that I am not a fan of Authoritative books, whose meaning is spun by the Authorities.

    • jerry buck on said:

      One of the best commentators on the Bible that I have found is Ray Stedman. You can find his teaching materials on the net, though he passed away a few years back. Hope this helps everyone..

      GodSpeed!!
      Chris

  3. Matthew Yde on said:

    The Book of James is in the New Testament.

  4. Laura Mettler on said:

    I whole heartedly agree…I have read James many times. I believe he was talking to the people in his time, but it still fits today. You not only have to have faith, but being a Christian and having faith, you must also live your life as a Christian and that means “doing good works.” Doing good works alone will not get you into heaven. So one must not think that just be “doing good” they have nothing else to worry about. You must have a strong faith and live a Christian life also.

  5. sig arnesen on said:

    It is a very curious, and ironic thing, thing that conservatives make up the majority of people who regularly worship and profess to be Christians…. How can anyone, who professes to follow Jesus Christ, conclude that he was a conservative? Jesus was always finding the conservative Pharisees, in their rigidity, to be far off the mark in terms of the godly life. “You have heard it said, but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21,27, 31,33,38,43) are not the words of a conservative person, but one who was urging people on to dynamic and a ground-breaking life of faith.

  6. James is after Hebrews and before 1 Peter. I don’t go to church any more but my Dad was a pastor and I know the Bible to some degree and it blows my mind the things that Southern Baptists and Evangelicals believe. At least in my experience, most sermons were strongly buttressed in Biblical text. If you know the Bible, you know that the lord, if he existed, was not a conservative. The only conclusion I can reach is that evangelicals really do not worship the lord through his given word, but that too many solely rely on the interpretation of people who don’t rigorously study the bible.

  7. Kenneth Elder on said:

    Read the definitive book James The Brother of Jesus by Robert Eisenman. The Christian Church has been lying about James for 1500 years. Texts of the first few centuries of Christianity by Bishops and Priests show that James the Brother was the Patriarch of the First Church after Jesus death for 22 years not Peter. Only after James was martyred on the steps of the Temple by the High Priests did Peter become Patriarch of the Church and was martyred 3 years later. Early texts show that James the Brother was present at the Last Supper with Jesus and thus was the disciple James unlike what the Pauline Church falsely taught later. James and Paul were theological adversaries; Paul invented the salvation by faith alone delusion. Jesus never taught such an immoral idea of religion. The word for biological brother in Greek and Aramaic is different than the word for cousin or step-brother and the word used for James means a biological brother of Jesus. Early texts show that James the Brother the “Righteous One” was said to be the most popular religious teacher in Israel contradicting Paul’s statement that most Jews were hostile to the Christians. Paul lied.

  8. John Ellis on said:

    Surely not a rich man was there in the early Christian church, as the ancient Greek Scripture was crystal clear on this point, for example:

    Ancient Greek manuscript
    “No man who has been forced to give up his home, or wife, or brothers, or parents, or children, for the spiritual kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more the very moment he is on the earth made new. It will surely come, in the life that has no end.” Luke 18:29

    Then in the Dark Ages, in AD 381, the very first Bible was published by a very rich Catholic Church and it corrupted Scripture to the point that wealth was a sign that you were blessed by God, for we read:

    Latin Vulgate
    “No man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.” Luke 18:29

    And so, in all versions of published Bibles, it is a blessing from heaven to be rich, to wit:

    New International Version
    “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” Luke 18:29

  9. John Ellis on said:

    It all depends on if you are so ingrate as to feel you deserve to live or logically and rationally grasp the reality that you deserve to die.

    Yes we all have the right to live as the Command is “You shall not kill.”

    But to feel that you deserve such a free gift, this gives you no choice but to feel you deserve the wealth needed to stay alive. Which gives you no choice but to feel you deserve to “Be All You Can Be,” to earn all you can earn, to own all you can own and to be a dictator over all who are on land that you own.

    Whereas, if you comprehend that this day of life is more then you deserve, then you have no choice but to see clearly that you have to much and your greatest pleasure is to give all you can give. And to the point that, most guilty do you feel if ever you missed an opportunity to give all you can give.

    For what a man feels he deserves, this is his high watermark in life to achieve and it controls every aspect of his mind, character and personality.