Every neighbor

A woman dressed in thigh-high patent leather boots, little shorts, and a top the size of a postage stamp, walks into a ritzy boutique on Rodeo Drive. Her name is Vivian, she is a prostitute, and she’s shopping for a nice evening dress.

Two women, sales associates presumably, stare at her with surprise and disdain, and they make no effort to hide their feelings. Their eyes and their entire posture make it abundantly clear that this woman does not belong in this store.

Vivian is played by Julia Roberts in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, and when she tells Edward, played by Richard Gere, the man who is paying for her services and expenses, about her experience in the glamorous world of high-end shopping, he tells her, “Stores are never nice to people, they’re nice to credit cards.”

James describes a similar scene in a Christian assembly. Two persons enter. One a rich, gold-ringed man in splendid garments, the other, a poor man dressed in filthy rags. If people of faith receive them differently, the former being given a seat of honor and the latter told to stand over there or to sit on the floor, they commit acts of discrimination that in James’s judgment are an insult against God.

In the Greco-Roman world of early Christianity, significant divisions existed not only between rich and poor, but between various social strata. There was little that was more clearly assumed and enacted than the differences between various groups of people. Within the household, proper division of responsibilities and honor were to be maintained between men and women, householder and servants, parents and children. Outside the household, the state could only function well if each member of society remained in the sphere of activity for which he or she was intended. This fundamental division between groups of people resulted in unequal distribution of deference and honor, not to mention resources and rights.

The scene James describes not only would not offend ancient sensibilities, it would be the obvious and expected pattern of social interaction. Yet he uses it as an example of conduct that is incompatible with Christian faith.[1]

Members of the Christian community pledge allegiance to a Lord who overturned common assumptions of greatness and lifted up the poor to their full dignity as God’s chosen and heirs of God’s kingdom. Not honoring them according to their status before God is an insult against them and against God, says James, challenging us to examine how we treat persons of less social power, such as refugees or folks in rural areas or whoever it may be that we think of, consciously or without even noticing, as below us. And how is it that, in generation after generation, from ancient times to this day, the prejudices of the world rather than the preferences of God come to be manifested in a community of God’s people?[2]

For James, faith cannot be reduced to a series of statements that people profess to believe, like God’s creation of the world or the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Faith is what is operative in a person’s life. We act on the basis of what we believe to be true, and we must believe in something if we are to act at all. The question is whether the faith that actually shapes our lives is faith in Jesus Christ or something else.

James calls us back to a central teaching of Jesus and says, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” As followers of Jesus we can be presumed to believe in the centrality of that commandment, right? Why then, James challenges us between the lines, would you be so solicitious toward those above you on the social scale and indifferent toward those below you?[3] What is the faith that actually shapes your lives?

Let me tell you a story that continues to draw me in and push me away, but it just won’t let me go. Will Campbell was born and raised during the Great Depression in rural and very poor Amite county, Mississippi. One year after his birth, the Ku Klux Klan visited the East Fork Baptist Church, providing not only a cash donation for the congregation’s work, but also a leather-bound Bible for the pulpit. Engraved into the Bible’s leather cover were the letters KKK. At age seventeen, the East Fork Church made Will a full-fledged preacher, entitled to buy Coca-Colas at clergy discount.

After serving in WWII, Brother Will studied at Tulane, Wake Forest, and Yale, and one of his main study interests was racial justice. He was called to serve a congregation in Louisiana, but it wasn’t a long pastorate. He then became Director of Religious Life at Ole Miss, but left after two years when he began to receive death threats for his controversial views on race. He took a position with the National Council of Churches, working closely with civil rights leaders across the south. In 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas, he was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Central High School through a hostile crowd; and he was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He got used to getting hate mail from the white right.

In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Campbell understood that African Americans were often American society’s “least of these.” Thus, he cast his lot with them. As the decade of the ‘60s unfolded and African Americans  attained civil rights, however, Campbell came to believe that American society was substituting “Rednecks” as the new “lepers.” True to form, he humbly cast his lot with them. He came to admit that he had become little more than a “doctrinaire social activist,” which was very different from being a follower of Jesus.

I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides. And I had taken sides. Many of us who were interested in racial justice had taken sides and there were good reasons in history for doing what we did. … We did not understand that those we so vulgarly called ‘rednecks’ were a part of the tragedy. They had been victimized one step beyond the black.[4]

Campbell came to see how he had subverted the indiscriminate love of God for all people without conditions, limits, or exceptions into a ministry of “liberal sophistication.” And now he wanted to give embodied expression to the radical nature of the gospel, that is the full embrace of all people in Christ’s mercy, with these ostracized sisters and brothers. And so he started sipping whiskey with the Ku Klux Klan. He did their funerals and weddings, and even befriended the Grand Dragon of North Carolina, J.R. “Bob” Jones.

“We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,” he had told his friend P. D. who had challenged him to tell him, in ten words or less, what the Christian message was. “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”[5] And since God’s love for us is indiscriminate, Campbell concluded, he would have to try to let his love for his neighbor be indiscriminate as well. And he started getting hate mail from the left. As a witness to the reconciling love of God, he found himself walking back and forth between the lines, seeking to really fulfill the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” every neighbor, and not just the few people you’d love to have as neighbors.

In 2004, Parker Palmer started writing the book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. He was in despair about what was happening in the country, about our inability to talk to each other, about democracy going down the drain as big money was becoming more powerful. In the book he proposes that what we call the “politics of rage” is, in fact, the “politics of the brokenhearted” and that there’s heartbreak across the political spectrum. He believes that “violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

Whenever people want to argue with him about issues, he tries to say something like “Will you tell me your story? I want to listen. I know I can learn from your experience.” The more he listened to people’s stories and managed to get beyond knee-jerk reactions and ideology, the more he found that suffering is one thing we all have in common. “Animosities are unraveling the fabric of our civic society, degrading democracy’s infrastructure,” he said in an interview. But “the more we learn about other people’s stories, the less possible it is for us to dislike them, distrust them, or dismiss them. Anything we can do to help people form relational ‘habits of the heart’ … will help.”[6]

Palmer calls the space between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible “the tragic gap.” We see greed all around us, but we have also seen generosity. We see division and fragmentation, but we also know of people coming together in community. As we stand in the gap between reality and possibility, the temptation is to jump onto one side or the other.

If you jump onto the side of too much hard reality, you can get stuck in corrosive cynicism. … If you jump onto the side of too much possibility, you can get caught up in irrelevant idealism. You float around in a dream state saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if ... ?’” These two extremes sound very different, but they have the same impact on us: both take us out of the gap — and the gap is where all the action is.

The gap is where Martin Luther King Jr. stood his entire life, where Rosa Parks and Dorothy Day and Brother Will stood. Palmer calls the gap “tragic” because he doesn’t see it ever closing. He says,

No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.[7]

Yes, we do need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul. But the gap is not tragic; it is already bridged by hope. Trusting in the faithfulness of God we can stand in the gap and love as indiscriminately as we can, looking forward to the day when love reigns supremely in all things.

[1] Jeannine K. Brown, “James 2:1-13,” Interpretation 62, no. 2 (April 2008), 173-174.

[2] See Frances Taylor Gench http://jointhefeast.blogspot.com/2009/08/september-6-2009-james-21-13-frances.html

[3] Craig Koester http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=384

[4] Brother to a Dragonfly, 225-226.

[5] Ibid., 220.

[6] https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/443/if-only-we-would-listen

[7] Ibid.

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