ON Scripture: Margaret Aymer on James 2: Poverty, Wealth, and Equality?

Poverty, Wealth, and Equality? James 2:1-10, 11-13, 14-17

By Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer

Poor people. These are the two words underlying much of the political arguments coming across the airwaves right now.  There is great discussion about "Medicaid," "Medicare," "The Affordable Care Act [aka Obamacare or Romneycare]," "Welfare," "Big Government" and "Social Security."  But two words rarely heard in the 2012 political campaign: poor people.

These discussions point to the big moral argument in our current culture about how we, as US citizens, should address:

  • the widening gap of class-disparity and the attendant benefits enjoyed by the one-percent
  • the problem of unemployment and underemployment
  • the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, access to affordable health care
  • the school-to-prison pipeline for many black men born under a certain income level

Given the presence of poverty in our nation, what should we, citizens of the nation, do?

One response in vogue among many circles right now: "We" should do nothing.  In this philosophy, every individual rises and falls on her or his own merit. Those who are wealthy, who have money and titles, are particularly meritorious for they have not only risen by their merits but are able to employ the rest of us. Government that tends to the needs of the poor is, at best, wasted, and at worst hugely immoral. Much of this moral argument comes from objectivist philosophy made popular by Ayn Rand.

The epistle of James in the Revised Common Lectionary for this week offers a contrary response. In this ancient letter, which may have been penned by Jesus' brother, James famously argues we, as a Christian community of faithfulness to Jesus Christ, have an absolute collective obligation to act out our faith.  "Faithfulness," James writes, "if it does not have works, is dead in its essence" (my translation).

James' assertion that faithfulness requires action, an assertion found in James 2:17, and repeated even more bluntly in 2:26, has often been a point of argument between Protestants, described in theological shorthand as the difference between "salvation by works" and "salvation by faith."

However, entering into this theological minefield misses James' primary point. In chapter 2 (and again in chapters 4 and 5), James' argument about faithfulness is really a discussion of the church's appropriate response to wealth disparity and injustice. James is talking about poor people.


Watch the Video: Faces of Poverty: A Single Father


And James is making himself quite clear: Christians, both individually and collectively, have a moral responsibility to the poor. We have a responsibility not to mistreat and dishonor the poor. And, we have a responsibility to make sure that the poor have their basic needs met, needs that include, at baseline, clothing and food. As far as James is concerned, the validity of a community's Christian identity (James 2:1) rests on its treatment of the poor.

What's the use, my sisters and brothers, if someone should claim to have faithfulness but should not have actions? Surely that faithfulness is not able to preserve him, is it? If a brother or a sister should be naked and lacking daily food, and someone from you all should say to them, "Go in peace, you all. Be warm and nourished," but should not give them the things that are necessary for the body, what's the use? Thus also faithfulness, if it does not have actions, is dead in itself. (James 2: 14-17, my translation) 

For James, no community can claim to be Christian unless that community honors and meets the basic human needs of the poorest of its poor. This is Christian morality.

But James is not a treatise on collective charity. James is a critique of societal class disparities and wealth-based injustice. James 2 not only calls the church to collective honoring of the poor; it engages in a sharp critique of that society's "one-percent":

Are not the rich people exploiting you all and are they not dragging you all to the tribunals? Aren't they the ones slandering the good name that was invoked over you all? (James 2: 6b-7, my translation) 

Later in the same epistle, James is even more explicit. The rich of James' day are defrauding workers of their fair wages while they fatten their own hearts and hoard their money. Indeed, the rich, according to James, are even guilty of corruption in the court system and of unjust execution (James 5:1-6). In response to these injustices, James is calling the Christian community to hold the rich people of the Roman imperial system accountable, collectively.

Today, it is tempting for us to downplay the real needs of the poor, to blame them for their collective disenfranchisement, and to question the morality of collectively taking care of the poor. But, for those of us in the church who claim the books of the Bible as scripture, the voice of James sounds a counter-cultural critique, a critique that sounds remarkably contemporary for something written thousands of years ago.

As Christians, regardless of our political affiliation, the epistle of James calls us to a collective responsibility for the needs of the poor and to a collective prophetic stance against of the excesses of the rich. We are called to answer to a higher royal law, a law that puts neighbor and the needs of the whole community equal to our own needs. We Christians, James reminds, are called collectively to affirm the marginalized, and to ameliorate the injustices faced by our neighbors. Especially if they are poor people.


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