"My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 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 God has promised to those who love God? 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.” …What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead…For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead."
In 2015 I had the opportunity to spend a week traveling the Southern United States on a civil rights pilgrimage. We toured museums and we heard first-hand accounts and we sang freedom songs and we wrestled with the brutal realities of racism. The trip was equal parts empowering and devastating, exhilarating and haunting. You cannot cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge or stand behind Dr. King’s pulpit or hear the compelling words of Malcolm X where they were first spoken and not feel the spirit of the very people whose lives were given in pursuit of justice.
I felt them with me as I stood in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This museum is situated directly between two sites of violence and terror: on the one side is the town square where children were tortured with water hoses and chased by dogs during their non-violent march in 1963, and on the other side the 16th Street Baptist Church where four precious young girls were murdered by a white supremacist several months later. I felt their spirits too as I walked through this museum, surrounded by the past that devastatingly did not feel very distant. At one point I stood in front of two large pictures. One showed a common scene of angry White men and women with snarled faces and palpable rage, almost taunting the Black person they surrounded to believe he or she had human rights. The second image showed a crowd of Black men and women marching from Selma to Montgomery, intent on exposing systemic racism, joined by a small handful of like-minded White men and women. I stood in front of these images for some time, seeking to find my place in them and posing to myself the questions that many grandparents fear hearing from their grandchildren: “Where were you when all this was happening? How did you respond?” After honest self-reflection, I couldn’t place myself among the crowd of angry, violent Whites. I couldn’t picture myself in their ranks, screaming at and spitting upon another human being. But this brought no measure of comfort, because I was equally unable to place myself in the second photo featuring men and women marching to justice. I felt certain that I would not have been in the camp of the outspoken white supremacist, but I wondered—would I have been in the other camp? Would I have bravely shown up to march or risk my safety or use my voice and body to protest? Or would I have straddled some supposed middle line, believing myself better than the KKK member but nonetheless unwilling to offer a thing for the sake of justice? Would I have been able to name a coherent rationale for the equality of all human beings but articulate it just enough to show I’m not one of the bad ones and really do nothing more? Is that the very thing I’m doing now?
These are haunting questions. They haunted me that afternoon in Birmingham and they haunt me now. These are the types of questions our brother James poses to us in his rather rambling sermon on practical religion. Drawing from his Jewish roots, James writes to Christians scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, and in his seemingly disconnected thoughts about money and wisdom and trials and taming the tongue, he seems intent on stating and restating and emphasizing this singular point: faith without works is dead.
And let us not for a second allow this this text to send us into endless debates about what we must do or not do for our souls to be saved for heaven. In doing so we castrate the very concept of salvation and we eclipse James’ message to us, i.e. that all of the thoughts in our head and beliefs we put on paper are absolutely worthless, useless, and dead as a doornail if they do not issue into substantive and corresponding action.
James’ words have played over and over in my head in the past year. If you are anything like me, you have found as of late no shortage of news clips and sound bites to enrage and provoke and disturb and disgust you. And in these moments where there is so little in which to find comfort or peace, I sometimes offer myself solace saying, “Remember you didn’t vote for this man. You didn’t help elect him. You don’t agree with these policies.” And the pleasure I find in this self-justifying salve for my frustration is, I am convinced, more dangerous than the man himself. Dr. King knew this danger well. In an open letter penned from a jail cell in the same city of Birmingham, he responded to the White clergy that decried the marches and sit-ins and open displays of civil disobedience. Like me, these White moderate were not featured in the photo of racist Whites shouting down their black neighbor. Like me, their racism was much more subtle and less discernible even to themselves but ever the more real and present and deadly. Their stated belief was pro-equality and anti-segregation, but they used their energy and action to critique every possible move of those who did not merely claim their beliefs but put their bodies on the line for it. Dr. King was so tired of the “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” mouthed by the White moderate that he named these moderate clergy a greater stumbling block for Black liberation than White Citizens Councils or the KKK.
But we would never find ourselves among those White moderate who polish their ego with self-congratulatory reminders about their stated beliefs over and against that of #45.
We would never be like the ones whom our brother James critiques in this text.
We would never claim the lordship of Christ with words but with action adhere ourselves to the gold-fingered men and women whose power and approval we crave.
We would never pride ourselves in not using the n-word while finding all manner of race-neutral language to reveal our true beliefs about people of color.
We would never seek to counter the simple claim that blacks live matter by insisting on the use of generalized value statements that reveal the need for such a specific campaign in the first place.
We would never claim the value of the right to protest while critiquing virtually every chosen method of protest people employ.
We would never preach sermons about God’s concern for the poor while deluding ourselves into believing that all the wealth at our fingertips is simply the result of hard work and industry.
We would never be more angered by an athlete kneeling at an anthem for Caesar than we are by the abuse and violation of image bearers of God.
We would never claim to believe in gender justice while asking the women in our churches to keep waiting for full equality and to be grateful for the strides we have made.
We would never decry violent protests in Baltimore and Ferguson and care absolutely nothing about the violence of systemic racism and discriminatory housing practices and substandard education in these same cities.
We would never claim to be pro-life but find reason to justify the incarceration of 2.5 million men, women, and children in the United States.
We would never state our belief in women’s equality and be more concerned with what hats some women wear at rallies than with the sexual assault they face daily.
We would never sing words like “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary” but refuse to open our churches to persons being hunted for deportation.
As I stood staring at the two images before me in the Birmingham museum, I felt the presence of all those who risked so much for the sake of justice, who refused to accept the social order but instead disrupt it at every juncture in which it fostered inhumane and evil treatment of human beings, who were congruent in their beliefs and their actions. But I also felt the presence of my soon-to-be daughter. I imagined standing with her not only in this museum but in the museums of the future, the ones that will detail the justice movements of today, and I heard her ask me the questions I was afraid to answer. “Where were you when this was going on? What did you to help change it?” And I knew in an instant I would never be able to claim that I was a product of my time, and that I saw things the same as others did then, and that this was just the way things were. Because this is a laughable excuse and it is bullshit. We are not products of our time; we create the products of our time and we sell them for profit at others’ expense and invent narratives to incentivize their purchase and we join hands with the gold-fingered men and women as we cling to the privilege of all we’ve created.
But I’m tired of creating products that lead to death. I’m tired of claiming belief in Jesus but opposing him in my actions. I’m tired of being so incongruent that I can’t see straight. And I think my neighbors are tired of this too, because faith without works is not only dead—it’s deadly.
So with the church, I pray this common prayer of confession, and of hope.
Almighty God, our Creator:
We have sinned against you,
through our own fault,
in thought, and word, and deed,
and in what we have left undone.
For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ,
forgive us all our offenses;
and grant that we may serve you
in newness of life,
to the glory of your name. Amen.