What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James 2: 14-17
It is sometimes claimed that these words are addressed purely to individual believers to commend them to good conduct and that they have no relevance to politics. Whilst it is true that James did not write to Caesar, his letter is not addressed to individual believers but to To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations. He is addressing a people, not a person. What’s more he is addressing a people under pressure of persecution. This is not a Church composed of the wealthy and powerful, so it may seem strange that wealth is such a major theme. But despite their persecution, they are urged to joy (1:2) and despite their poverty they are encouraged to be generous (2:14-26). James’ whole point is that they should not be living by the world’s standards, but constantly seeking God’s will. They do this together in community, not merely as individuals. They are “the twelve tribes”, the new Israel, the People of God. Let’s put that thought “on a hook” and move on.
There are many frightening images and stories of God’s judgement throughout the Bible. And that judgement is often tied to the way in which the poor are treated. Ezekiel 34 is a dire warning to the “Shepherds of Israel” who have not strengthened the weak and bound up the lame. Indeed, Ezekiel identifies the sin of Sodom as failure to care for the poor and needy (16: 49). Other prophets - Micah, and Amos for example - speak harshly of those who do not offer care to the needy or give “justice” to the poor. (There’s a whole study in that little phrase - but it means far more than “an even-handed application of the law”). Isaiah announced the Day of the Lord as “good news for the poor” (Isaiah 61) and this theme was taken up by Jesus in Nazareth (Luke 4). Jesus too speaks of economic actions resulting in the judgement of God - The parables of Dives and Lazarus and The Sheep and the Goats are two examples. More positively, the Levitical Law ensured that even poor foreigners were provided for (Leviticus 19:9-10; 25:6). In the New Testament, the young Church in Acts saw a radical shift in people’s economic relationships.
So care for the poor is a theme which runs consistently throughout scripture - I have barely scratched the surface. And - going back to our hook - the Church is the new Israel. I’d be surprised if I get any argument so far, even from the most conservative.
We (most of us, anyway) live in forms of representative democracy. The government does not act over against us as a tyrant might. It acts for us. That’s why I am so against talk of “governments spending our money” because of course they do - that’s what we elect them for. Taxes are levied with the consent of the people expressed in the ballot box. The Bible identifies care of the poor as a communal responsibility, and this means that in our context the government has a significant part to play. (What that part should be is still a question for debate - I’m not advocating any specific programme at this point)
James 2 says that when I care for the poor, that is a work of faith. Jesus said that those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked fed and clothed him - even when they did so unawares. So I want to argue that James 2 is relevant in our context because a vote can be as much a work of faith as a credit card donation. We are not saved by works, but works do issue from faith. For the Christian, that should mean our votes should be cast in favour of the poor, even when to do so is directly against our own material interest. Whether the politicians or government are “christian” or not is irrelevant. Evenly the ungodly can be annointed.