A caution against comfort

The introduction to On Being Rich and Poor contains the statement that “for those Christians who are comfortable in their churches, this book is probably not for them.”  Indeed, it is hard to imagine a message more difficult for middle-class North American Calvinists to hear than one dealing with wealth, poverty, social justice andEpistle of James.

Jacques Ellul, a law professor, lay theologian and prolific writer, passed away in 1994. On Being Rich and Poor is a collection of recorded lectures and talks he gave on the issues of wealth, poverty and Christian living that have recently been translated and edited together by Willem Vanderburg.

On Being Rich and Poor is divided into two parts. The first, dealing with the Old Testament prophet Amos, is where Ellul sets the stage for his message. Amos, in Ellul’s view, represented something of first in biblical prophecy. Amos prophesied not against conventional targets, such as an evil king or unjust ruler; nor did he prophesy against past sins or their future consequences. Instead, Amos prophesied against his entire society, speaking to people in their present circumstance and everyday lives. His topic was the poor, his target a society that had prioritized making life “easier and more practical” for themselves and, in doing so, had reduced the poorer members of their society to mere merchandise.

Yet Ellul argues that Amos was not speaking of mere social justice, at least in any sense we might understand the concept today. Rather, as Amos saw it, the absence of love for the poor was an absence of love for God. A society that devalues humans as people is incapable of loving and serving God. Looking ahead to the two greatest commandments, Ellul points out that if one does not love one’s neighbour, one cannot love God; and thus a love of God must be more than a mere spiritual or intellectual exercise, but rather will be reflected in how we act towards others. As Ellul puts it: “God is everywhere, but first and foremost in others”.

Ellul’s comments on Amos set the stage for the more powerful part of his book, his reading of James and how its message is linked to the idea of love for God put forward in Amos. The result is a truly unique approach to a part of scripture that has always posed problems for Protestant Christianity. Indeed, Ellul takes direct aim at the one of the risks posed by the theology of Luther, the man once dubbed James an epistle of “straw” and toyed with the idea of removing it from the Bible. The doctrine of being saved by grace can easily be warped into self-justification: “I do not need to do anything because God has saved me by grace.”  

However, Ellul also rejects a simplistic reading of James as an exhortation to build up a sufficient inventory of good or charitable “works.” The idea that salvation requires some level of material or monetary commitment from believers is both misguided and based on an entirely non-biblical set of ideas. The idea of money – the embodiment of the idea that things have objective and varying values relative to each other – is antithetical to the idea of God’s grace given to all freely. God’s love is free, yet modern, capitalist society tells us that nothing is truly free. We are told that the power to judge is reserved exclusively to God, yet so many aspects of our society are based on value judgments about people, objects and ideas.

The true message of James, in Ellul’s view, describes a faith that is both transformative and existential. We cannot be Christians merely as an intellectual or spiritual exercise, nor can we be Christians in isolation from the world. To have faith is to be a witness, and one cannot be a witness without tangible acts. In perhaps his best image, Ellul links the tangible acts of faith to the tangible incarnation of God in Jesus: “Our faith must be incarnated because Jesus Christ is the incarnated one: it is a question of giving a body to that faith.”    

In drawing to a conclusion, Ellul turns his attention to the institutional church and its practices. It is here that Ellul’s message may wound some Reformed pride. We are often proud of our theology, our institutions and our intellectual history, yet Ellul cautions against placing excess value on these. He argues that salvation and damnation are matters exclusively for God which, at least from the perspective of this world, should be sublimated to the service of the Kingdom. Far too often, in Ellul’s view, instead of loving our neighbour and truly living our faith we let ourselves be “immobilized by good theology.”


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