The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 1: Introduction

Many agree that the message of James is scandalous as it contains the famous passage that says: “man is not justified by faith alone.” In fact, a book has already been written about it –Elsa Tamez’s The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead. However, I would like to point out that there is perhaps a more scandalous message contained in the Epistle of James –that is James’ disdain towards the practice of partiality in the community of faith.

The Scripture as the Word of God couched in ancient human language, in human words that persevere for Christians of all generations as a form of God’s self-revelation to his people who are fashioned in and through Jesus of Nazareth. As Christians in the twentieth century we read and study that Word of God as nourishment of our spiritual lives. But we do not study it in a vacuum. We are members of a faith-community that feeds its spiritual life, indeed on the written Word of God along with the tradition that has been born of it and that has helped fashion the understanding of that written record[1].

In consequence I would like to argue that the scandalous message of James cannot merely be found in terms of: having a misguided understanding of salvation; nor in the misinterpretation of the place of ‘good works’ in the Christian life, for these simple interpretations makes one susceptible to a stubbornly individualistic understanding of James’ message.  Moreover, it puts together a convenient excuse for those who have great possessions in this world, while at the same time elicits a culpable resignation for them of their responsibility to tend to the needs of those who lack such possessions[2].

Especially in this age where teaching and preaching in many churches is confined with the appropriation of what is commonly known as systematic theology which is the adoption on an existing theological system in interpreting God, the world, God’s relation to the world, the life and work of Jesus, the biblical witness to the Spirit of God, and the human response in terms of faith and conduct, the significance and relevance of the Church in accordance with the insights and categories of this existing theological system.

Tragically, while such systematic theologies have succeeded in giving a methodical articulation of the Christian faith it has also effectively succeeded in conveying a picture of a ‘discriminating God’. Whereupon, even when God is spoken of as gracious and loving, in order to explain away the miseries of millions and the many dominations and disparities, God is spoken as gracious only towards those elected to be recipients of God’s grace!

Thus for example gender discrimination is legitimized through convenient stories of creation, discrimination against the poor and discriminated ethnic groups through disparaging stories of origin.

In other words, such systems make ‘the discriminating will of God’ as the ruling criterion and God’s grace is interpreted within God’s sovereign right to choose some and reject many.

Inevitably this predisposition leads to legitimations of socio-cultural discriminations. It endorses the privilege of the few such as the rich over the poor, members of the Church over against members of other faiths, the white colonizers over against the blacks, the indigenous people, men over women, which have, unfortunately, also led to the internalization of this false theology in the hearts and minds of the discriminated people against themselves![3]

That is why I would like to propose that rather the scandalous message of James rests in the loss of the ethical implication of ‘works,’ where in the Christian community ‘works’ manifests itself in the practice of equality in the community of faith. As the literary genre of James bear more resemblance to Jewish wisdom literature like Job or the Proverbs, which pronounces a spirituality, that is found in the ordinariness of life. It is my belief that in careful reading of James that we can be brought face to face with the God of the sages who can be found in the ordinariness of our lives as a community of faith. Thus the scandalous message is a reeling call to pay attention to what we see and experience for it is the arena for reflection.

In the face of neo-liberal globalization and problems like world hunger and unequal distribution of wealth I believe that it is imperative for Christians to rediscover the themes of equality and impartiality that are exhibited in Scriptures and it is my fervent belief that the Epistle of James offers a good resource in dealing with such issues that are prevalent today in the world and in the Christian church at large. For in the critical times in which we live –our lives are always challenged and urged by the conflicts of a progressively unified and divided world and we cannot rest content with having enunciated general principles or offered piecemeal objective solutions. It has to find a “prophetic” word –a word that rings with the authenticity of God’s proclamation in Jesus Christ while also addressing the reality of human historical existence[4].

Christian spirituality in its fullness is more than a personal set of meanings. It is a particular form of life through which believers respond to God’s grace in a particular manner, deepening their living of the Christian life in terms of both inward transformation and outward discipleship. Spirituality is not only a matter of experience, symbol and belief but also of practices, communal structures, institutions and spaces[5].  Perhaps it is high time to rediscover and reclaim the biblical mandate for equality which is keenly exhibited in Chapter 2 of the Epistle of James.

[1] Fitzmyer, Joseph. Scripture, the Soul of Theology (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994) p.54

[2] Gutierrez, Gustavo. The God of Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994) p.147

[3] Carr, Dhyanchand. God, Christ and God’s People in Asia (Shatin, HK: Clear-Cut Publishing & Printing, 1995) pp.1-2

[4] Miguez Bonino, Jose. Towards a Christian Political Ethics (Minneapolis: MN, Fortress Press, 1983) p.33

[5] Miller, Vincent. The Ipod, the Cellphone and the Church: Discipleship, Consumer Culture in a Globalized World.  Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel. Laarman, Peter ed.  (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006) p.180


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