Bob Kikuyu, Global Theology Advisor, Christian Aid
Introduction to James 5: 1- 16
I would want to put my reflection in context. There is a generation in my country of Kenya that remembers with nostalgia church leaders (we also referred to them as church fathers - the notable absence of women in this space then and to some extent now is disappointing). These men were courageous and spoke directly to government leaders, castigating them when things were not going right. This was at the height of the last strongman Kenya had. The church spoke boldly against the abuse of power and also challenged those who had used that power to enrich themselves. The national psyche was shaped by these fathers who were prophets, speaking truth to power.
After the election that ended that period of our history, the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) announced that it had moved from strategic opposition to strategic engagement with government. Some church leaders who during the struggle had forged friendships with the opposition during the struggle, now became quasi government. The head of the NCCK left office and vied successfully for a political seat. Church officials were appointed to government roles. The prosperity gospel grew and in turn pastors began to be registered amongst some of the wealthiest individuals. The poor remained poor and the gap between them and the rich began to grow wider. The fact that corrupt politicians and businessman are now entertained on the pulpit is testament to how far we have sunk. The corrupt and the shrewd have become the role models for many people.
A condemnation of the rich for their ill-gotten wealth (v 1 – 6)
How important it is that someone speaks out in the manner that James speaks out here. He calls it out as it is without sugar-coating the issue with the rich. The warning is clear that their ill-gotten wealth is rotting and will be of no value – what a frustration. But even more is the judgement that will come from their actions. The cries of the oppressed here have been presented in a manner similar to the cries of the Israelites in Egypt when they suffered under Pharaoh. There is comfort in knowing that the Lord sent them a deliverer, and is James playing on this to remind them about God’s deliverance with the promise of retributive justice – to defeat and destroy Pharaoh, and distributive justice – to deliver to them the Promised Land.
To link it with the earlier report on the state of the church in Kenya and Africa in general, there is a dearth of prophetic voices today. They have been compromised by riches and have fallen in the same trap. Sadly it is to civil society that we have turned to face our Pharaohs. When the church disengages from being the voice of the people and moves to “strategic engagement”, it fails in its role to speak truth to power. The wealthy who oppress the poor prosper. The strength of the church is the moral stand to challenge this, and when that moral aspect disintegrates, so too its voice.
An encouragement to the poor to hold on in hope (v 7 – 12)
I fully understand this, but I still struggle with the passive side of accepting poverty as it is. This is more so because during the colonial period and thereafter, scripture was used to pacify people in Africa. Poverty and suffering were presented almost as virtues on the road to heaven. If Africans raised their voices in protest, they were termed disobedient not just to authority but to God. Meanwhile, the colonial government and settlers acquired the best land and resources.
Yet the reality is that it is not easy to be at peace when you can clearly see that someone is profiting at your expense. At some point there will be a violence that will manifest itself. It is no wonder there is an interjection in the middle - “Do not grumble against one another … (v 9)”, but to be patient. I think the grumbling is related to being in lack and oppression. In this state how easy it is to hit out against your fellow sufferer who is as vulnerable as you. The scarcity mentality occasioned by the hoarding of wealth by the rich can and does create tensions. Yet it is rare that this rage gets to them before being released on fellow poor people. I have seen this in the slums of Nairobi where a small issue sparks communal violence. It has been recorded in South Africa with xenophobic acts towards fellow Africans from neighbouring countries. It is released in religious tension in the South of Asia where Muslim and Christian minorities have been the target of extremism. All these terms can be used, yet it may just be the poor responding to oppression.
The Wealth of Relationships (v 13 – 16)
It concludes with the power of relationships in our faith journey. Our relationships are partly where our true wealth and riches lie. Through them we have solidarity in hope as the preceding section prescribes. Through our relationships and for our relationships we manage the potential for violence and rage, and hopefully channel it into meaningful action. Through our relationships our vulnerability opens doors for healing as we pray for one another.
Dr Maria Andrade, Theology and Network Lead, Tearfund
On oppression, community and hope: reflections on James 5:1-6
There is no such thing as a neutral theology. Theology is, by nature, contextual: who we are and where we come from influence the way we approach the Bible and what we get from it. This is why I would like to start sharing, briefly, what are the “eyes” with which I am approaching the Biblical text today. I come from Abya Yala; this is how some indigenous peoples called their lands, before the conquerors called it “America” about 6 centuries ago. Today, about 800 indigenous communities (which is more than 58 million people) live in it. Furthermore, the vast majority of people in “America” (which, by the way is a continent and not a country) are mixed race, between European and indigenous; like me, most of them grew up neglecting, denying or just unaware of their indigenous roots. This conflicted identity is one of the remains of colonialism in Latin America. Another one is the way in which hegemonic Christianity -mostly Western, white and male (among others)- has, historically, permeated the Church’s theology and life in Latin America, providing very few opportunities to discover God revealed in and through indigenous communities.
Why am I saying all this? Because the letter of James and the teaching and ancestral wisdom from indigenous communities have something in common: hegemonic Christianity has often seen them with suspicion (some scholars affirm that the letter of James was not easily included in the canon), doubting their legitimacy and true divine inspiration. Consequently, while they both carry a profoundly prophetic message for the global Church today, they both have been neglected in some Christian circles.
The passage that brings us together today is a crude warning to rich oppressors. I want to emphasise three ideas from this short passage. The first one is the binomial richness-oppression which, in this passage, seems to go hand in hand: the rich are rich because they oppress the poor (5:4;8). This affirmation can sound extreme but, in my context, does not seem to be too far from reality. Latin America is the most violent and most unequal region in the world, with more than 30% of its population living in poverty. Although the region experienced some economic growth in the last decades, engrained inequality and systemic corruption only exacerbated the already existing gap between rich and poor. In fact, in a globally-connected world that lives on a planet that has limited resources, the richness of “a bunch” can only be achieved through the oppression of “the many”. This is true, not only within the same community, or within the same country, but also between different countries; for example, the level of consumption in the “Global North” is causing serious damage in the “Global South”. This is why theologians like Brazilian Leonardo Boff are talking about the need to denunciate our current political, economic and ideological system because it engenders two types of injustices: social and environmental. This short passage shows that the amount of people living in poverty and the levels of poverty they experience, should be, at least, scandalous for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus.
The second idea is that the accumulated wealth of the rich becomes a testimony against them. This passage reminds us of Exodus 16, when Yahve provided enough mana for everyone but warned them against taking more than what they needed, because it will be “full of maggots”. Rotting, corrosion and moths are evidence of a life that takes more than needed –accumulation- without caring for others –individualism. This short passage raises a highly unpopular and counter-cultural message in a society that defines people by their possessions: accumulation –hoarding wealth- and individualism –luxury and self-indulgence- are sin. It is precisely around issues like this one that alternatives to our sinful culture of consumption, accumulation and individualism can be found in indigenous, non-Western cultures. In Ecuador, for instance, Kichwa peoples have a term that permeates part of their ethics, culture and life in community: Sumak Kawsay (“good living”). Sumak Kawsay is deeply rooted in the principle of relationality, which basically means that no existence can be conceived without relationships (“I relate, therefore, I exist”), but these relationships are not limited to human beings as they include animals, all nature and the cosmos. Of course, God is also part of this spider web of relations and his divine footprint is present in every element of his Creation. Sumak Kawsay also has a collective sense: true “good living” cannot be achieved to the detriment of someone else, or if it damages the harmony within the community or with nature. Therefore, “I can only have a plenty life if you also have it” (similar to the concept of Shalom in Hebrew). Lastly, Sumak Kawsay affirms that “good enough” creates a satisfactory life, which goes against the world’s eternal quest to have more (which is destroying our planet!). In essence, there is a lot that the Church and the Westernised world could learn from ancestral counter-cultural wisdom in order to live more faithfully to God’s plan.
Finally, in the style of the prophets or Exodus, God takes a stand in favour of the poor. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the one who listens to, sees, cares and responds. James’ ptojos (poor) have, in my region, specific faces and colours: they are women, children, migrants, unemployed, indigenous, black, they live with disabilities, among others. God takes a stand for them and calls the system that is fed from their suffering by its name. He denunciates and condemns the rich for exploiting the poor up to death (5:6), for taking more than needed (5:2) and for not caring for the others (5:5). God is not neutral and James’ condemn to the arrogant rich people reminds Jesus’ many teachings in the Gospels, where he stated that one cannot serve both God and money (Lc 16).
I would like to conclude by mentioning that James 5 is the type of passages that require an active, solidary and militant reading. We cannot read this passage and not be shaken by it; however, it is only when we are truly challenged by the Spirit of God that we make the most meaningful -often painful- changes. Although we did not cover other passages of the wonderful letter of James, three big topics come across his whole book: oppression, hope and action. In this book, suffering caused by oppression is capable of engendering a hope that is strong enough to turn upside down the unjust structures that perpetuate the death of the ptojos of our world. It is this type of stubborn hope that we are called to embrace and nurture, no matter how costly it can be, if we really want to see justice rolling like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream (Am 5:24).