James: The Comeback Kid
One can make a very strong case that, in the past, the Epistle of James was the most ignored book of the New Testament. Some trace its neglect back to Martin Luther’s famous indictment of the book as an, “epistle of straw.” Luther even went as far as to move it to the very back of the Bible in his German translation, due to the fact that he doubted its canonicity. Another reason the book has been ignored is that James teaches that faith without works is dead, which at first glance seems to contradict Paul’s doctrine of salvation by faith alone (the seeming controversy is easily solved when one recognizes that James is talking about Jewish faith and Christian works, while Paul is discussing Christian faith and Jewish works). However, it is precisely this emphasis on works that has led to James becoming one of the more popular Epistles in recent years. As a younger generation has emerged a passion for social justice has been reborn. This rebirth naturally carried with it the epistle that focuses on justice more than any other New Testament book.
James can be divided into three major themes: trials and persecution, wisdom and speech, and poverty and wealth. The issues of persecution and poverty speak to the heartbeat of the social justice movement, so those who are passionate about justice naturally gravitate to the book of James. Likewise, this may also show why some have neglected reading James in the past. James can be a very uncomfortable read if you haven’t shown adequate concern for the poor. Those who are not naturally inclined to seek justice would do well to spend time meditating on James. We all can fall into the trap of materialism and self-absorption, but reading James can help counter these tendencies.
There is a caution that must be expressed, however. The Gospel certainly has implications for social justice, but that is not all that the Gospel embodies. Unfortunately over the years many have fallen into the trap of watering the Gospel down so that it is only social justice, Liberation Theology being an extreme example of this. Propagated by theologians who minister to the poor and marginalized, this heresy is spread under the idea that God only loves poor people, and that only the poor will find salvation. Unfortunately this idea comes from an over emphasis on the book of James, instead of taking in the whole of biblical doctrine. As we rightly engage this epistle for its emphasis on justice, let us not divorce it from the rest of Scripture.
Social justice has become the core of political engagement for many younger Christians. If we are going to connect with young Christians we need to be in tune with justice, but more importantly, if we are going to connect with God we need to be in tune with justice. A deep appreciation for the Bible leads us to revere all the sacred texts, including the book of James. As American Christians our hearts have not always been turned towards justice as they should, but maybe as this epistle gets more airtime we will be able to correct our previous error.