James, ‘the Rich,’ and the Complexity Argument

(A meditation at on James 4.13-5.20 presented at Wine Before Beer on August 26, 2014.)

You just don’t understand.

You make these stark pronouncements as if the issues are simple, but they are not. This is a very complex situation.

And your self-righteous moral pronouncements look like they are taking the higher ground but they are rooted in an arrogant ignorance.

You don’t understand the situation, with its complex history.

You don’t understand that if you start boycotting certain companies and products all kinds of people will get hurt.

You don’t understand that this whole system is the only bulwark we have against utter chaos, a reverting back to the anarchy of tribe versus tribe.

You may feel good standing there with some sense of moral superiority, but you achieve such a position only by ignoring the complexity of the issues and boiling it all down to your stark moral condemnations.

I can imagine someone in the first century, or someone today, responding this way to James and his condemnation of the rich in this evening’s passage and throughout his letter.

He just doesn’t get the complexity of the imperial economic order of Rome.

He takes a self-righteous moral stand against the structures and practices of global capitalism, railing against sweat shops, the tar sands, the rising disparity of income between the rich and the poor, the disproportionate consumption of finite resources by the wealthiest nations, the tax havens of the rich, the machinations of the stock market, government bail outs and million dollar bonuses, but, in all of his simplistic condemnations, he doesn’t understand how complex this whole system really is. He doesn’t understand that the alternative is much, much worse.

The complexity argument sounds so reasonable.

My wife, Sylvia, just got it in spades last week during a visit to Fort MacMurray and the oil sands.

She got it from the bishop and the folks in the Anglican church there. And she got it from the well-paid, incredibly smooth and competent public relations staff at Syncrude.

No point getting all high and mighty about the tar sands when you don’t understand both the complexity of the issues and the clear benefits of this economic system, together with the technologies of extraction and remediation, for all involved.

But here’s the thing.

That complexity argument with which I began was not modeled on the defense of global capitalism or oil extraction in Northern Alberta.

No, that argument of complexity versus moral condemnation was a rehearsing of the South African responses to the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1970’s and 80’s.

“Complexity” was used as a defense of Apartheid against outside critics.

The proponents and guardians of the Apartheid system in South Africa would dismiss international criticism of their socio-economic and political system by saying that the rest of the world just didn’t understand the complexity of the situation.

Complexity is a tool used over and over again to defend against moral condemnation.

James isn’t too interested in complexity when it comes to the rich.
James isn’t too concerned about sounding simplistic in his moral pronouncements.
James isn’t too keen on offering a balanced and more nuanced perspective on the socio-economic realities of his day.

“Come you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.”

But what else would you expect from a guy who had earlier said things like:

“Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in a field.” (1.9-10)

“Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into the court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that has was invoked over you?” (2.6-7)

James isn’t pulling his punches when it comes to naming the practices of the rich.

But his condemnation, while stark, is not simplistic. He does, in fact, understand the complexity of the issues.

In these few short verses James lists four reasons why judgment is coming upon the rich.

First, “your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.”

Now it may seem that James is just piling up metaphor upon metaphor here in his anti-rich rhetoric. But in fact these metaphors of rot, moth-eaten and rust are rooted in a profound economic principle.
Things only rot when they are not consumed.
Clothes only get moth-eaten when they are not worn.
And while gold and silver do not in fact rust, they will tarnish only when they are not in circulation, not used.

You see, when in your greed you store up more of the food resources of the world then you could possibly eat.

That is, when you stock up your grocery shelves with food from around the world, food that could have fed people with very little food security, food that was grown in places for export to us, when the land could have more productively been used for local subsistence, then you end up with so much food that the dumpsters are full and the landfills have the stench of oppression. Food consumed by hungry people does not rot.

So also, clothes that are worn might get threadbare with time, but they will not be moth-eaten. The moths eat clothes that hang in the closet too long. Clothes in service, clothes that cover the naked and keep warm the cold, never are moth-eaten.

And the metaphors strike to the heart of our economic system when James talks about rusted silver and gold. Money in circulation does not tarnish. Money in circulation will wear down after a while, but it will not rust. Rusting silver and gold is a metaphor of economic resources that are not in service of real people with real economic needs of daily bread, of meaningful employment, of the common good.

Or let me put it this way. When money chases money to make more money – which is a succinct summary of what happens with some 98% of all economic transactions in the world every day – then that money is not just useless it is an affront to God, and always (always, without exception!) exploitive and oppressive.

Money is tarnished, or to use James’ metaphor, it rusts, when it is not in circulation serving a real economy of real goods and services for real people in real need. And such money will be evidence against those who hold it when it comes to judgment.

And here’s the thing, says James, long before the judgment day, such money will eat your flesh like fire. That very wealth will curse you, tear you apart, destroy your marriage, and leave you in daily anxiety about making more money. It will eat you up like fire.

That’s the first thing that James wants to say in defense of his prophetic critique of the rich.

The second is this:
“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”

Come now, you rich weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you, because your wealth is based upon oppression.

Here’s the curious thing. In the Bible whenever there is wealth beside poverty the assumption is always that such wealth is rooted in oppression. And economic oppression is always a matter of those with the economic power defrauding, exploiting and oppressing those who are economically marginal, weak and powerless. There are consequences if you complain about oppressive practices in the work place. There are consequences if you demand a fair wage. There are consequences if you blow the whistle on exploitation.

But notice that before James says that the cries of the harvesters will reach the ears of God, he says that the withheld wages themselves cry out! The withheld wages are not just money in the bank of the oppressor. These wages are not mute, mere objects of economic transaction. No, these wages are active agents in economic life. You see, in a biblical worldview, economic resources – whether we are talking about Appalachian mountain tops, clear cut forests, clothing produced in sweat shops, or the very wages that should have been paid but were not – all have a voice in God’s good creation. These so-called ‘resources’ are eloquent in both their praise when they are employed for justice and in their loud and persistent lament when they are employed for oppression.

And so the wages themselves cry out to God. They cry out to be paid. They cry out to be economic resources employed for real economic well-being.

And, of course, their voice is echoed in the cries of those who have been oppressed.

Why should the rich weep and wail at the misery that will come to them?

Because the Lord of hosts has heard the cries of the wages and the workers.

The third reason that the rich should weep and wail, the third damning piece of evidence that stands against them is the very opulence of their lives:

“You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure: you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”

My friends, if you are drawn to luxury, if you find yourselves seeking consumer therapy when you are feeling down, if somehow a life of economic and consumptive abundance is attractive to you, if you are more concerned about your own economic security and future then that of some of your most vulnerable neighbours, then watch out. James would tell us that such a lifestyle – perhaps especially when it gets sugar coated with a veneer of so-called Christian spirituality in things like the prosperity gospel – is a ticket to hell.

Finally, the fourth reason that James says that the rich should weep and wail for the misery that is coming upon them is because “you have condemned and murdered the righteous one who does not resist you.”

Talk about being stark.

An ideology and lifestyle of never-ceasing economic growth for its own sake, an economics of oppression and exploitation, an economics of affluence and luxury is always, says James, an economics of death.

Once you make an idol out of economic growth, once you bow the knee to Mammon, once you legitimate all economic activity by the bottom line, once you remove economic life from the common good, once you reduce life and all of creation to a narrow notion of economic resource, the end result will always be death.

Idols need sacrifices.

The idol of economic growth will require the sacrifice of this good creation, of countless species, of air, water and the very viability of life on this planet, and it will require human sacrifice as well. The bodies of those who work in our mines. The souls of those who will give their life day in and day out to keeping the system running. The children who will sew our clothes. And, let there be no mistake here, anyone who will dare to stand against this kind of economic idolatry.

James understands the complexity of the economics of affluence but will not be deterred by the complexity argument to turn a blind eye to oppression.

And he knows that an economics of oppression is rooted in a discourse of autonomy. That’s why he first criticizes those who talk in a certain way. When you talk as if your life is under your control and the point of your life is to go here and there making money, then that arrogant talk will always result in an arrogant economics.

And he knows that in the face of such an economic system there will be suffering and pain. That’s why he calls for patience in the community, for endurance and for a life of communal peaceability because grumbling and enmity in the community will strip them of the resources to stand against the empire.

And he knows that the system will require certain kinds of oaths of allegiance and swearing by the gods. That’s why he says, let your yes be yes and your no be no. Don’t play by the rules of the system.

And he knows that as we await the coming of the Lord, there will be people who are broken and sick. That’s why he calls them to pray for each other and to anoint the sick with oil.

And he knows that sin is never far away from any of us. He knows that we will fall into sin, maybe even the sin of an economics of affluence. That’s why he calls us to confession, prayer and mutual accountability.

In fact it is striking how often James mentions prayer at the end of this letter. Some six times he calls them to pray. It is almost as if he is saying that the discourse of autonomy needs to be replaced by the discourse of prayer.

How ought we to talk? Prayerfully, James says, prayerfully.

In the face of the rhetoric of empire, the propaganda of the dominant worldview, the chatter in high places, the rarefied lingo of the academy and spin of the public relations officers, James calls us to be a people who talk in different cadences, with an alternative imagination, a discourse of love and justice, the language of prayer.

So speak and so act, says James, as to fulfill the law of liberation.

May it be so dear sisters and brothers, may it be so.


Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

2 Responses to “James, ‘the Rich,’ and the Complexity Argument”

  1. John Deacon

    Thanks Brian!
    This is gripping stuff . It was Jesus who said ‘woe to you who are rich’ and years later his brother James takes the lead in explaining what the blazes Jesus was getting at.
    I have already read this article twice to bolster my own moral resolve against such complexities that are thrown at us daily as to why things can’t be changed! I must confess as well to be somewhat shaken, given what I have set aside…

  2. Brian Walsh

    Thanks for your comment, John. The ironic thing was that the very day that I was writing this piece I was also in a pastoral conversation where I was insisting that things were much more complex than certain moral systems and spiritualities allow. So when do we refuse stark moral positions in the name of complexity, and when is an argument for complexity just a tactic of moral diversion? That in itself is a complex matter! One of the things that I’ve always admired about you from when we first met in Regent Park more than a decade ago was the way that you hold to and live out of a serious moral and spiritual position in the midst of an industry and economy that is deeply compromised. Kind of like knowing every homeless person on a first name basis on your way to work in the insurance company.


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