June 24, 2018
The royal law is the sure path to humanizing others.
I. Widows and orphans – James 1:27
II. The rich and the poor – James 2:1-7
III. And everybody else = James 2:8
Most everyone here knows that I have a huge interest in World War 2, so much so that I wrote a book set in England in 1940. Another thing I’ve done is teaching a one year course on the war, which touched many of the topics I’ve explored through the years. When I began the course I didn’t really have a big idea in mind, a key teaching point, but it wasn’t long before a theme emerged. It was this: what made World War 2 possible, and so devastating to human life was the de-humanization of whole populations and groups of people.
The classic example, of course, is the Jews of Europe. Hitler, through insanity or cold calculation, made the Jews scapegoats for all of Germany’s problems. To put this across to the German people the Nazis use dehumanization and objectification. Hitler describes the Jews as parasites, vermin, poison. They aren’t people, they’re a disease. They’re not a religion, but a vast secret society and conspiracy, out to destroy the pure Aryan race. They are undermenschen, sub-humans. No wonder the German people coldly followed every command to murder and destroy. They weren’t destroying humans, but things.
The death camp at Auschwitz Birkenau is both a tragic remembrance of assembly line death and a heart cry against dehumanization. In what is known as ‘the Sauna,’ where Jews not sent straight to the gas chambers were de-loused and sanitized, there is a wall. On it are hundreds,of pictures found among the camp ruins. Most came from one ghetto in Poland, Będzin-Sosnowiec, where the Jews formed one large extended family. The story their photos tell is that the Jews were not untermenschen, but real people with families and lives.
I could multiply examples from all the combatant nations. Japan, Russia, and yes, Britain and the U.S. In every country the opponents were propagandized, not as living breathing feeling loving family-forming people but as objects to be hated for a cause. Only those who have been dehumanized can be destroyed.
On many levels and in many degrees such dehumanization is still a key part of the functioning of our culture and how we function as individuals. I’ll point to these things as we go along. But I don’t really want to spend our time focused on the negative, but on the positive response we can embrace to fight this deadly mindset. The sign out front says “dehumanization is the root of great evil.” But my key sentence, from James 1:27–2:8 says that the royal law is the sure path to humanizing others. James 1:27 applies this to widows and orphans, James 2:1-7 talks about the rich and the poor, and James 2:8 extends this to everyone. The royal law is the sure path to humanizing others.
Let’s read the text in James, the last verse of chapter 1 and the first eight verses of chapter 2. James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? 8If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.
It’s not unusual to find a chapter break in Scripture that you don’t really think should have been where it is. Some of them, such as those in Jonah, deeply diminish understanding of the text. And the chapter breaks aren’t inspired. They were added for convenience more than a thousand years after the Bible was written. In this case the chapter division might keep us from associating verse 27 with chapter 2. The connection is caring for every kind of people in need. But this caring requires that we embrace humanization, push back on objectification.
James 1:27 applies this to widows and orphans. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Widows and orphans have always been on God’s heart in Scripture. As early as Exodus 22 God gives this command: “You shall not wrong an immigrant or oppress him, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt. 22You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”
Care for widows and orphans was not part of the culture in Biblical times. Widows were without rights, without property and with no respectable way to earn a living. Orphans were despised, seen as under God’s curse and were often abused and economically exploited. And it’s easy to see how this would be accompanied or even accomplished by dehumanization. Widows are always women of low character. Orphans are always thieves and beggars.
Do you see how it works? Dehumanization applies negative character qualities to a whole group rather than seeing them as individuals made in the image of God, broken in a broken world. I recently quoted Rosaria Butterfields book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key. You heard her heart for radical ordinary hospitality, but I didn’t mention one of her key arguments for hospitality. It’s this: every person you meet is an image-bearer of the Creator God. She says “We make gospel bridges into our home because we notice the people around us and their needs. We see people whom God has put into our lives—especially the difficult ones—as image bearers of a Holy God and therefore deserving of our best. Hospitality is image-bearer driven.” De-humanization is a denial of that truth. It takes some characteristic of a group: widow, orphan, jew, muslim, refugee, immigrant, black, woman, man, liberal, conservative and makes it an excuse for not treating people as we would “one of our own.”
Orphans can be dehumanized even in our culture. Gail’s been taking a course from Christian Alliance for Orphans that emphasizes the need to keep orphans in families. When you put them in institutions, outcomes aren’t good. Yet across the world some feel compelled to put their children in orphanages, even when both parents are still alive. One study says “In Eastern Europe and Central Asia 95% of children below three years old in institutions were not orphans.” It happens because of poverty and a perceived inability to provide care. But institutions dehumanize. “Long periods in an institution make it harder for a child to assimilate back into a family and community, and deny them access to life-long attachments and support systems family relationships provide.”
In the last weeks we’ve heard a huge debate about separating children from parents when the family is caught trying to cross the border. I’m glad the policy is being changed, I hope for the better, but I was gratified by the almost universal recognition that it’s not good to break up families. Whatever you believe about the border or those trying to cross it, something God has built into the human conscience says families are better off together. And that same sense is what says that widows and orphans need special care, not dehumanization
James’ second, more extended example is how we treat the poor. He begins with a principle: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” The principal is “show no partiality,” but James surrounds it with marvelous phrases. First, “my brothers.” Like Paul in Galatians, James recognizes the relational bond of faith even when he’s about to point out flaws in belief or behavior. Second, show no partiality “as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Faith in Jesus is foundational and central. It’s amazing how often the New Testament authors come back to faith. We’re saved by believing, and that trust impacts every area of our lives.
We believe that the Lord Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and not just for ours but for people from every tribe and tongue and nation and language. Therefore as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ we cannot continue to dehumanize any human being, no matter how degraded or desperate they may be, because they are not only people made in his image, they are people he died for.
But that’s what James sees them doing. “For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby, or filthy, clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet, have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
We take the poor, the needy, the filthy and make them second class citizens. We dehumanize them. “You, stand over there.” Or worse “sit on the floor, like a dog at my feet.” James says “you’ve made distinctions among yourselves.” You’ve declared one group of people worthy of human dignity and one group unworthy. You’ve sat as judges of the poor, not even because of some character quality of the poor, but because they appear to offer you no benefit, no gain. Whereas the rich people, you think, can make your lives easier.
James goes on to say in verse 5 that their perception of the poor is wrong, because God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith, heirs of the kingdom, paraphrasing things Jesus said, as James often does. Now James is making a generalization. We might criticize him for that. But he makes a generalization against the commonly held belief of the value of poor people. If you had said in Nazi Germany that the Jews made tremendous contributions to German culture you would’ve been right. You might also would have been put in a concentration camp. In fact James goes on to make a generalization about the rich, again against the commonly held cultural view. He says the rich are the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court. They are the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? By which I assume he means Jesus. Despite this both the church and most cultures have kowtowed to the rich and oppressed and dehumanized the poor.
Clearly James is not just saying this to make his readers feel bad. He wants them to change this partiality, this distinction making, this judging. We’ll get to his counter-principle in verse 8. But even before we do, I want to give an example I’ve never been able to forget, from the “Helping without Hurting” videos. It was the episode on asset based development, which humanizes people you’re helping by beginning with the gifts, abilities and resources they already have.
The 6’10” author, Brian Fikkert, was in a Sunday School class and was told to go knock on doors in a poverty stricken African American community. Here’s his story: “So knock on the door, a lady comes to the door she's about five foot tall. An African-American lady at my navel. I'm looking down at her as non-paternalistically as I possibly can and she's looking up at me. . . . And I said “Ma'am I'm from New City fellowship. I’m here to love my community. What gifts and abilities has God given you?” And she looks up at me and she goes “What?” I said what gifts and abilities has God given you?” She said “What?” And then from behind her in her apartment, in a housing project in a ghetto, from behind her comes a voice. “She can cook chitlins like there's no tomorrow.” I looked at the lady and I said “Ma'am is that true?” She's kind of got a little smile on her face. She said “I’m a pretty good cook.”
She said “Why don’t you come on inside. I want to talk to you some more.” Right. So we went inside. She called all the people in the house together. We’re all sitting on couches. I didn’t know what to do next. So I just reverted to my script. “I’m here from New City Fellowship today. I'm here to love my community. What gifts and abilities has God given all of you?” I wasn't sure what's going to happen next. One guy says “Well that guy over there, his name is Jake. He can fix bikes like nothing you've ever seen before. I've never seen anybody like this guy. He fixes bikes.” Jake goes “I am pretty good at bikes but Hal over there he's an auto mechanic. If your car’s ever having trouble, Hal’s your guy to fix your car.” They spent 20 minutes bragging about each other. I started to notice something. They started to sit a little straighter in their seats. They started to kind of have a little sense of they were somebody.
I look back at the first lady. I said “Ma'am what are your dreams?” What are your gifts I've asked her. I'm asking what are your dreams. She said “Dreams?” I said “yeah.” She said “Well I've never really told anybody this before.” I said “okay,” We're connecting. She said “My dream has always been to have my own cooking business, my own catering business.” I said “What prevents you from achieving those dreams?” She said “I don't really know.” She said “I guess what it comes down to, I know how to cook but there's the kind of the business part of it I don't know how to do.” She said “I think they call it a business plan.” She said “I don't know how to write a business plan. I think I need someone to help me write a business plan.” I said “What if I had some folks from my church come who know business and kind of help you develop your business ideas. You can use your gifts to fulfill your dream.” She goes “I love that.” Asking the question, asking the question is poverty alleviation.”
Asking the question is humanization. It’s seeing people as people and not allowing stereotypes or group perceptions or generalizations to block relationships.
The last verse of today’s text gives the principle of humanization. James 2:8 “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” while one of the most famous verses in Scripture, is not the Gospel. It doesn’t tell us about the human condition, about our sinfulness and inability to rescue ourselves. It doesn’t tell us about our Savior, though Jesus described his own sacrifice as laying down his life for his friends. It doesn’t tell us that he paid for our sins in his death nor that by his resurrection he conquered sin and death. It doesn’t tell us that by believing in him we receive eternal life.
No, the purpose of this verse is different. It tells us how to live after salvation, how to become human in the highest sense. That’s why, though it’s an obscure verse in Leviticus 19, Jesus says it’s the greatest commandment, along with love for God. That’s why he tells the powerful, humanizing parable of the Good Samaritan, to explain who my neighbor is, the dehumanized Samaritan in need. That’s why both Paul and James say that to fulfill this commandment is to fulfill the law. This is the command that makes us human and allows us to see others as human. As I said to the kids, this is the walk a mile in the other’s shoes commandment, the put yourself in her place commandment.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is the antidote to dehumanization, objectification, generalization and labeling. The antidote to the holocaust, to genocide, to racism, to oppression, to class warfare. This is the call to compassion, the manifesto of mercy, the ground of goodness, the foundation of forgiveness, the key to kindness, the heart of humility, the pathway to peace, the gateway to gentleness, the labor of love. I wish I could explain it to you.
Three more examples as we close, examples that bring this closer to our devious hearts. First, I’ve used the term objectification in this message. Objectification simply means treating a person as an object. In the old South a slave was not a person, not even 3/5ths of a person. He or she was property, an object to be used at the owner’s whim. But people are not objects. Each person is uniquely made in the image of God and loved so much that Jesus died for them. There is a strong push today against objectifying women, and that’s good, and yet Hollywood continues make women sex objects. And porn is worse. It turns image-bearers into objects of desire, not a picture of a person for whom Jesus died, but an image used only to gratify pleasure. More than that, porn requires that women be trafficked and abused and taken advantage of, and it is a gateway drug desensitizing men into abusing and tyrannizing the women in their own lives. I can’t tell you how much I cringe and grieve when I hear men say of a woman ‘look at that.’ ‘That’ is a word we use for objects. She is a child of the creator God. Objectification is dehumanization.
Paul David Tripp takes this even further in his book What Did You Expect? He says “Because sin is antisocial, it tends to dehumanize the people in our lives. No longer are they objects of our willing affection. No, they quit being the people we find joy in loving. Rather, they get reduced to one of two things. They are either vehicles to help us get what we want or obstacles in the way of what we want. When your wife is meeting your wants, needs, and feelings, you are quite excited about her, and treat her with affection. But when she becomes an obstacle in the way of your wants, needs, and feelings, you have a hard time hiding your disappointment, impatience, and irritation.” That’s powerful. All sin is anti-social and dehumanizes the people in our lives.
Finally, I just want to close with one more story. It’s from this guy, Ryan "Brown" Dalton, in an online magazine called “Abernathy.” He says “With all that’s going on in the world, and in our country right now, my mind can rarely get away from the idea and reality of dehumanization―its ugliness, what it allows us to do, what it allows us to accept, what it allows us to become.
Dehumanization is a nasty cycle. The homeless youth I worked with for ten years in Cape Town, South Africa, are some of the most amazing people I have ever met in my entire life. They lived under systemic oppression due to their race and class, through government-created poverty. Unfortunately, not everyone had the privilege to know them the way I did. For the most part, the homeless youth of Cape Town were demonized, stigmatized, and dehumanized by society at large. The Cape Town police were some of the worst perpetrators of this dehumanization against the kids. On a daily basis, the children were brutalized by the cops. This led me to daily run-ins with the police.
Dalton then tells the story of one encounter where two police officers began to brutalize a group of kids, not knowing Dalton was there. They struck the kids and knocked the legs out from under a small 11 year old, causing him to crack his head on the concrete. Dalton was enraged confronted them, telling them that was a normal member of the public, and I had every right to speak out against injustice. They told him to freeze but he didn’t and in fact walked up to one of the officers and took his gun from his hand. Shocked himself, Dalton thought quickly and said “You will lose your job if your boss knows a civilian got your gun so easily. So, I will give you two options: One, I will give you your gun and you will leave immediately, and leave these kids alone. Or two, I will take your gun to your boss, tell him how easily I got it from you and why I took it, and you will lose your job.” “For some mysterious reason, he took the first option, surprisingly didn’t shoot or arrest me, and they went on their way without any more trouble.”
Fast-forward to a couple of months later: A kid I was very close to died in a freak accident. It was tragic and we were all traumatized. He was only 14 years old and had lived on the streets since he was six. His family had not seen him in many years. For this reason, they asked me to speak about him at his funeral, to tell about how wonderful he was, who he was in all those years they had missed. I gladly agreed. It was an incredibly moving ceremony.
After the funeral, in Xhosa tradition, the women stood back and watched from afar as the men shoveled dirt into the grave. When we shoveled the last bit of dirt on the fresh mound, most of the men dispersed, and only one other man and I remained at the grave, paying our last respects to the earthly body of the child. With tears in his eyes, the man said, “You don’t recognize me do you?” I told him he looked familiar but I couldn’t place where I knew him from. He said, “I’m a police officer in town. You took my partner’s gun one day.” Before I could say anything, he said, “I’m sorry. We were wrong.” I was dumbfounded as he continued. “You know, we didn’t know you, we didn’t understand what you were about. But now I get it.” He pointed down at the fresh mound of dirt, “That is my little brother. My family and I hadn’t seen him in many years. We didn’t know him like you did.” “Thank you for loving him. Thank you for fighting for them. Thank you for speaking today. I get it now.”
The unfortunate loss of a child’s life led to that man’s humanization of a group of people he had easily brutalized and discriminated against on a daily basis. They were no longer “street kids” – that child was his brother. I was no longer the “annoying, white American” – I was his brother’s friend, his brother’s family. He was no longer a brutal officer - he became a friend who warmly greeted me every time we saw each other in town from that day forward”
Dehumanization is a powerfully toxic force, in South Africa, at the Mexican border, on your phone screen and in your family. Only the royal law of loving others as yourself, as real, distinct image-bearers of God and as broken sinners for whom Christ died, only this can work as powerfully in the lives of believers as our old sinful bent toward objectification. Only deliberate humanizing of every person on both sides of every issue can prevent the next holocaust.