What good is it, my brothers,
if someone says he has faith
but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?
In James chapter 1, the writer challenges us to have integrity. If we claim to follow Jesus, our beliefs must be rightly matched to our actions and our speech. The path of faith in Jesus is a narrow one, walked humbly beside the most vulnerable, sharing in their resistance to oppression. If we are to do this well, we must be well disciplined to watch our speech and actions. Those who resist are watched closely. We dare not sabotage our witness to the truth of God’s justice. However, James’ description of faith manifest does not stop with integrity alone. In the second chapter of James, the writer goes much further, saying that faith that remains nothing but mental ascent, not demonstrated in speech or action, is actually not faith at all. The example of the uselessness of such invisible faith is also given in our relationship to the poor.
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
This is the heart of radical religion. Jesus did not live and teach a new organized religion. Jesus demonstrated a new way to be human, the true way to be human, and this is the path that James is describing. To simply mentally ascend to a set of beliefs about Jesus, or to insist on endless discussions of theological minutia, and not demonstrate radical life change that seeks to restore the order of the world to justice and love is a perversion of all that Jesus represents. What a waste of time it is if we are seeking to tell the world all about Jesus only to invite them to warm a pew. The spirit of the slaughtered Saviour cries out for Christians to get off our butts, change out of our pretty clothes and get our hands dirty building communities of justice and love among the poor and oppressed. Some of us Christians need to be saved from church. We’re so easily certain that we’re the righteous chosen few that we often can’t be bothered to even learn our neighbour's names. How often do we find ourselves among the poor or marginalized? These are the very people with whom Jesus identifies.
James gives two examples of outsiders in this passage that give better examples of faith in action than any shiny toothed pastor that would dare preach that the evidence of right belief is a rich, comfortable, or undisturbed life. The first example is of Abraham (James 2:21-24), who was an outsider until explicitly called by God in Genesis 12, a call to which Abraham demonstrated his faith by his obedience. God had promised Abraham that he and his wife would have an heir (Genesis 15:1-6). God specified that the first son born to the two of them, Isaac, would be that heir. So, when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son on an altar (Genesis 22:1-19), Abraham’s belief in God’s promise was tested. If Abraham’s belief was nothing but mental ascent, it would not lead to action (Hebrews 11:17-19). James tells us that it is because Abraham took action that his belief was actually faith. And thus, James divides the two. A stated belief that remains an exercise of the mind is meaningless. It is not faith. It has nothing to do with Jesus. When what we believe becomes demonstrated in our action, then and only then does it become faith (James 2:22). Such action that flows from faith in Jesus will always be costly, for it will be spent on justice for the very needy.
The second and more dramatic example of an outsider demonstrating faith in action is the story of Rahab, the prostitute (James 2:25-26). Though she was not one of the religious faithful, ethnically descended from the family line of Abraham, or even morally righteous according to the religious law, James counts her story alone with Abraham, the father of faith, as his example of faith demonstrated. The example of Rahab is excellent also because it is a story of resistance (Joshua 2:1-21). Before Joshua’s army has their famous battle against the city of Jericho, two spies are sent into the city ahead of them. While there, they visit the home of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute. She tells them that she believes that their God is the true one, and asks them for protection. Her words may have been meaningless but for when they were put to the test. When two agents of the authorities come to Rahab’s house, she hides the Israelite spies, and then lies to the soldiers in order to protect them. James says that this action, resistance to authority that would likely have been judged treasonous, was a righteous act of faith.
Like Abraham and Rahab, our faith must result in action. Faith without activation by measurable works is no faith at all. Hebrews 11 lists both Abraham and Rahab with a host of other examples of people of faith, every single one being an example of some action they took. Every example of faith is measurable. If we have no evidence that we believe something is true, it is not faith, it’s just mental ascent, and it is utterly useless. Faith doesn’t just go further than some mental ascent to a correct set of doctrines. Faith is in a different realm entirely.
On The Myth Of Certainty And The Christian Witness
I used to think agnostics were cowardly. I've changed my mind. "I don't know" is actually a very brave thing to say, and from it I think my Christian and atheist friends both have something to learn. “Believers" and "unbelievers" can both exist on a spectrum. Not every atheist is an "anti-theist". Not every Christian needs to be "certain". I think we do ourselves a disservice to demand certainty in realms of faith, and misunderstand one another when we assume it of others.
I also think that this is part of what James was talking about when he said "faith without works is dead". If someone must insist that they are 100% absolutely certain that an all loving redeemer God exists and knows them, and then lives a life that oppresses and abuses others, then that mental ascent means literally nothing, no matter how hard they try to prove otherwise to themselves or others. However, someone who is attracted enough to the story of Jesus Christ just to try in faith to live as though it is true, evidenced by their life lived in sacrificial solidarity with the poor, the widows, the orphans, the outsiders, immigrants, the oppressed, resisting corruption even to their own harm, I think this looks more like true "faith" than the certainty of the fundamentalist.
Christian apologists seek to defend our faith with reason. However, no reasonable foundation can protect against, for one example, the disillusionment created by the unchristlike behaviour found in the church. Church abuse is a far stronger argument against the gospel than problems arising from reasonable arguments against our faith.
Rather than seeking to defend the certainty of beliefs that cannot ever be empirically proven to be true, we should seek to display the truth of our faith in our actions. We don’t need to be afraid to admit some degree of uncertainty while continuing to believe and act upon our faith. I think this is more honest and rich a faith perspective than viciously defending all our assumptions as though they are certainties, as we often encourage one another to do in the church. This defensive position is a practice that comes from The Enlightenment's narrow new definition of truth, not from a true value in our tradition. Our just and loving actions speak far more loudly than our reasoned defenses.
I am not 100% certain about the gospel sometimes. Nevertheless, I hope that God continues to move me more toward a true reflection of Christ, in love and justice and mercy. And I will continue to act like this is so. This is my faith, my radical true religion in action. I will continue to live in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, boldly speaking up for justice when they do with wisdom and humility, and seeking to live my life sacrificially to see communities of love and justice grow, like lush gardens of hope in direct resistance to the machine of empire. I believe this is what it means to follow Jesus.
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