I'm still reading, marking and learning in the Epistle of James, and taking time to inwardly digest a text that is nourishing and therefore not fast food. James is writing "in the name of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion". So in the very first verse he uses a word that tells us who we are as followers of Jesus, whether we live now or 2000 years ago - we are exiles, dispersed people, a scattered community.
I've long felt that the biblical story of Exile has important parallels for Christians trying to live in our 21st Century culture where faith commitments and religious privilege are no longer the assumed context for our daily living. Christian values, practices and moral patterns are now minority interests, one option in a plethora of other chosen lifestyles, value systems and relational commitments, which have equal validity and powerful promotional claims in a post-Christian, media soaked, inter-connected society.
So when James says his letter is for those who feel displaced, who live away from home, whose identity is constantly under pressure, whose cultural roots are planted in alien soil, then it just may be that his message takes on particular urgency and poignancy. A recent study of Global Diaspora might help us understand why it is that Christians struggle to survive in our society, and are tempted time and again to take the lines of least resistance, and to settle for being non-radical in our discipleship. Here are some of the realities pointed out in that study of what it means being an exile, being dispersed and away from where we are most at home. Each of them is energy sapping, vision reducing, hope impairing, and thus diminishing of life possibilities:
- separation from homeland (alienation from an increasingly anit-Christian culture)
- life on the move (living with rapid paced change)
- erosion of identity as a people (Christian community)
- living on the periphery when power is at the centre (end of Christendom)
- loss of cultural roots ( the things that matter most to Christians matter least now)
- refugee status (citizens of heaven locked into ways of life hostile to Christian values)
Now the New Testament scholar Joel Green then points out that James himself identifies key features of dispersion and exile:
testing of faith (1.3)
conflicts and disputes (4.1)
victims of hostile treatment (5.4,6)
a life of wandering (5.19)
However, James says something early on that is crucial for our survival as Christians amidst all this negative sounding talk - "Count it all joy when you face various tests...". Why? Because suffering trials and tests brings endurance and then maturity. Joy isn't happiness; it's much nearer confidence, a trusting attitude to life that isn't based on only good things happening to good people, and behind all that, James urges a recognition that God is a particular kind of God. James 1.16-18 "Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father is the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. Or in an older translation, "in whom there is no shadow of turning."
So exiles in a time and a place, a culture and a society, struggle to exist where following faithfully after Jesus is neither easy nor popular. But, says James, they are those who have a strange, durable joy, because the God who gifts us life and whose gifts sustain our life is faithful, constant, unchanging. No wonder these verses are embedded in hymns of the Church:
"Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with thee;
Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not,
As thou hast been thou forever wilt be."