Recently I have come to wonder about the self-serving temptation of respectability by association. Associating with the right brand of Christians as “Church members” didn’t cut it with Colin Morris who in a past “Thought for the Day”( BBC Radio 4 broadcast) commented: “Our love for God is measured by how much we love those we love the least in this world”.
We all come to our faith shaped by those who predate us. As a Methodist I happen to look to the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Wesley famously reminded his followers?:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
But claiming we follow someone like John Wesley has to mean more than we admire his statement of doing good, or even knowing some other people, not us, have indeed put their effort and money in living out Wesley’s exhortation. Well that might be them but is it us?
I am sure that every branch of the Christian Church identifies with its own heroes. Such opinions are understandable. Think of the world-wide admiration people accorded Mother Teresa for her work with the poor. Others claim as personal Saint, St Francis of Assisi, who encouraged his followers to reject riches and even taught that his followers should care for everyone and even animals in need.
Perhaps we need regular reminders there is more to being Church members than knowing about some great saints. There also some awkward facts. Most denominations have some of their “living saints” AND – er – leaders involved in scandals. … Oh here is an awkward fact, some outsiders looking at my present denomination might happen to know that in the not too distant past some Methodist ministers were quietly shifted for such reasons and a while back it came out there was even some dodgy stuff in the past in some of the New Zealand Methodist child care facilities. I can even remember two past occasions of punch ups between two ethnic congregations in an Auckland Methodist Church , and, despite large congregations, an unfortunately high suicide rate for one particular Pacific branch of the Church.
I am all for holding to our satisfaction about the good stuff our church does, and rejoicing, but since at each annual church conference we are reminded that one of the Church objectives is to make each member a minister. We can hardly pretend that the good stuff done by others somehow inoculates us against present or future unfortunate lapses.
It isn’t just what we say that drives us. Surely it is also what our lives show. It would of course be only hypothetical, but if unexpected fortune actually came our way – perhaps a bequest – can we be certain we would handle the new situation in strict accordance with the finest Christian principles? For the older ones and better heeled amongst us….. What do our wills already read like? Is it us who have made bequests that show we actually believe what John Wesley said was important about doing good for others?
James has something of an undeserved reputation for over-simplification. I suspect this is because through the ages he has made many uncomfortable in his contrasts between the teachings of the gospel and what followers of Christ do in practice. Perhaps we need James’ frequent reminders not to focus on the parts of faith removed from day to day realities.
For our own generation and setting, it seems to me James’ list of characteristics of what he calls false wisdom seems uncomfortably close to the ways in which we seem to structure our society. Jealousies and selfish ambition drive many popular realities and the whole advertising industry is predicated on presenting images of the way we can fulfill these ambitions.
If the media are to be believed, the so-called good life is a life in which the trappings of success are measured by our clothes, our furniture and household possessions, our cars, our house and even our choice of toiletries. We may talk glibly of a life of service to others, but in practice more often the community rewards those who achieve status and power. Certainly we live in a different world to that of James, yet it doesn’t take too much imagination to recognize in the values which drive our society today, the same conflict that James points to in the clash between God’s values and the values of the world.
James is being counter-cultural for us today when he says that in order to achieve the good life we need to approach our tasks with the spirit of meekness. Pure, peaceable, gentle, ready to yield….. hardly a description of what drives this or any other developed nation. Is this even a good description of what always drives our church? This is not to say he is advocating that Jesus’ followers become doormats. Much of this reading implies that James is nudging us towards focusing on a positive form of justice that Dom Crossan likes to call “distributive justice” – whereby instead of organizing retribution for potential rivals, our focus should rather be on the fair distribution of resources. This is not how our nation as a whole responds in practice – I am not sure of the latest figure but I do remember in the not too distant past we have been measured at number 87 in terms of order of being prepared to accept refugees.
Certainly, at least in part, there have been cases where we have seen both in our Church leadership and our political leaders demonstrations of selfish ambition – and frequently display jealousies – both traits of what James calls false wisdom. But here is the catch. Leaders are chosen from us. We have little justification for separating ourselves from our leaders.
Here is an example. We can sneer at the then Dean of Nelson Cathedral some years back for setting up a Church service for Religious tolerance – then forbidding the choir to sing an item as part of the call to worship because it was based on an Islamic call to prayer. But before we scoff too loudly, the question is: how do we or more precisely we individually make Muslims welcome in this country – let alone in our local Church?
Subtle discrimination, ambition and jealousies at every level seem part of the church congregations I have got to know. I suspect ambitions and petty jealousies are a fact of life in all community institutions and organizations. I know they are in my service club. However when we say the Church does or does not act on its principles, we would do well to remember this is our church as well as the church of our leaders. There is a very real sense in which we are the Church. In the same way we might remember that when we say our politicians are favouring those with the money and influence surely they are simply pandering to what the surveys tell us drive the voters. Aren’t we also among those voters?
The number of words we use to talk about our faith is not where it is at. Certainly teaching may start with words. Yet ambitions and jealousies may also just as easily produce a veritable welter of words. But identifying, or worse blathering on about our hopes and dreams, is only at best an indication of a hopeful intention to start moving forward. James implies that we are only likely to see signs of true wisdom when we can see the evidence of the simple and humble acts which tell us we are actually under way.
James is not being impractical. It may be unexpected advice but the wisdom of humility is not necessarily ineffective. One of my favourite political quotes came from one of Abraham Lincoln’s election campaigns when a particularly acid tongued opponent accused Lincoln of being two faced. Lincoln’s reply: “Do you think if I had two faces I would be wearing this one?” Do you think we could call that self-effacing? And if it comes to that, would it really have helped Lincoln to reply to his detractor with a worse insult? He did after all win the election.
….or to change the metaphor…..
On the Southern motorway out of our city there are warning signs to truck drivers on the lower bridges. Every now and again, a truck driver with a high sided truck will risk it and there have been a number of occasions when a truck has become wedged and apparently inextricably so, under one of these bridges. Rather than destroy either the truck or the bridge the solution is invariably the same. They let the air out of the tires. By analogy, the notion of deflating our egos to avoid further damage after a serious verbal collision may indeed be a forerunner of the saving wisdom required.
James says – and we would have to say he can point to plenty of supporting evidence – that false wisdom can in effect be recognized by what it produces: conflicts, people thinking they are better than others – and acting as if they have nothing to learn from others. To quote William Barclay: ‘There is a kind of person who is undoubtedly clever, with an acute brain and a skilful tongue. But his (or her?) effect, nevertheless, in any committee, in any church, in any group is to cause trouble and to disturb personal relationships. It’s a sobering thing to remember that the wisdom that he (or she?) possesses is devilish rather than divine.”
James has a solution which is dependent on accepting a philosophical premise from left field. James is nothing if not paradoxical. His message…..You cannot get the good life if you seek it. Rather the good life is the incidental consequence of seeking true wisdom.
Seek true wisdom says James and the good life will follow.
The other paradox is that….. again according to James…. when we let our thinking be shaped by the impression we are above others, we are actually down with them since the true wisdom comes from above.
There is a subtle point made by James at the beginning of Ch 4 where he shows that he has noticed that a common form of attitudinal violence to others is building oneself up by the destructive process of putting others down.
In his commentary on this section from James, Bill Loader suggests that some Christians seem happy to express hate even although they dress up what they are doing with artificial justification. He also notes that the violence can have various rhetorical forms and by no means implies physical violence.
The other main teaching in this passage informs us about James’ way to respond to the concept of God. God as far as James is concerned is nothing more, nor less, than the concept of acting in love. James stresses self giving and recognizing that others too need space to grow.
As we start to relate to others with generosity, humility and consideration we become closer to God – for these same characteristics are part of what we hope we mean when we say God is Love.