Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Letter of James to Today's World

In double-checking the lay ministry schedule for St. Thomas, I discovered that I am on to be the one reading the lessons in church tomorrow morning. I'm glad I checked that, and gladder still that I discovered that I am to read from the Letter of James these lines:

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?  Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors--James 2: 5-9 

There's a whole lot more to this reading than just this passage, but these lines really made me sit up and take notice as they echoed in my 21st Century ears after a week of ridiculousness that the courts have had to settle--again--because people in power simply refuse to do the right thing. Foot notes about this passage indicate that "the rich" could be a visitor into the synagogue of the Greek or Roman variety into this Jewish-Christian setting. No matter who or what constitutes "the rich," the passage speaks to the message of Jesus that all people, no matter what they look like, how much money they have, or how they dress, or what their language is, or who they sleep with at night, are your neighbors, and they are to be treated with the same love that Jesus had displayed. It is interesting that this passage coincides with Mark's story of the Syrophoenician woman whom Jesus initially refers to as being like "a dog." Needless to say, Jesus figures out very quickly that even those who are not children of Israel can have the same abundance of faith that he preaches.

The more I thought about this part of the letter, the more I thought about something I had read in a article earlier this week which basically takes white progressives to task for how they handle their exasperation about poor whites refusing to align with things such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The issue raised in the article is that social progressives dismiss poor whites who vote Republican as ignorant idiots voting against their own best interests. What they haven't done is show poor whites that by aligning with other poor people, even poor people who are black or Latino/a, they will lift up the scale for everyone. When "poverty" gets conflated with "minority," it helps to feed into whatever racist narratives are currently being fed to impoverished whites who live in fear for their own security and see the status quo as at least something where they can stay marginally ahead of all the "others." If those of us who truly do want to see a shift in America where we realize Dr. King's vision of  all people being able to say, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God, Almighty, we're free at last!" then we shouldn't dishonor the poor, no matter who they are, because the poor, and the very financially-squeezed middle class, are suffering the same economic oppression, and they don't like it. 

"Is it not the rich who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?" Yes! When the Donald Trumps and the Rick Scotts and the PACs of our political world use their money to sell a message that it's the fault of "the other" that the American worker feels alienated and desperate, they are playing on human fear and causing us to turn on one another when now, more than ever, is a time for us to pull together. Maybe it takes being in that place of looking at my checkbook that is dangerously close to zero that I one day realized that there is not a whole lot that separated me from the person begging on the street corner. But whatever it is, I feel more of an affinity for those hanging on by their fingertips than I feel for the ones who can't decide if they should drive the Lexus or the Beemer today.

That said, I also know that the challenge from James, which he takes from Jesus, is to still treat the person who is rich not as someone who should be cast down from their seat of power, but as one who is trapped in that power, sometimes without even knowing that their wealth and their fondness for their wealth has imprisoned them. People who are, what I will call the "ungenerous wealthy," the ones who are content with keeping their money to themselves and doling it out sparingly have unwittingly come to worship the worthless idol of the Almighty Dollar. They've bought the lie that somehow their pots of gold will sustain them and keep them until the end of their days. But haven't we seen enough "economic downturns" to show that even having gobs of money won't keep you safe? 

Perhaps the one-percent, who truly have more money then they know what to do with, might be the ones most immune from any economic earthquakes on the stock market. But even then, they aren't going to be able to take their treasure with them to the grave. How sad and depressing for them! They've hoarded and saved and put away all that money and yet it won't prevent their inevitable death. That they don't seem to see this reality and understand how they do have it within their power to alleviate their suffering, and that of others, if they will loosen their grip on their purse strings is unfortunate. They could do so much good by paying a greater portion to the government to support the infrastructure of our nation. How terrible it must be to feel the need instead to prop up a class war between the lower classes, and then throw in some race-baiting, to deflect from how wealth inequality is hurting all of us. If any one of them took a moment of self-examination and reflection, one could only hope that they'd see how their idol worship has led them to make choices that are detrimental to the country they love.

Emphasis on one hopes they would see this.

I hope we will all, one day, be able to see each other more as children of God rather than a potential foe in the struggle for survival.  

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