Friday, April 28, 2006

Elsa Tamez on James

In her book The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead, Elsa Tamez, Professor of Biblical Studies at the Universidad Biblica Latinoamericana (Latin American Biblical University) in San Jose, Costa Rica, notes that while the Epistle of James shows solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and condemns their rich oppressors, James has often been read and interpreted by the rich and the powerful. This is because, since at least the time of Constantine (and there are indications that this trend was beginning even in the time of James) something about Christianity has appealed to the rich.

Today many of our churches, particularly in America, are fully of the affluent and well-to-do. The church I grew up in, in fact, was what I call a "status-symbol" church; that is, membership there confirms social status on the members.

I know of a Methodist pastor who, upon being appointed to a particular church, was give by that church a free membership to the local country club, because his "ministerial responsibilities" would often bring him there. The stories he told me about his "work" there came back to me as I watched the ill-fated show The Book of Daniel, in which the main character, an Episcopal priest named Daniel, would often do "church business" while golfing with an obscenely rich and powerful member of his congregation.

So prevalent in some churches is this "country club" mentality that a good friend of mine, an ordained Elder in the United Methodist church currently serving as the associate pastor of Louisville's largest and wealthiest Methodist congregation, often derisively calls himself "the God pro." He says that his job, as his congregation sees it, is to act like the pro at a country club, giving unchallenging lessons to the rich and their children, providing them with just enough of a distraction that they feel better about their lives.

This is not, of course, to say that all or even most Christians are either rich or powerful. It is to say, however, that far too often the voice which comes from the church, the dominant interpretive voice, is more informed by the concerns of the rich and the powerful than by the concerns of the poor, oppressed and marginalyzed. And when it is the voice of the rich and the powerful which is interpreting a challenging book like James, too often the message of James is either intercepted (as Tamez puts it) or sanitized (as I put it).

So Tamez, a Latin American "liberation" theologian, gives the poor back the book of James, ripping it from its comfortable American setting and placing it farther south, where the concerns are less about which meal we will eat today and more about whether or not there will be anything to eat.

Her book is divided neatly into five chapters, which I will briefly outline here. However, my purpose is to deal less with what Tamez actually says and how she says it, and more to wrestle with how her book made me think. I will particularly run with a very minor point which she makes concerning how a couple of verses in the fifth chapter of the Epistle speak to the role of the laity in the church. But first a brief summary, for those of you interested in Tamez's short but powerful book:

The first chapter is titled "The Intercepted Letter." In it she deals with how the radical message of James has been "intercepted" by the powerful and robbed of its provocative voice. She says, "If the letter of James were sent out to the Christian communities of certain countries that suffer from violence and exploitation, it would very possibly be intercepted by government security agencies." Why? Because it "vehemently denounce[s] the exploitation by landowners (5:1-6) and the carefree life of merchants (4:13-17)," and it "affirms that 'pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world' (1:27)."

Since for James orphans and widows represent all those who are vulnerable to exploitation, and particularly economic exploitation (they have no means by which to make money, and no powerful protectors, and so are at the mercy of charity in an uncharitable world), Tamez sees James as the answer to Christianity's Marxist critics. But in answering Marxist critics by meeting Marxist concerns with a moral challenge, James is far too radical for the church of the first-world capitalist countries. And so they have in their own way, like the hypothetical "government security agencies," "intercepted" the message of James. They have done this by interpreting "rich" and "poor" in "spiritual" terms, rather than in concrete economic terms. In her first chapter Tamez argues why this is a very real loss, and a misreading of the concerns of James.

Chapter 2, "The Angle of Oppression," begins a series of three chapters which take an interpretive angle on the text itself. As the title suggests, the second chapter views the text of James through the eyes of those who have been oppressed, giving voice back to the voiceless poor. It seeks to counter the "spiritualized" interpretation of James rendered by wealthy Christians who miss James' radical message of God's favorable disposition toward the poor. It also deals (a little unsatisfactorily) with the very real concern of what to make, in light of James' condemnation of the rich, of wealthy Christians. She does so by noting that most of the rich people condemned by James clearly do not belong to the church. But what of the ones that do?

Like all members of Christian communities, wealthy Christians ought not favor the wealthy and powerful. They ought not consider their wealth to be a virtue. They ought to work to meet the material needs of the poor and despondent. But they are not expressly condemn in the text, except for perhaps the oi legontes ("you who talk") in James 4:13-17. Of them Tamez notes, "Curiously enough, James does not call this group brothers [his term for those within the Christian community] nor does he call them rich [the oppressors]," but she still argues that "they are members of the Christian community" on account of the fact that "James reproaches them for not consulting the Lord about their plans and for not sharing what they earn with the poor."

Chapter 3, "The Angle of Hope," presents James' positive message for those who are being oppressed. I will not treat this chapter, except to say that it sets up her best argument, put forth in the next chapter, "The Angle of Praxis." Here she looks at how James views "patience."

She says that James calls the poor to a very militant kind of patience, by employing Greek military terms for patience, hypomone and makrothymia. Variations of the first term, which she says means "to persevere, to resist, to be constant, unbreakable, immovable," appear in three key places: 1:3-4, 1:12, and 5:11. Here in calling the poor to be patient James is calling them to have an inner strength, a very active patience which bears with the situation and refuses to be beaten down by it, while working to overcome it.

Variations of the second militant word for patience come in the last chapter, just after James' most brutal attack on the rich. Forms of the word makrothymia appear in 5:7, 8 and 10. Tamez says that this word, while not active like the first word, is not "passive in the traditional negative sense." Rather, it evokes an image of waiting for the right moment to begin activity. It is an anticipatory patience, which looks for the right time to strike.

In recapturing the Greek meaning of the words often translated as "patience," Tamez breaks the intercepted letter of James free from the interpretations offered by the rich and powerful, reminding us that while James does indeed call on the poor to endure with patience, that patience not only fails to justify exploitation, but actively works against it.

The final chapter, titled "An Open Letter to the Christian Communities," summarizes the message of James, and applies it to a contemporary setting. It is this chapter which was most helpful to me, and helped refine my thinking on the role and calling of the laity of the church. Here I will most intently engage Tamez's argument, and the depart from it. My departure should not be seen as a disagreement with Tamez as much as it is a taking from Tamez what applies to my situation, and then using it as a launching pad for my own thoughts.

That, however, will have to wait until next time.

Later tonight or sometime tomorrow I will deal with how Tamez helped me see how James 5:16 and 17 speak to the empowerment and calling of the laity in the church. This is of particular interest to me as I embrace my status as laity in a positive rather than negative sense. When I left professional ministry I first approached it as a loss. Now, however, rather than losing my (semi, I was not yet ordained, but still serving as a pastor and progressing toward ordination) clergy status, I see that I have actively taken up laity status. I'll explain what I mean by that the next time I get to a keyboard.


Squirrelly said...

That was an awesome commentary, Chris. Now I'll have to go and reread James tonight.

Also, a random note: isn't "Praxis" the name of the Klingon home world that blew up? Just sayin'.

Amy said...

I find it beautifully ironic that when I argue scripture with my middle-class fundamentalist friends, they criticize me more "over-textualizing," and ignoring the "plain meaning" of the Old Testament stories... However, when we get to passages like the Magnificat, or like James, it is I who say "Well, maybe the poor means the poor. Maybe 'good news' is something tangible rather than an abstract notion of a heavenly reward. Maybe James' talk of fair wages was actually talking about economic practices..." How the tables turn when we get to these "problem scriptures!" Where is their "plain meaning" now?

EnochEnglish said...

thank you for this article. it's good