Thursday, July 02, 2015

A note on life from the brother of Jesus (Part 5)

As noted recently on this page, from time to time over the next several weeks I intend to "dig into" the letter that James, the brother of Jesus, wrote to first century Christians. 

Thought to be among the earliest, extant Christian writings, the brief letter addresses the challenges facing Jewish believers located primarily in the area around Jerusalem.  Clearly, these early devotees of Jesus experienced suffering, systemic economic oppression and some forms of persecution--possibly because of their opinions about the identity of Jesus and certainly due to the social and status implications of those strongly held opinions and life perspectives. These ideas, drawing on the social context and economic constructs, may lead us to read this familiar material in quite a new way. 
James 1:19-21
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

It turns out that self-control doesn't come all that easy.  Have you noticed?

Mix in a measure or two be feeling disrespected, powerless or taken advantage of and you have  a recipe for civil unrest both personal and communal.

At times, oppressed persons who seek to resist and to improve their life prospects through organized, community action can turn their frustrations on their friends.  All too often those who suffer lose patience, seek to gain control where they have a chance to do so.  For the community James addresses the necessary message was clear:  don't get angry.  Listen.  Not so fast on the analysis and criticism.  Prove your solidarity by the manner of your communications with each other, as well as to those outside, even your oppressors.

The person who, in the face of suffering and mistreatment and dispute, can listen first and intentionally--resisting the natural temptation to get out ahead of an argument--that person will almost always deliver powerful, positive impact and needed perspective in any relationship. 

The default position of effective community leaders involves a fundamental commitment to listen first and foremost.  The commitment to really hear others changes everything.  If I am eager or "quick" to listen--that is, I come to every encounter already "there" in terms of my decision to hear another person out, I can more easily become a factor in promoting understanding and defusing counter-productive tension and conflict. 

Being "slow to speak," not feeling the need to be heard first or foremost, disarms enemies and softens critics who possibly make assumptions about you that are unfounded.  A determination to listen carefully while refraining from "having your say," is a powerful tool in repairing or building trust and genuine communication. 

This skill-set is essential in overcoming misunderstandings so that genuine community can be realized, and even organized to stand against the threats that come from the outside and from those in power. 

In the same way, a commitment to be just as "slow to anger" as we are quick to listen, changes everything about a confrontational context.  Let anger be the last resort, and make sure that its genesis emerges from injustice or some real harm to another and not just a defensive tact to guard your own self-interest in a dispute or relationship. Anger channeled in surprising non-violent resistance against harm and unjust structures and circumstances changes things over the long haul for the better. 

All of us have experienced the deep emotions of "righteous indignation."  The trouble is we often rush there before listening, which leads us to anger prematurely and without clear understanding.  My claim to be "angry about those things that anger God," seems foolhardy in calm retrospect!  Most importantly, all the anger that I can muster does not lead to an experience of God's righteousness or justice.  God brings those things to pass in cooperation with a faithful, organized community, not because of my unchecked rage.  God is God and I am not!  Understanding my anger as an extension of God's values and God's anger is not a sustainable notion intellectually, spiritually or emotionally.  In fact such assumptions are downright dangerous.

I need to lay my anger down as I pick up the pain of my community and work for change.

At the same time, the witness of the oppressed and marginalized must not be compromised by lives that are "sordid."  The word here literally means "filthy" or impure.  When used of clothing, it often means "shabby."  Clearly, a moral stain on a life compromises one's ability to command an audience or move an argument in the right direction. 

Furthermore, community builders who seek respect from those they lead must set aside all wickedness, a word that carries with it connotations of hateful feelings, trouble and worry or anxiety.

Instead of such responses to oppression or the stress of unfair poverty, James urges us to practice meekness or humility and teach-ability as we welcome the truth of God and our better selves.  As we invite a higher power to join us in our struggles, we will find the salvation of our very lives.   The victory that we seek over the forces that oppress will be empowered by this word from beyond our lives that promises to give us the very life we seek.

Much to ponder as community workers.

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