FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEIFTS, volume 9, number 44, November 11, 2010
But you have dishonored the poor man, James 2:6.
Denigrating the Poor Man
The Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, AL, my home town, was red hot in the spring of 1963. Martin Luther King was leading demonstrations to coerce the city fathers to give black people their basic rights of entering any restaurant, using any public bathroom, and sitting anywhere they wished on a bus. Things came to a head on May 2 when Eugene “Bull” Connor, the police superintendent, turned the fire hoses and attack dogs on demonstrators (many of them young children) at Kelly Ingram Park. Hundreds were arrested. King had been arrested earlier on Easter weekend and from jail wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that laid out the Christian rationale for civil disobedience. He did so because eight white area pastors, who agreed that segregation had to stop, wondered why he as a Christian minister would engage in such behavior.
One of the burning issues in the city at the time for white churches was this—would they seat black people if they came to their church to worship? I know—it sounds so basic now, but this was a big question then. My father-in-law was a leader in his church in a Birmingham suburb and the leaders gathered one night that spring to debate the issue. The debate was heated, many of the men swearing and cursing, vowing never to allow them in the church. My father-in-law, along with three other men, voted to seat who ever wished to worship there. The other forty-six men said, “No way.” By the way, Birmingham has made remarkable strides since then. Condoleezza Rice, who grew up there at the time, has recently noted this and finds herself drawn back to the city.1
This was not merely a southern problem, however, for King, one Friday night in 1950, while attending a seminary in Chester, PA, decided with three black friends to enter a diner in Maple Shade, NJ. The waitress refused to serve them and when they asked to speak with the owner, he ran them out of his diner at gunpoint. Jim Crow was alive and well in the north too.2 I lived in suburban Chicago as a child in the mid 1960’s and my father and mother were told by our real estate agent when purchasing a home that black people knew not to try and buy a home there, that the village fire department vowed they would never answer a call to put out a fire in a black person’s home.
Unfortunately, discrimination is a problem in the world, but it should never be a problem in the church. In James 2:5-7 the writer uses logic set on fire by showing the utter sinfulness of favoritism. After laying down his indictment in verse four—have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives—he nails to the wall the perpetrators of such by asking three rhetorical questions, each one showing increased intensity. He asks—Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? James is reminding these Christian people that by dishonoring the poor man they may find they are guilty of discriminating against the very elect of God, other brothers and sisters in Christ (John 6:37, 15:16, Romans 8:28-30, Ephesians 1:4-5). And when he reminds them that God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith, he is presenting a profound truth reinforced numerous times in Scripture. God is partial toward the poor and suffering people of the world (Psalms 9:9, 10:18, 12:5, 34:6, 35:10, Amos 4:1ff, 5:11-15). Paul said that the Corinthians ought to consider their calling—that there are not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, but God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong (1 Corinthians 1:26ff). Simply put—if you have some money in your pocket or portfolio and love Jesus then you are a rare commodity. You ought to be humbled that God has shown you mercy in the potentially soul destroying trial of wealth and prosperity!
James’ second question is even more intense—Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? James is not saying that all rich people intimidate and humiliate in this manner but clearly this was a problem in the Old Covenant (Zechariah 7:10) as well as in the New Covenant community in Jerusalem (James 5:1ff). And the crowning blow is his third question where he charges them with blaspheming God by dishonoring the poor man—Do you not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? To blaspheme God is a serious and deathly matter (Leviticus 24:10-16). Why? It mocks God because anyone who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker (Proverbs 10:31). That’s because He is the author of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17) and to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).
Bottom line—we should think and feel strongly about dishonoring the poor man and turn away from it with holy passion. How? First, we must see the world as God sees it. In Paul’s Areopagus address (Acts 17:22-31) he proclaims to the philosophers of Athens that the god they worship in ignorance is the Creator—the One who made the world and all things in it, the One of sustaining providence—and He made from one every nation of mankind to dwell upon the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, and the Redeemer—He now declares to men that all everywhere must repent because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through One whom He has appointed, having furnished proof by raising Him from the dead. This means two things: We all have a common ancestry, so no people are inherently superior or inferior to others; and only two types of people exist in the world—not black and white, Asian or Hispanic, but saved and unsaved. Nothing else matters. Second, we must see the world as we see it. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul recounts his confrontation with Peter who in hypocrisy was eating with the Gentile believers before the Jewish believers came to town, but then refused to be seen with them. Peter should have known better. After all, God gave him a vision of how the gospel was to be for all ethnicities (Acts 10:34), but old prejudices die hard. What are your prejudices? Do you look at people different than you, let’s say people on welfare, and think they are all lazy and good for nothing drug addicts? And how about those who take a decidedly different political stance from you, do you denigrate them, hold them at a distance? Are you disgusted by them? Do you secretly resent particular brothers and sisters in Christ who are of an ethnicity you do not appreciate? I know of Middle Eastern Christians who are suspect of former Muslims, who now as Christians, want to worship with them! And third, we should see Christ as He sees us. In Ezekiel 16 the prophet graphically paints a picture of our helpless condition, how we were discarded as a new born, left to die in our afterbirth, completely helpless. God came along and delivered us, washing us clean, and clothing us, taking us into His family, giving us every privilege imaginable. And how did we reward God for His beneficence? We prostituted ourselves to every man who came by, even paying them to have relations with us. But He says, “Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you,” (Ezekiel 16:60).
One Sunday in June, 1865, General Robert E. Lee, at home in Richmond, VA after his surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse, worshipped at the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, when just prior to communion, Union soldiers brought a black man to the altar and had him kneel to receive the Lord’s Supper from the Episcopal priest. This broke the protocol in the church. The white members first took communion and then the black members. The scene was exceedingly tense and no one moved. Finally, Lee got up from his pew, kneeled next to the black man and took the Lord’s Supper with him. This broke the ice and the rest of the people followed his lead.
Do you dishonor the poor man? Do you denigrate him? Do you oppress him? Do you hold him at a distance, refusing to evaluate him individually, choosing instead to assume the worst about him and those who look like him? Turn from this sin with a holy passion.
1 See her book Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, for an enlightening look at an extraordinary family. Her theme is, “There are no victims.”
2 Thomas Sugrue in Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North chronicles the problem of racism in the north from the 1920’s to the 1970’s. See page 130 for this example.