Re-imagining James and “social justice”

Mariam Kammel is Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies, Regent College, Canada. Most of her research has been into the book of James, with her PhD focusing on what salvation looks like in the letter. Mariam’s been in Australia recently and while in the country, she spoke with Sophie Timothy about the message of James, and the how and why of social justice.

ST: You’ve spent a lot of time looking at the book of James. What have you really focused on in your scholarship around James and what’s the one thing you wish you could say to Christians about the book of James?

MK: My scholarship has probably focused mostly in looking at the question of salvation in James, because often it’s pitted against Paul as being a works-righteousness salvation. So I wanted to try and give James a hearing and see if that’s what he was on about or if there was something else going on, so that we listen to him not just in comparison to Paul.

We want solutions to be quick, effective and measurable. And some of this stuff isn’t quick, effective or measureable.

So I’ve looked at the questions of salvation, faith and works, but also judgment and mercy, and the whole point has been with an eye towards the Christian life. What does it mean to be a Christian? How do we live this life? What are the consequences of salvation for how we live? So that’s been my focus of research in James.

If I could say one thing, and I try and say this whenever I’m given a chance, is the thing I’ve really realised about James is the character of God in the book. It grounds everything else. And so God is seen as good and generous. God is the one who gives only good gifts and perfect gifts, he’s the one who gives salvation by his choice and so wanting to really set the character of God is why James is so concerned about how they’re living. They’re not living according to the character of God in any way. And that makes it not that we have to earn our salvation, but actually, we’re becoming shaped to God’s character in the salvation that he instigated.

How do you interpret the classic verse “faith without works is dead”? In the reformed tradition we’re so spooked by the idea of salvation by works. How should we think about those verses?

I’m not very reformed, in that, I think we’ve misunderstood grace to mean something that it doesn’t necessarily. We are saved by grace, we are chosen by grace, it’s all by God’s grace that we have a chance at this. But consistently from the call of Israel on, but especially in the gospels and James, and even in Paul, there’s a strong understanding that by your fruit you will recognise them, that we will become like the one who has called us into relationship, and if we don’t, like Israel we come into the danger of judgment. So I think there’s a misunderstanding of what the Christian life is, that seems to think we can’t do anything else that counteracts grace, when actually, grace, I think should shape us into being.

So the faith and works thing, I think what James is concerned about is he’s looking at a congregation that isn’t being affected by grace at all and saying you haven’t encountered grace, because if you really encounter grace, it should transform you and it will change who you are.

I can imagine people would say, that sounds all well and good, but what about people who don’t display that fruit? Does that mean they were never saved?

I kind of cheat on this, because James makes a big point about how we’re not allowed to judge each other’s salvation. So I would just say well, there should be some sort of transformation, but thank God it’s not me that has to decide how much, where, what it looks like.  Because I do think sometimes we have our ideas of what salvation should look like, and then we look at how Jesus acted in the gospels and go, oh, that’s not how I would’ve done that. So I tend to just bow out of those conversations pretty quickly.

But on the whole, there should be some fruit of some sort. I mean, obviously the thief on the cross didn’t have a lot of time to show fruit, but the fact that he turned towards Jesus and not away is maybe part of the fruit that we should look for and not look for what we expect the fruit should be.

How do you see James fitting into the canon?

Ooh yeah. There’s actually some canon lists—and I think it’s the Russian orthodox—where James actually sits right after Acts along with all the general epistles by James, Peter and John, who Paul calls the three pillars of the Jerusalem church. And so they do the ordering based on the way the church in Acts spreads from Jerusalem and then to the Gentile world. It’s just kind of a fun reimagining of how the epistles should be read.

I’m on a big kick for arguing for all the general epistles, because they’re very practical and they’re very concerned about how we live the Christian life in a hostile world. And I think that has everything to do with where the church is now. So I think they’re pivotal for just training people for how they think about how they live their Christian life.

They’re very rooted in God’s character, God’s work in Christ, God’s work for us and everything in those epistles is dependent on God’s work in salvation. There’s no sense that they’re just ethics and Paul is just theology. They’re very deeply theological, they just don’t do it in the same logical way that Paul does for us. Their theology is a bit more implicit, and a bit more of the exemplar model.

In James, do you think the works he speaks about are mostly inside the church, outside the church or both?

I lean towards both. And I think there’s a little bit of—if we can’t do it inside the church, then we’re really not going to get it right outside of the church. So there’s a bit of starting within, because in 2:14-16 the example is a brother or sister in need. So the example starts within the community. But I think the example of Rahab helps open that a little bit, because she’s an outsider who’s supportive of the Israelite community. But I think by the end it’s much broader. He gives an example of the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord and I take that as looking back at the prophets who spoke about the social order in general, and the protection there is for all the poor, the foreigner, the needy. Anyone who is in danger of being oppressed by society is in the prophet’s purview. So I take it as expanding, but with the eye to the fact that if we can’t care for our own we’re in trouble.

BeggarIn the western world, so much of caring for the poor or marginalised is done either through charity or through the government. How do you think Christians should go about caring for the poor and marginalised?

That is the big question. A lot of what I see in scripture that I’m working with in my social justice thinking is seeing that God works through his people for his justice. And I think if we just step back and leave it to government, we do a bit wrong. They do have a role in it and God obviously calls the government to that role, but God works through his people consistently. So you’ll see all sorts of individuals stepping up as those through whom he’s working. I think we can sometimes just hand off responsibility and feel like it’s not up to us. And I don’t think that’s legitimate.

Yes, you see Isaiah calling governments accountable, but also calling on the people for their wrongful worship where they haven’t been caring for the poor, they haven’t been taking care of the oppressed in any way whatsoever. Even their worship is rejected and unwanted.

So I think there is a responsibility on the individual. And I think we tend to think in terms of donating money to charity, and that’s good. I don’t want to say don’t do that. But I think sometimes that’s not necessarily what’s helpful. And so dealing with the larger structural issues is what’s needed in order for the aid to actually be effective.

I think of the work of someone like Gary Haugan with the work of International Justice Mission who’s recently put out a book on how violence in the two-thirds world makes it nigh on impossible, despite all the aid that’s around, for the very poor to actually escape being the very poor. So I think at that point Christians have a call to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed in some way or another and offer hope.

We have a responsibility that is uncomfortable. I just read the text and yes, God wants to bless his people, for sure. So it’s not that I’m saying everybody needs to just give up everything, but at the same time, he works through his people and clearly throughout Scripture he emphasises the poor, the oppressed, the foreigner, the refugee—these categories. And I think we need to call our governments to account to act accordingly.

I guess what you’re saying is it’s about advocacy and taking action, not just giving money. What do you think stops churches from reaching out? Because in every community there are marginalised people who might be falling through the cracks of government structures. Why do you think not every church reaches out to those people and how do we change that?

I think there are a number of factors. Sometimes I do wonder how much the church has kind of accepted the world’s values: wealth is good, people’s money is good. Very often, we get really excited about powerful people. I get continuously convicted by the first few verses of James 2 of not showing favour to the wealthy person that shows up, but actually caring for the impoverished person that shows up.

I think it’s difficult, too, because we want—and I can speak only to North America—solutions to be quick, and effective and measurable. And some of this stuff isn’t quick, effective or measureable and may not actually make the difference. But I don’t think that’s the right model, either. I think we are called to the long slog.

I really liked reading something by Brian Rosner where he talked about how conscious we are about the risk of people becoming dependent on us or abusing our generosity and he said, crowds followed after Jesus and he was being mobbed and that didn’t stop him from healing.

We often will project the number of risks and then avoid doing anything because we don’t want to take the risk. But we do risk being taken advantage of, we do risk being endlessly dealing with this stuff, and I think that’s something we as Christians need to kind of get over ourselves and take the risk.

But I think a lot of it comes down to an imagination change. We need to start seeing the poorest people individually, instead of just as a bloc that may take advantage of us. Some of it I think has to do with, well, do we know any poor people, individually? How do we treat them? How do we interact with them? Are we treating them like they’re a project, or like they’re a person? The more I think we individualise and actually see these stories, the more it will help us get away from thinking “There’s a big mob of people, I don’t know what to do and I can’t do anything!”.

Image: Gareth Williams via Flickr