Poor people. These are the two words underlying much of the political arguments coming across the airwaves right now. There is great discussion about “Medicaid,” “Medicare,” “The Affordable Care Act [aka Obamacare or Romneycare],” “Welfare,” “Big Government” and “Social Security". But two words rarely heard in the 2012 political campaign: poor people.
These discussions point to the big moral argument in our current culture about US citizens should address:
- the widening gap of class-disparity and the attendant benefits enjoyed by the one-percent
- the problem of unemployment and underemployment
- the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, access to affordable health care
- the school-to-prison pipeline for many black men born under a certain income level
Given the presence of poverty in our nation, what should we, citizens of the nation, do?
One response in vogue among many circles right now: “We” should do nothing. In this philosophy, every individual rises and falls on her or his own merit. Those who are wealthy, who have money and titles, are particularly meritorious for they have not only risen by their merits but are able to employ the rest of us. Government that tends to the needs of the poor is, at best, wasted, and at worst hugely immoral. Much of this moral argument comes from objectivist philosophy made popular by Ayn Rand.
The epistle of James in the Revised Common Lectionary for this week offers a contrary response. In this ancient letter, which may have been penned by Jesus' brother, James famously argues we, as a Christian community of faithfulness to Jesus Christ, have an absolute collective obligation to act out our faith. “Faithfulness,” James writes, “if it does not have works, is dead in its essence” (my translation).
James' assertion that faithfulness requires action, an assertion found in James 2:17, and repeated even more bluntly in 2:26, has often been a point of argument between Protestants, described in theological shorthand as the difference between “salvation by works” and “salvation by faith.”
However, entering into this theological minefield misses James' primary point. In chapter 2 (and again in chapters 4 and 5), James' argument about faithfulness is really a discussion of the church's appropriate response to wealth disparity and injustice. James is talking about poor people.
Watch the Video: Faces of Poverty: A Single Father
And James is making himself quite clear: Christians, both individually and collectively, have a moral responsibility to the poor. We have a responsibility not to mistreat and dishonor the poor. And, we have a responsibility to make sure that the poor have their basic needs met, needs that include, at baseline, clothing and food. As far as James is concerned, the validity of a community's Christian identity (James 2:1) rests on its treatment of the poor.
What's the use, my sisters and brothers, if someone should claim to have faithfulness but should not have actions? Surely that faithfulness is not able to preserve him, is it? If a brother or a sister should be naked and lacking daily food, and someone from you all should say to them, “Go in peace, you all. Be warm and nourished,” but should not give them the things that are necessary for the body, what's the use? Thus also faithfulness, if it does not have actions, is dead in itself. (James 2: 14-17, my translation)
For James, no community can claim to be Christian unless that community honors and meets the basic human needs of the poorest of its poor. This is Christian morality.