Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (James 5:1-6) transports me to the fifth and last night (chapter) of an early church hell-fire and brimstone camp meeting where Preacher James swings a heavy hammer of judgment at the corrupt fats cats of conspicuous consumption. The evangelist spent the first few nights (chapters) riffing on the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus, emphasizing good works and God’s preferential treatment for the poor, how the least of these were to occupy the padded pews of privilege once reserved for the prosperous. By the end of the message series, though, it was a blistering tirade of old school populism at its best – with the voice of the working poor essentially telling the fraudulent fools of affluence to go to hell, where fire burns flesh, where rust consumes gold and moths eat away at treasures. I doubt James would have been very successful in a capital campaign or other fund-raising project that sought the good graces of rich folks to name a wing of a new Sunday School building. No, the preacher pulls out all the stops and paints a picture of a pack of howling wolves, with the Lord utilizing a parental “cry it out” strategy, ignoring the infantile weeping and wailing of the wealthy, choosing instead to give ear to the longings of day laborers, the mowers and migrant farmers who cry out for social justice and a fair wage.
We’re long past the day in our culture when the working class would give a hearty Amen to Preacher James, affirming that his hammer hit the nail on the head. Somewhere along the way, from the 1930s when the social gospel revivalists were scorching the earth with these kinds of populist sermons to now, the working poor shifted gears and started adopting the values of the very folks who kept a boot on their necks. The rich folks somehow succeeded in transforming the working class into the aspirant class, a class of poor folks who adopt the values of the rich because they aspire to be rich someday. Never mind that the stats show that well under 1% of the working poor throughout the 20th century actually saw their rags turn to riches. What does that matter now, when all you have to do is go down to the corner convenience store and lay down a lottery dollar or two for your shot at the Powerball Jackpot, with a guaranteed winner. Never mind the odds. And so the working poor irrationally rage at the ideologies designed to further their own interests. It doesn’t hurt to have a ready bogeyman to make Preacher James’ sermon taboo – the Amen! corner has been replaced by a He’s a Socialist! corner. The rich can now count on the poor to do the weeping and wailing and howling for them over the prospects of higher taxes. It can get a little weird– in a recent post that I saw, the idea that Paul’s notion of contentment could ameliorate some our our culture’s tax-phobic rage was ridiculed by a working class preacher for being the kind of false teaching Warren Jeffs could have used to lure 12-year-old girls to have sex with him. When you equate the idea that billionaires should be able to get along pretty well under a higher marginal tax rate with child molestation and rape, you’ve got some way serious wailing on your hands.
I’ve never been much on hellfire and brimstone preaching. James’ language, which comes in the context of economic values I resonate with, comes across as overly harsh. But in a day and age when spiritual forces of economic idolatry are ruling more and more hearts, I’m beginning to understand and resonate with his message. What if the burning fire and the moths and worms and rust and the weeping and wailing and howls are meant for the destructive spirits of indulgent discontent that not only find lodging with the lavish and luxuriant, but are now possessing the poor as well? What if James is not so much hammering away at the rich people themselves, but is telling the principalities and powers that possess the hearts of rich and poor alike to go to hell? The covetous spirit of avarice being hammered on a hellish anvil. It’s an imagery that works for me, and it gives rise to the possibility that core values can change – the fire can burn away the dross of damnable desire and leave the kind of compassion James was hoping to forge in the community of faith. Hell yeah!
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.