The With-God Life: Faith without (Political) Works

I groaned a little when I saw James 2 show up on the daily lectionary yesterday and today. As a historian who teaches about the Reformation and a Protestant who still (mostly) celebrates its legacy, I’ve wrestled dozens of times with Martin Luther’s disdain for this “right strawy epistle,” which insists that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). Indeed, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” to the apostle James (v 17).

But it’s possible to get so hung up on those verses that we forget the larger context for them. We obsess about James’ answer and forget his original question: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” (v 14)

In short, we think so much about James’ theology of salvation that we don’t think about — or, more importantly, act on — his political theology, which I think centers on this challenge:

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?

James 2:15-16

Of course, donating cans of food or used clothes seems like the definition of an apolitical act, an anodyne gesture of goodwill that even a highly polarized people can agree on. But there are political implications here, for people who are loyal to a heavenly polis but participate in the life of an earthly one.

Most fundamentally, James is asking us to act in the affairs of an earthly kingdom according to the values of a heavenly kingdom, one that raises up the lowly and brings low the rich (1:9). His example of fulfilling our obligations to others — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked — evokes Jesus’ description of those who will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food… I was naked and you gave me clothing…” (Matt 25:34-36).

So we should and can come together to give food and clothing. But a week before Election Day, I want to be careful not to read James as advocating a certain kind of Christian piety — kind, charitable, private — that is detached from pietas as the people of the Roman world would have understood it — a virtue lived out by fulfilling our public obligations to fellow citizens. Not just saying pious phrases, but living piously toward each other.

That this is a matter of politics might be easier to understand if we rephrase the question in James 2 using other examples from Matthew 25. If a brother or sister is a stranger and yet you do not welcome them, what is the good of that? If a brother or sister is sick and you do not heal them, what is the good of that? If a brother or sister is imprisoned and you let them languish in jail, what is the good of that? Each of these questions directly challenges Christians to go beyond spoken pieties and even charitable gestures to take up political work. Seeking the good of others in immigration, health care, and incarceration requires not only private action, but public policies — which are enacted in our system by elected politicians.

Creative Commons (Alpha Stock Images)

Of course, if James is right that “pure and undefiled” religion is both “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” and “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27), it may seem impossible truly to live out the values of God’s kingdom via the ever-compromised means of electoral politics.

But most of what James urges seems impossible to me. This is an apostle who, in the same breath, both holds accountable for “the whole law” anyone who “fails in one point” (v 10) and holds up a prostitute as an exemplar of faith made active in works (v 25).

(Where Paul would more explicitly tell us to depend on God’s grace, James seems to leave it as an unstated implication of impossible expectations. I think of Eleanor Roosevelt’s oft-quoted prayer: “Keep us at tasks too hard for us that we may be driven to Thee for strength.”)

So I don’t think there’s any way around it: James would tell us that what we call Christian faith, if it has no political works, is dead.

This doesn’t mean that everything political (by this broad definition) is partisan, but in our context, some of it is. And political behavior involves more than just voting, but it doesn’t require less than that. The political spectrum provides myriad ways of meeting the needs of the hungry, the poor, the alien, the sick, and the imprisoned. But in a democracy, they all start with voters choosing the candidates best suited to enact policies that serve those ends.

May God give each of you wisdom, prudence, and courage as you consider your choices and cast your ballot.

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