Title: The House Doesn’t Always Win
Text: James 5
Date: December 12, 2010
Author: Chris Gooding
Many of you know that I haven’t always been Mennonite. I grew up as a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), which is the most conservative branch of the Lutheran church in America. To cite only a few examples of what I mean by this, my pastor in high school once suggested that the church start doing Catholic-style confessionals—as in you and him in the big wooden box. He plays the role of the priest, and you of the penitent, and he assigns you things like Hail Marys as penance for your sins. Another example: the LCMS website has a confession of faith that shows absolutely no sensitivity to post-Holocaust theology. It expressly states that the history of abuse that the Jews have undergone is a result of God punishing them for the sins of their forefathers [the suggested sin being the crucifixion of Christ]. LCMS identity is ethnically derived: 99.9% of my family is German [all but the surname, really—“Gooding” is Anglo]. My maternal grandfather didn’t start learning English until he was six years old. The church I grew up in refers to Germany as “the Land of Luther,” as though it were the Promised Land. Both of my parents, even though they are considerably disillusioned Lutherans, knew that they were supposed to go to a German Lutheran college so that they could meet a German Lutheran spouse and produce German Lutheran babies—and they did. Even when I was growing up, I was told that I was not American, not even German, but that I was Prussian [though it was understood that “Prussian” was a subcategory under “German”]. I was told this before I was told I was white. Ethnic identity and religious identity were completely inseparable: when I received an adult baptism at age 17, it was considered not only an abandonment of my family’s religious beliefs; it was considered an act of treason against my people. This level of mutual religious-ethnic reinforcement gave me the sense growing up of living as an enclave in a greater society that was at least mildly hostile to your way of life. I imagine, for this reason, that growing up Lutheran is a lot like growing up Jewish [except, of course, with considerably more anti-Semitism].
What you may not know about German Lutherans is that this “enclave” sensibility makes them the most adept manipulators of social mores that you will ever meet. The patriarchs and matriarchs of my family (especially in my parents’ parents’ generation) have perfected this into an art form. They have learned to do this primarily to police proper family relationships. They know just how to give or withhold presents so as to make someone feel included or excommunicated from the family. They know exactly how to subtly steer you into careers that will help you earn large amounts of money in order to support larger families. They know exactly the right backhanded compliments to use to let you know that the girlfriend you brought home for dinner doesn’t live up to their expectations for your future breeding—they are trying to build a lasting German Lutheran dynasty here, after all. “Oh, honey, are you sure she’s pretty enough for you?” may be the most evil question that can be spoken in the English language.
Now, in a sense, I am being too hard on my family here. After all, I’m not pointing up their positive traits, and many people have had to deal with far worse than I have. I had a good childhood, and both my parents and my grandparents modeled for me how to live a good life. But we all know how manipulative family dynamics work. We all experience them in our lives to some degree. And we all know how easy they are to fall into. Mennonites, after all, have often acted as an ethnic enclave in the past, and have probably succumbed to the temptation to control their children in similar ways. The desire to preserve our identity pushes us to do all sorts of crazy things. The lure is subtle, and the words can just slip out—as if on their own. But as great as our families may be, and as easy as manipulation is to fall into, none of this changes the fact that there is something about such uses of household power dynamics that is deeply evil, and they need to be named as such. In the end, I am implicated in this as much as anybody. I am, after all, talking about the people who taught me how to handle social situations. And so speaking honestly begins with being honest about where I came from.
And we can’t pull our punches on this issue today because the book of James is in our readings, and James doesn’t pull his punches. It would not be unfair to characterize the Epistle of James as a letter written to counteract these sorts of household manipulation in local congregations. James names these sorts of manipulation for what they are, and minces no words. The epistle is full of brutal meditations upon favoritism of the rich over the poor, taming the tongue, judging one another, and boasting about the future. In fact, its directives are so radical that liberation theologian Elsa Tamez points out that there have been various attempts to “intercept” the book of James throughout church history. Martin Luther tried this: he called the letter an “epistle of straw,” suggesting that it was empty of content, with “nothing of the gospel in it.” John Calvin praised James’ championing of the poor, yet tried to preserve a sense of special respect for the rich, arguing, “it is one of the duties of courtesy, not to be neglected, to honor those who are elevated in the world.” J. B. Mayor, an Anglican priest who lived in England during a time when richer parishioners were rewarded with more majestic seats in the church (a practice which is directly condemned in James), wrote a commentary on the letter. Unfortunately, Mayor could only come to the conclusion that reading James should push the Anglican church to slightly democratize their seating system by allowing poorer members to occupy these special seats only when the rich parishioners who paid for them did not show up to church. He was unable to read James as condemning the practice of special seating entirely. Even the lectionary tries to intercept this passage! We get the nice Advent-themed passage that talks about blessings bestowed on those who patiently wait on the Lord in the midst of suffering, but we don’t get the passages before or after it. The passage before it castigates the rich, pointing the finger at them and saying “It was you who crucified Jesus!” The LCMS faith statement is wrong: the Jews didn’t do it, the rich did! “You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.” The passage after the lectionary reading repeats Jesus’ difficult teaching about oaths: “Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”
What do these things, condemnation of the rich, patience in suffering, and honesty, have to do with one another? James moves quickly from one theme to another. James is often categorized by biblical scholars as “paranesis”: a rough grab-bag of unconnected moral sayings. But this categorization often serves as another attempt to “intercept” James. It does so by ignoring the deeper connection that James seems to see between these themes. James doesn’t operate like Poor Richard’s Almanac. Sure, there are plenty of sayings directly collected from Jesus in the letter, but James did not simply jot them down as they came to mind just so that Jesus’ followers might be aware of what he taught. There are several themes in the letter that James keeps returning to, and each theme is carefully layered and connected with the others. The whole of the letter is more like a seamless garment. So what is the thread that connects condemnation of the rich, patience in suffering, and honesty?
I think the answer lies in the passage on boasting at the end of chapter 4. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance, all such boasting is evil. Anyone then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” The problem James seems to have with the rich people in the congregation is that they do all these things to try to secure their place in the world, and they do this without thinking. They plan about what they will do for the next year because their means convince them of their own self-determination. They grasp at possessions that rot and rust, they defraud the poor, they pass quickly by those in need with a polite but useless word. They do this because they are trained to, because the world informs them that such measures are necessary to survive. It as if fear trains them to habitually clench the muscles in their fist, and they have learned to violently grasp for security without thinking. And once clenched, they find themselves unable to let go of their own vicelike grip on security. This grasping leads to all sorts of evils. Not least of which is the killing of Jesus Christ for the perceived protection of national security.
The thing that James is deathly serious about is getting Christians to unclench their fists. To let go. James doesn’t argue any of his points based on observance of the Sabbath, but one gets the feeling that James was a good liturgically-formed Jew. In the Exodus account, the institution of the Sabbath was a measure to get Jews to give up on their efforts at self-preservation, their work of gathering the food they need to survive, in order to put themselves in the vulnerable position where they are forced to admit that they are reliant upon God for their very existence. The forbidding of the oath is related to this sort of Sabbath cessation of attempts at self-preservation. To resist taking oaths is to resist the temptation to control the way others receive what we say. By skillfully dividing life into areas where honesty matters and areas where honesty does not matter, we think that we can enhance our ability to convince others to accept that what we say is true. Resisting the oath and resisting trying to secure our existence are hard things to do, and a hard way to be trained to live. Which is why it seems altogether appropriate that James calls this “work.” Resisting the urge to work for self preservation is, ironically, hard work. It takes work to remain, as James puts it, “unstained by the world.” This work might be cached out negatively, in terms of what we are not to do, but we cannot forget the active character of learning not to do something that is deeply ingrained.
This is why the passage that talks about patience in suffering in the lectionary today cannot be considered a form of passive waiting. James does, after all, tell us to be like the Prophets in exhibiting hard-fought, active endurance. James is advocating a patience that actively resists the structures of this world that make it so natural to try to manipulate others in order secure our own existence and guarantee the success of our projects. James pushes us to work to live differently. And ultimately, though this takes work on our part, this is not something we do on our own strength. James continues Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus Christ as the true interpreter of the Torah. The Law, properly interpreted through the life and teachings of Christ, is still applicable as a norm for Christian living for James. But the debates that crop up around the uses of “faith and works” in both James and Paul surely get it wrong when they ask if James is advocating a synergistic approach to salvation—James is not interested in talking about our cooperation with Christ in ways that merit salvation. But James is interested in the ways in which we can become caught up in the life of Christ by following his interpretation of the Law. Only by becoming caught up in Christ’s life as a faithful Jew under the Law can we come to resist the forces that attempt to form us into a self-reliant (and hence violent) people. It is no coincidence that in the midst of castigating these forms of self-reliance James points up the fact that Jesus did not resist the rich people who put him to death. He did not try to secure his own place in history, but rather placed himself in the most vulnerable position of all: he accepted death in the faith that God would vindicate him through the Resurrection. And that sort of letting go is a difficult place to get to.
On this point, James stops seeming like an obscure document written to a people with cares distant from our own, and speaks directly to our own situation. James would be the first to tell a 17-year-old German Lutheran boy that he might need to be baptized as an adult, resisting his infant baptism into Luther, into Germany, and into his family instead of into the church. Refusal to try to build an ethnic dynasty is patience in suffering. James would be the first to remind the regimes that worry about national security in the wake of diplomatic cable leaks that if they let their “Yes” be yes and their “No” be no, they won’t have secrets that can be leaked in damaging ways. Accepting the dangers of honest speech is patience in suffering. James would be the first to urge non-cooperation with military regimes that exploit the innocent. Non-cooperation is patience in suffering. So, this advent, as we are encouraged to wait for the coming of Jesus Christ, let us think about active ways in which we can prepare ourselves to resist the temptation to secure our identities through our own devices.