Summary: God calls us to be the kind of people who both act and speak out of love.
Our missionaries Bev and Jesse Rich were here two weeks ago, on furlough from Uganda. They spoke briefly during the service, and after the service they showed a video of their ministry and answered our questions. It was all fascinating, God is doing some amazing things there, but one of the things that really struck me was a question that the leader of our visiting VIM group asked. Actually it wasn't so much the question as the answer. Sarah asked what the most difficult part of their adjustment to Uganda had been. And Jesse answered, "they don't think telling the truth is a virtue."
That astonishes us here in the west, doesn't it. It's not that westerners don't lie, far from it. Just take a look at the statistics for cheating in school and on income taxes. It's just that most of us feel guilty when we do, or know it's wrong at some level. But in Uganda, the better you are at deception, the more you can pull the wool over someone's eyes to take advantage of them, to get the better in a deal, the more respected you are. It's a plus to be a good liar. And even their pastors have a hard time learning this.
I think that's one of the reasons our diplomats and politicians seem so surprised when a country like North Korea violates a treaty. They are really proud of themselves for having hoodwinked the most powerful country in the world, and many other cultures around the globe will also admire them for it. And we expect them to be embarrassed or ashamed at being caught? Far from it! We are, I think, a little naive at times.
And yet our politicians are among the best in the world at saying one thing and meaning another. But they have to do some pretty fancy footwork since most of us still do think that telling the truth is, by and large, a good thing. That's one of the reasons The Emperor's New Clothes is so popular: we like to see self-deception exposed, especially when the culprit is a blowhard at the top. But I often wonder what happened to the kid who blew the whistle on the naked emperor. Did they turn and trample him underfoot? That's what people do, you know, when they have a lot invested in their public mask. I think that's why people got so upset when President Bush publicly disavowed the Kyoto accords. Everybody knew that we weren't going to follow them, Clinton hadn't even submitted it to congress for ratification. But something in us wanted to believe that saying the right words made us as virtuous as doing the right thing. But people can't be deceived for long unless they want to be. As Lincoln said, "You can fool some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time." Honesty can be dangerous, though. How much do we really want people to know about what's going on under our Sunday go-to-meeting exteriors?
And yet that is what James is calling for in his letter.
Mind you, James is not calling for us to abandon all restraint and let our worst selves loose into the world. That's the response to hypocrisy that attracted so many during the 60's - I know, I was there! People gave up courtesies and compliments in favor of "letting it all hang out." What James is calling for is to have our innards changed so that what flows from our hearts does in fact reflect well upon the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Remember last week we started looking at the book of James, one filled with the potential for total meltdown given the political and social pressures in the city and in the church. As Tom Lehrer, one of my favorite satirists, put it:
Oh the poor folk hate the rich folk,
And the rich folk hate the poor folk,
All of my folk hate all of your folk - and so on.
Last week we heard James trying to get his congregation to get a different perspective on life. He wants the rich not to take pride in their possessions and status, thinking that prosperity is a sign of God's favor. At the same time he wants the poor not to envy the rich, but to see their difficult lot in life as an opportunity to let God turn them into better people.
This week James is getting specific.
First, he wants the rich to start really caring about the poor among them, to actually do something concrete about the misery and injustice that characterized daily life in Roman-occupied Palestine. At the same time, James calls the poor to give up the temptation to righteous anger that - at least in some cases - was drawing the Jewish underclass into outright rebellion. One radical sect of the popular movement called the Zealots were known as the Sicarii, for the swords they carried and used not only against the Roman occupiers but against the rich whom they saw as collaborators. Both groups had to change - and the only way to do it was through seeking - and acting on - the Word that God had given to them.