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God's Little Acre, a farm in Surrey, BC, Canada, is helping to feed the hungry.
Even on a local scale, problems like poverty and hunger can overwhelm our imaginations. My own city, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is like countless others. Pockets of true poverty cluster in the old city and dot the countryside. Affluent developments surround the city, particularly on two sides, while hip new housing is popping up in the center of the city. (The city's small size reflects its founding in 1729. The county is home to 600,000 people.) An impressive urban revitalization campaign has transformed the city's image, making downtown an attractive place to eat, shop, and play.
Recently, however, a study by Franklin and Marshall College has shown that the city's resurgence has not helped its poorest residents. Just the opposite has occurred. Between 2000 and 2013, per capita income has grown by 20 percent in the city's very center while it has declined in every other section. What looks like progress from the outside contradicts the harsh reality thousands experience. It's a typical scenario, in which outcomes such as life expectancy and high school completion rates vary dramatically even in adjacent zip codes and school districts. Faced with such stubborn realities, many individuals feel at a loss concerning how to make a difference.
Sometimes things can be simple. Like dirt and food. In Surrey, British Columbia, part of the Vancouver metropolitan area, God's Little Acre Farm provides fresh produce for the hungry. Jas Singh started the farm in 2011 with just three acres to cultivate. With minimal resources - the farm rents over 70 acres but does not own land - and relying heavily on volunteer labor, this little farm has grown to provide literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce per year to food-short households. The farm does hire laborers, but hundreds of volunteers cultivate and harvest the land.
It can be that simple. The Epistle of James insists that hearing the word of God necessarily entails living it out: Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (1:22, NRSV). Some contemporary Christians excel in works of justice and mercy, while others seek moral purity. James recognizes no such distinction. As example of what it means to live according to the word, James settles upon ordinary acts of justice and mercy, complemented by moral uprightness: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (1:27). Doers of the word look out for the vulnerable and the needy, and they maintain their distinctiveness from the world.
This passage from James comes with a mixed legacy in Christian interpretation. Martin Luther and the other Protestant Reformers valued the law and honored its relevance for Christians. To this day Lutheran children memorize the Ten Commandments as part of their preparation for confirmation. But the Reformers also emphasized that people cannot earn their salvation by doing good works. What justifies believers before God, they argued, is grace operating through faith. Righteous deeds have no role in that process. Although Luther and others affirmed the law's value, their emphasis lay with the necessity of grace and faith instead. To this day, many Protestants regard the law as a bad thing.
James poses a problem for the grace-not-works position. James includes many passages that sound very much like sayings from Jesus, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The exhortation to be doers of the word and not mere hearers (1:22) sounds very much like Matthew 7:21-29. There Jesus warns that "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven" (7:21). He also speaks of the one who "hears these words of mine and acts on them" (7:24), calling foolish the one who hears and does not act (7:26). James says that people who hear but fail to do what they hear deceive themselves (1:22). James' take on the law sounds very much like Jesus.
Not long after our passage James doubles down on the point. The letter even mocks the hypothetical person who clings to faith apart from works. "Can faith save you?" (2:14). If someone lacks food - there's that key example - and a believer offers that person a mere verbal blessing, what good does that do (2:15-16)? "Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (2:17).
For these reasons Martin Luther questioned the value of James. It's okay to read James in church, Luther maintained, but the letter flatly contradicts Paul's emphasis on grace, James did not really write it, and therefore it holds secondary status. John Calvin dissented from Luther's critique. Today most biblical scholars would disagree with Luther's interpretation of both Paul's letters and James. Nevertheless, Luther's argument continues to wield strong influence. Many Christians regard the law as a threat: an impossible standard according to which God must necessarily condemn human beings.
Marginalizing James' message is a mistake. The author of James was a Jew who followed Jesus. Like other Jews, this writer regards the law not as a threat but as a source of joy and blessing. James calls it the "law of liberty," promising blessing to those who do the law. This law-affirming spirituality is reflected in the Psalms. Psalm 1:2 describes those who delight in the law and meditate upon it day and night. Psalm 19:7 praises the law for reviving the soul. Psalm 119, the Bible's longest chapter, is entirely devoted to celebrating the law, which propounds "wondrous things" (119:18) and is better than gold and silver (119:72). God's words are sweeter than honey (119:103).
James celebrates doing the law, leading with key examples that are doable. Look out for a widow or an orphan. Feed a hungry person. The early followers of Jesus were in no social position to eliminate poverty or overturn the economic system of the Roman Empire. Like Jas Singh, however, they could feed hungry people. Ending hunger is overwhelming. Growing produce for hungry people is not.
Bible Study Questions
1. When you consider our world situation, what challenges feel most overwhelming to you?
2. Do you perceive a conflict between James insistence on doing the law and Paul's teaching concerning faith? What is at stake for you in this conversation?
3. What are the most accessible ways to make a practical different in your own community?
For Further Reading
Elizabeth T. Groppe, Eating and Drinking
Richard Stearns, The Whole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?
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During the church's highest holy season, Indiana's religious freedom bill has captured our public conversation. Nuclear negotiations with Iran, a presidential election in war-torn Nigeria, and outrageous violence in Kenya notwithstanding, we can't take our eyes off the Hoosier State and its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Even as I write,...
We Christians are approaching Holy Week, the week we set apart to contemplate the events surrounding Jesus' arrest, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. We don't ordinarily go for the morbid -- most of us don't, anyway -- but the mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection lies at the heart of...
Addressing the rise of religious violence and the role that faith leaders have in working to a solution.
These days ISIS, more than any other global power, evokes the specter of violence and death. Boko Haram kidnaps girls by the hundreds. The Soviets -- I mean, the Russians acting like Soviets -- impose their violent will on the Ukraine. Terror abounds all over the globe. In depicting the psychic harm war inflicts upon our souls, American Sniper breaks its own box office records; meanwhile, Americans learn that we're about to go to war again. It's ISIS that makes us shudder.
ISIS seems intent only upon imposing fear and death. We can't point to anything constructive ISIS does. ISIS slaughters aid workers and journalists just as readily as it does enemy combatants. In the face of ISIS anything other than cowering submission brings grisly death. If we found ourselves repulsed by torture and shocked by videotaped beheadings, now we are haunted by the gruesome memory of a Jordanian pilot set on fire.
Just as alarming, ISIS looks like the Holy Spirit's evil twin: We don't know where it comes from or where it goes (see John 3:8). ISIS has some kind of association with Al Qaeda, yes. But ISIS also emerged from power vacuums in Syria and Iraq. Apart from the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies, a firestorm like ISIS would have found no oxygen to fuel it. When international powers determined that Syria's corrupt government had to go, ISIS took "our" side -- sort of. Now a vulnerable nation like Jordan, which would much have preferred to stay out of things, finds itself at war. And the United States anticipates conflict that will keep us all bloody for decades.
Where does the violence end? And how did it begin?
In such a moment, we imagine ISIS as "different" from ourselves, a whole distinct category of the species homo sapiens. We did the same with Nazis back in the day, as if genocide's engineers had not been the brothers and sisters of our own immigrant citizens, as if they were not the grandparents of the amiable Germans and Poles we befriend today. We forget, by the way, our own history of torturing -- often burning alive -- our own African American citizens, grandchildren of those this nation had enslaved. Our own president condemned ISIS and its grotesque ways, and he also reminded us that the potential for such violence dwells within every society. Naturally his opponents went nuts: they are nothing like we are, they cried.
But we are like they are, and they are like we are. Violence breaks us down. As I write, Eddie Ray Routh goes on trial for the murder of American Sniper hero, Chris Kyle, at a shooting range. Along with another veteran, Kyle met his own death while trying to help other psychically wounded veterans find peace and sanity.
Chapters 6-9 of Genesis recalls an even more fearsome outbreak of violence -- violence perpetrated by God. I frequently wonder about those parents who decorate babies' rooms in Noah's Ark motifs -- "Oh, look at the animals!" -- when the story stands as the Bible's most fearsome. God wipes out all of humanity along with all the other animals that "moved on the earth" (Genesis 7:21, NRSV) in a horrific manner.
A careful reading suggests we are to imagine the fear of God's victims. You'd think God might just smite the world Monty Python style, but instead God goes with a flood. The story pauses for seven verses to paint the picture (7:17-23). Four verses narrate the rising waters, and three recount how "all flesh" is wiped out. Contemporary biblical scholars debate the specific ways in which this story weaves together earlier literary sources: according to these theories cases of repetition reflect primitive editing. So be it. But the effect could scarcely be clearer: We hear this part of the story three times.
"All flesh died" (7:21).
"Everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died" (7:22).
God "blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground" (7:23).
Few modern people actually believe God sent a literal flood to destroy every land-dwelling animal. A few fundamentalists may, but most of us recognize an ancient myth when we see one. Other ancient Near Eastern cultures produced flood stories of their own.
But myths have a way of surprising us if we really pay attention. And few people really pay attention to the flood story. First, there's the question of what provokes God to act with such devastation. Reflecting its complicated history of composition, the story provides two answers. People had grown wicked, hopelessly so (6:5). The Hebrew of Genesis 6:5 is emphatic: "The LORD saw that great was the evil of humankind upon the earth, that every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was altogether evil all the time" (my translation). The second explanation transcends human evil: "the earth" had become spoiled. It was filled with violence (6:11-12).
So we are back to violence. Ancient Jews devoted a lot of energy to imagining why things went wrong with creation. The story has it that God actually regretted creating humankind. In biblical fashion, God doesn't stand as an impassive observer: the biblical God actually feels pain regarding how things have gone (6:6). But what went wrong? One theory seems to have been quite popular. One of the Bible's most bizarre passages precedes the flood account. In it the "sons of God" saw how beautiful women were and "took" some for themselves (6:1-4). It is possible, but not necessary, to read this action in terms of rape. Prominent noncanonical texts like 1 Enoch and Jubilees link this strange account with the flood. The "sons of God" are wicked angels, and their lustful behavior led to the violence and corruption that so provoked God.
Myths will surprise us if we pay attention. This imaginative, even fanciful, interpretation suggests that violence begets violence. Not even God is exempt. Yet God disrupts the cycle of violence. Having deployed violence to end violence, God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendants. Rainbows in the sky will remind God that God has promised never again to destroy the world in such a fashion. Given humanity and its disposition toward violence, God may well need the reminder (9:16).
Horrific as ISIS may be, it by no means stands outside the circle of humanity. It seems to have arisen and found nourishment out of countless factors, including the interventions of our own government. Violence has a way of pulling us all in. Somewhere the cycle has to end. It may take more than a rainbow to convince us, but that is God's way. If the reign of God is at hand, as Jesus says it is (Mark 1:14-15), we've all got some repenting to do.
Bible Study Questions
1. What do you make of God's promise to Noah and his children? Do you find it comforting, or do you find it frightening?
2. Would you teach the flood story to children? If so, how would you teach it? What would you hope they would learn?
3. Reflect together. How does violence affect our lives? What can we do about violence in the world at large, close to home, and within ourselves?
For Further Reading
Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
Sarah Pulliam Bailey, "Obama warns at National Prayer Breakfast of those who use religion to wage war"
Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God
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My Uncle Norman once told me a story. Uncle Norman was born in 1909, and the story involves events from his adolescence, probably the early 1920s. The details may be a little imprecise, but the effect of this story on my Uncle Norman - like the effect he delivered to...
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Just this week another Jesus hoax has appeared in the media. Media producer Simcha Jacobovici has collaborated with a professor named Barrie Wilson on a book called, "The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text That Reveals Jesus' Marriage to Mary the Magdalene." I don't wish to be rude, and I...
Bishop Kevin Farrell comments on giving shelter to potential Ebola victims.
Administration officials have repeatedly assured Americans that they were prepared for Ebola. Less than two weeks ago here at the White House, they insisted they knew how to stop this virus in its tracks. But so far, the virus appears to be outrunning the government.
So began Scott Horsley's report from the White House, one of three separate stories NPR's news show All Things Considered devoted to Ebola on Wednesday, October 16. According to yet another report, a recent Harvard School of Public Health survey finds that 40 percent of Americans feel "at risk" of contracting the disease.
We have Ebola on the brain.
Several of my friends expressed alarm when the first Ebola patient flew to the United States for treatment. Now we find that not one but two Dallas nurses have contracted Ebola, likely because their hospital did not adopt proper Ebola protocols. Americans know that their medical system is far better equipped to prevent an Ebola outbreak than are those in West Africa. We know our system is better prepared to offer effective treatment. But the appearance of multiple cases, one involving a nurse who took a commercial flight while possibly contagious, has people concerned. When a key public health expert says, "It's a learning process, and... our confidence in the hospitals was ill-founded," the rest of us might get a little nervous.
Amid so much anxiety, we turn to All Saints' Day in the church's calendar. All Saints' Day usually recalls our communion with of our spiritual ancestors throughout the centuries, celebrating our unity with saints as far away as North Africa in the fourth century and as close as our deceased relatives. But All Saints' Day also reminds us of our bond with all believers in the here and now. That includes many of the more than 4500 who have died from Ebola already outside the United States, and it includes the tens of thousands who soon will contract Ebola every week if the international community does not produce a more robust response. Jim Wallis reminds us that Ebola is "an inequality crisis," more deadly among the have-not nations than among the haves. How does All Saints' Day speak to our relationship to those who are more vulnerable than we are?
Enter Jesus to mess things up.
On All Saints' Day we read the Beatitudes, Jesus' declaration of blessing to his would-be disciples (Matthew 5:1-12). Blessing involves God's presence and favor.
These blessings begin with four groups of people no one wants to join. We remind ourselves that Jesus' audiences lived tough lives. Poverty was normal, and lives were short. The "poor in spirit" suffer destitution that grinds people down; "those who mourn" grieve because they encounter suffering at every turn; "the meek" are those without power, and people "hunger and thirst for righteousness" when true justice is scarce. While we in the United States are rallying to protect ourselves, Jesus announces that God is also at work in West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak has wrought grief and terror.
Jesus' next four blessings apply to people who live the values he proclaims: the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer persecution for the cause of justice. (The Greek and Hebrew words we often translate in terms of "righteousness" ordinarily refer to uprightness or justice.) God also dwells with persons who commit everything to the cause of mercy and peace. Think of the volunteers for Doctors Without Borders, whose personnel in West Africa has grown from 650 at the beginning of August to 3,000 right now: Jesus pronounces God's blessing upon them as well as upon the communities they serve.
According to sociologist Rodney Stark, early Christianity gained notoriety for its adherents' commitment to care for the sick during the devastating epidemics that ravaged the Roman Empire, on occasion decimating as much as a third of the population. By providing basic nursing care to one another, Stark speculates, the Christians achieved higher survival rates than did the general population. But Christians also earned a reputation for love and courage that won them both admiration and converts.
Our current Ebola scare confronts us with an ugly fact. In the United States we possess the world's richest resources for medical research. But Ebola hasn't been "our" problem until just now, and we haven't invested nearly as heavily in it as we have toward other medical concerns. The Beatitudes remind us that God's blessing dwells among those who suffer - and among those who offer help to the suffering. I am not suggesting that Ebola counts as a blessing: of course not! I am suggesting that God is present and active where and when people suffer. Moreover, God calls us to active involvement on behalf of those who suffer. The Beatitudes reject a selfish "America-first" response to Ebola. Instead, these blessings call us to extend our resources and join in the work God is already doing in West Africa.
Bible Study Questions
1. Many Christians have understood the Beatitudes as a set of moral requirements. This week's commentary treats them as an announcement of God's blessing. Which interpretation do you find more compelling?
2. This week's commentary emphasizes the importance of translation. This week's commentary understands terms like "poor in spirit," "those who mourn," "gentle," and "hunger and thirst for righteousness" in terms of social standing as much as spiritual disposition. Do you think Jesus was blessing people who possessed particular spiritual characteristics, or was he blessing people who live outside the protections of privilege?
3. In your opinion, what counts as true blessedness?
For Further Reading
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. New York: HarperOne, 1997.
Wallis, Jim. "Ebola is an Inequality Crisis." Huffington Post, October 10, 2014.
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