What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works? James’ question in chapter 2 doesn’t so much pit faith and works against each other, as two opposing beliefs about the path to salvation, as he does argue for a symbiotic relationship.
Can faith alone save you? James doesn’t say it can’t, but he calls into question whether faith is present if it’s not made manifest in good works. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith,” James says.
It’s a trick question, though, because how do you show your faith apart from works? What other visible fruit can faith bear?
If you have faith in God, wouldn’t you do good works, so as to be a friend of God like Abraham? Abraham, so often looked to as a pillar of faith, is for James an example of good works, showing his faith by doing what God asks of him.
If you have faith in God, would you sit back and ignore the needs of those around you, telling the homeless and hungry to go keep warm and well fed, knowing full well they have no shelter or food?
Put another way, James implies there’s a difference between simple belief and embrace of those beliefs in one’s life. Even the demons believe, after all, but does that belief compel them to obey God? No. They are not friends of God, and their belief does not spur them toward such actions.
If faith without works is dead, it is through our works that our faith springs to life, growing and thriving in friendship with God.
When Rahab welcomes messengers, looks after them and sends them out safely by an alternate route, her works are her faith made flesh, the incarnation of the seed of belief, flowering into full-fledged faith in her life.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! James’ meditation in chapter 3 on the power and potential of the tongue — of our human words — has specific implications for us as Mennonites.
The tongue, James says, is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. The tongue can kill.
For those committed to nonviolence, it’s important to consider how we are capable of inflicting violence with our words. Fists are not the only part of the body that can injure. Tongues do immeasurable damage.
This is especially relevant in an era when so much communication happens by email and social media. It’s easy to pretend or forget our flaming tongues burn actual human beings. Our words are capable of bringing both blessing and curse.
This is not to blame the internet, though. We do violence with our words face-to-face, as well. The internet merely gives us more platforms to spread the brackish water of hurtful language. We can now burn people far away, whom we’ll never meet, as well as those we know and live nearby.
Though the tongue cannot be tamed, according to James, those who become teachers should expect to be judged strictly. In the priesthood of all believers, though, we can all hold one another to such standards, using our words to build up, to encourage, to enlighten, to bless and to challenge our community, rather than using them to tear others down, inflicting violence upon their souls.
Let’s be fig trees that yield delicious figs, grapevines heavily laden with fruit. Let’s be streams of fresh water flowing over one another’s lives, rather than expecting our salty language to somehow yield thirst-quenching words of blessing.
Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., teaches writing at William Peace University. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.