From his vantage point at the dawn of the second century, the author of James casts an eye across the churchscape of his time, taking its measure. He is unsettled. And with good reason.
He sees the exiled, pilgrim faithful in disarray. The clamor he observes has a frenzied edge — acquisitiveness, wayward loyalties, strife, hedonism. The mention even of murder and adultery to describe conduct in the community is rare prophetic language intended to signal how serious is the peril.
However grave that field of strife may appear, this graceless state is only a symptom. Beneath the surface lies an even more desperate struggle: friendship with the world versus friendship with God. Or, to put it another way, alignment with godless purposes versus alignment with the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.
That drama has never ebbed. The wars within the church are with us still, though their evidence takes new forms. Beyond hedonism and acquisitiveness are far subtler, even “righteous,” reasons to pursue rivalry: to seek control, to win. These besetting wars that deface the life and witness of the faithful arise from the very ground we occupy: It is overlapped ground. Beneath us lies an ancient stratum, the residue of a discredited life: the drives of ambition, pride and power, partisan pursuits that dismember and demean. The lure of those purposes is strong, and its servitude cruel.
But the overlay, the ground Christians have been commanded in love to walk, is a stratum of promise, of life-giving freedom, of noblest friendship. Its purposes are liberty, sweet hope and peace.
The author’s remedy to us who tread this ground together (4:7-10), who are subject to its danger of divided minds, is perfectly attuned to a season of inventory and new beginnings: To reckon first with our weakness for that old ground. To lament its hold of prejudice and false comfort. To rouse the moral imagination. To disown godless living. To weep for what still awaits renewal in heaven’s purposes.
This demanding exercise is apt for those accustomed to success and roles of leadership. A friend of mine once insisted that while we readily rush to the side of those who are bereaved, felled by calamity or even by their own foolishness, we should do no less for those who have “succeeded” beyond their wildest dreams. We are never in greater peril, said he, than when we come to think of ourselves as endowed beyond the measure of others.
More broadly, it is a worthy exercise for all who live lives of privilege but have yet to fully acknowledge the underlying systems of class and race that have brought favor to some and misery to many others. This dynamic belongs wholly to the old ground that tugs on the present, even on those who are “bound for the promised land.”
It is also among us who exercise roles of leadership in the community that the drive for pre-eminence and control can most easily assert itself, often cloaked in innocent garb. The toxic force field emitted by this old-ground impulse cannot be overstated.
Walter Hollenweger, Swiss scholar and pastor, once confessed to his students that he had fastened upon the lodestar of a homeless Christ (Matt. 8:20) as his own check on ambition, pride and entitlement. It would confer that rarest freedom — the freedom to “lose” in faith.
Would that such an icon be the seal of every summons to leadership. Keeping faith with that image would be the sturdy, answering love of a community that whispers its humble witness to the world and peace to the pilgrim camp.
For those embarked upon this sojourn, there is a seldom-heard benediction, phrases from St. Paul’s hand, in 2 Thess. 3:3-5: “The Lord is faithful, will strengthen and guard you . . . will direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” Amen.
Now writing and leading retreats, Jonathan Larson of Atlanta has wandered the globe as storyteller, service worker, teacher and pastor. He blogs on the spirituality of travel at jonathanlarsonblog.com.