The Epistle of James strikes us as a letter of perennial wisdom. James encourages his readers to rejoice in trials, speak with restraint, keep the royal law of love, and prove their faith by good works. He reminds us God exalts the humble, and warns against unchecked desire and judgmentalism. He says the rich will lose their riches, and assures us that God answers the prayers of the righteous. All very pious. All, it seems, very anodyne.
My friend Rev. Jeff Meyers has long insisted that this is a misreading of the letter. It removes James from its first-century setting, and turns it into devout advice for suburban Christians. Once we put it back into its first-century context, the letter turns from black-and-white to color.
As soon as the Spirit fell on the disciples at Pentecost, they began to arouse hostility. Peter and John were dragged before the Sanhedrin and warned to stop talking about Jesus (Acts 3). Stephen’s Christ-like ministry provoked opposition like the opposition to Jesus—false witnesses at an unjust trial that ended in judicial murder (Acts 6–7). After Stephen’s death, Christians fled Jerusalem, with Saul, the future apostle Paul, in pursuit (Acts 8). As Jesus promised, the Spirit made the disciples as hated as their Master.
I think James wrote his letter very soon after these events, to followers of Jesus who were dispersed from Jerusalem (James 1:1). Even if the letter wasn’t written that early, it’s for believers under threat of physical violence. Placed in that setting, James’s apparently random bits of advice form a coherent pattern.
What “trials” or “tests” does James have in mind at the beginning of his letter (James 1:2–8)? His counsel to rejoice in suffering applies to all sorts of mild trials, but he’s addressing people who have lost nearly everything. Why does he place such emphasis on care for orphans and widows (1:27)? Because persecution has left many orphans and widows in its wake.
James warns against favoritism to the rich (2:1–5), but his exhortation takes a strange turn: “Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?” (1:6–7). Later, he says that the rich “put to death the righteous one” who did not resist (5:6). These aren’t tech entrepreneurs. They’re wealthy and well-connected zealots who, like Saul, literally drag Christians to court and blaspheme the fair name of Jesus, in order to purge the contagion from Israel or from Rome.
James traces quarrels and conflicts within the church to the desire for pleasure. What are the battles about? The color of the carpet in the narthex, or the length of the minister’s stole? James is talking about conflicts that lead to “murder” (4:1). His readers aren’t worried about metaphorical murder; they’re too busy eluding actual killers. When persecution intensifies, passions in the church heat up, and set disciples against one another.
There are hints throughout the letter that some in the church have had enough and are ready to fight back. They want to return rhetorical tit for tat, and are toying with a form of Christian zealotry to combat their enemies’ zealotry. “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (1:19) is a warning about vengeful talk. “The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (1:20) is a warning against vengeance as such. He has to remind his readers that “Judgment is merciless to those who fail to show mercy” (2:13) because some are ready to abandon mercy for a harder-edged mode of discipleship. The tongue is a spark that can start a forest fire, so, James implies, cool the rhetoric (3:6). A soft answer turns away wrath. James denounces a counterfeit “demonic” wisdom driven by bitterness, jealousy, and ambition (3:13–14). This violent wisdom from below produces “disorder and every evil thing” (3:16), but the wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, and gentle (3:17–18). James’s emphasis on peace and gentleness suggests he’s writing to ungentle and militant believers.
As I listened again to Jeff teach on James last week, I was struck by its relevance to our political moment. Christians today feel mounting cultural pressure. Some are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. They’re ready to counter-punch and fight fire with fire. It’s a tempting strategy, and there are prophetic precedents for scathing rhetoric. But the epistle of James speaks across the centuries, urging us to overcome evil with good and respond to attackers with joy, gentleness, and mercy. “Count it all joy when you encounter various trials.” “The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” “The seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.