James: Walking, Talking, and Facebook Activism
What follows is an attempt at lay theology. As you read, I ask for two things. First, have patience with my stumblings. Second, correct error as you see it. For the most part, I don’t believe that anything here is particularly novel or out of step with Christian belief and practice.1 At the same time, I am no more than a man, which means it is possible I have misread or misunderstood the Scripture. Where that is the case, it is only right that you point out where the truth actually lies.
With that, let’s talk about NATO. Yes, I am referring to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, begun in the aftermath of World War 2 as a deterrent to the aggression of Communist Russia. NATO is of particular interest to me because of its alternative title: No Action Talk Only. Those of you interested in foreign affairs know that this can be a rather accurate description of the organization. I wonder, though, how often the same joke could be made about our lives. Often, it seems, the evangelical world can be prone to Facebook activism.2 Exhibit one is the little thumbs up button at the bottom of Facebook posts.3 The ease with which we can register our opinion gives the impression that fighting evil only takes a couple clicks (or, taps on a phone screen). Having registered an opinion, we have done our job. This phenomenon doesn’t stop with the like button. Similar results are possible with Facebook’s causes app, sharing an article or meme via the social media platform of your choice (or, going old school, emailing it), or pontificating to a friend about the wrongs in the world. In each case, we use words or images to take a stand for something we believe in and communicate a vision for the world.
And yet, I wonder what Scripture would say about this brand of activism. James, at least, seems to point us toward a deeper engagement. Our first clue is the overall thrust of James: our faith must be outworked. Chapter two is rather direct on this point: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:17-18).4 Further, whenever James highlights our need to outwork our faith, he usually couples that positive action with a negative opposite. A familiar example of this occurs in chapter one, where we are admonished to “be doers of the word and not hearers only . . .”. 5 The contrast of interest to us, though, comes in chapter two: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 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” (James 2:14-17). In order to demonstrate the relationship between faith and works, James draws an analogy to words and actions. Just as our faith must be accompanied by works, so our words need to be backed by action. Merely speaking the truth is not enough. One must be willing to act on it as well as share it.
This isn’t a suggestion which is isolated in James. Instead, it can be found across the Scripture. Notice, for instance, how Isaiah indicates that one’s words can contradict the true nature of our hearts: “ . . . this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me . . .” (Isaiah 29:13). Earlier in the book, Isaiah takes Israel to task for fulfilling the ceremonial aspects of worship while failing to provide justice to others.6 In a vein similar to James, the prophet rebukes Israel for not applying their faith to their care for those around them. Micah similarly directs us to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Again, the immediate context contrasts the living faith with ceremonial aspects of worship. Back in the New Testament, a similar set of ideas shows up in 1 John: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:17-18). If James left us with the inkling that perhaps there was wiggle room on caring for our brothers and sisters, John removes any cause for doubt. The message is clear: talk is worthless without walk.
The application to our lives should be fairly clear. For some of us, we might want to be a bit more judicious about how often we “like” or “share” articles with those around us. However that may be, all of us should take some time to consider how we can tangibly and effectively contribute to the spread of justice and Christ’s Kingdom in the world around us. Don’t stop sharing—there are words and thoughts we all need to hear. But, don’t stop with merely sharing. Evil, and the fight against it are both real. And, as much as we might wish it was otherwise, wars aren’t won by talking your enemy to death.
There are a plethora of opportunities for tangibly expanding Christ’s Kingdom to the world around us. How should we decide which opportunities to take advantage of?
Is your church reaching out to and serving the world in a tangible way? If so, how?
2. I first heard this phrase from my mentor, Kevin Bywater, during my time at the Summit Oxford Study Centre in 2014.
3. Implications of the rest of the article aside, I’ll not lie that I’d enjoy seeing a couple of those thumbs up clicks when this article goes live.
4. Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.
5. James 1:22. The full thought seems to run from 1:21-25. Additional couplings show up in 3:13-18 (good and bad sources of wisdom) and 4:13-17 (presumptive procrastination vs. current action).
6. Isaiah 1:10-17. Of potential interest, this is also the immediate context for the well known verse, “. . . though your sins are like scarlet . . .” (Isaiah 1:18).
Photo Courtesy of Ilham Rahmansyah