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Good Religion and Bad Religion, Part II   Leave a comment



James 1:1-27


This is pure religion, and undefiled before our God and Father, to look after orphans and widows in their affliction, and ever to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

–James 1:27, Helen Barrett Montgomery, Centenary Translation of the New Testament (1924)


That verse concludes the first chapter and sets up the second chapter.  Textual context is crucial.  I will work my way through the first chapter.

  1. Verse 1 names the author as “James,” presumably St. James of Jerusalem (d. 62 C.E.).  This is a pseudonymonous ascription, a common practice in Biblical times.
  2. There is wordplay in the original Greek text in verses 1 and 2.  Verse 1 reads, in part, “Greetings,” literally, “Be joyful,” or “Rejoice.”  Verse 2 reads, in part, “Regard it as a complete joy.”
  3. Verse 1 identifies the audience as Jewish diaspora Christians.
  4. Rejoicing in “various trials” (verses 2-12) requires grace, which suffices.
  5. The theme of attitudes toward wealth and status debuts in verse 9.  It recurs later in the first chapter and the book.
  6. During trials, remain anchored in God (verse 6) for stability.
  7. God does not tempt us (verses 13-18).  Times of trial, therefore, are not temptations God has sent.
  8. Unrighteous anger (as opposed to righteous anger) is dangerous to oneself and others.  It also belies true religion.  The Law of Love works against unrighteous anger.  Grace liberates us to be our best possible selves in God (verses 19-25).
  9. The use of speech and writing manifests both positive and negative tendencies.  Taming one’s words, whether spoken or written, is essential (verse 26).  Ergo, true religion is to care for the vulnerable and to reject secular standards of success and status, grounded in power and wealth.

More about language and the control of it will ensue in a subsequent chapter.

Impious deeds must not belie pious words.  In Jewish terms, God is like what one has done and does.  Likewise, we mere mortals are like what we have done to the extent that we continue to commit those deeds.

I, as a student of history, understand that I cannot always determine the motivation of a group or an individual.  I can, however, point to what a group or an individual did, said, did not say, and did not do.  That information frequently leads to a moral evaluation, and renders the lack of information about motivation irrelevant.

Political-social context is crucial.  Commentaries inform me that the Epistle of James targeted religious prophets of doom–political agitators who imagined they could hasten God’s righteous judgment.  One may understand why such people were perilous when the Church was young and small, albeit growing.  One may grasp that such agitators attracted unwelcome imperial attention.  The Epistle of James favors constructive, counter-cultural morality (as in the Beatitudes), not agitation that threatened to bring the imperium down upon the Church.

I, as a student of history, know that religious communities who have practiced James 1:27 have frequently incurred the wrath of governments and the scorn of societies, however.  I think immediately of the Quakers, the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Hutterites, for example.  Governments often react badly when they go to war, and when pacifistic dissenters refuse to cooperate.

James 1:27 also cautions against becoming enmeshed in unholy intrigues.  This theme unfolds in subsequent chapters, too.

How do you, O reader, think of “the world”?  Do you identify it as Satan’s domain?  Or do you think of it as your neighborhood, for which you are partially responsible?  God–in both the Old and New Testaments–mandates that the people of God transform the world, not give up on it and seek to flee from it.  The people of God have divine marching orders to be a light to the nations and to function as salt.  Confronting evil is part of that mandate.  Telling the truth is essential.  Consult the record of the prophets and Jesus, O reader.

Offering a positive alternative is also crucial.

Mutuality informed the Law of Moses, the examples of the Hebrew prophets, the lived and uttered teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and the culturally-specific writings of the New Testament.  These sages knew what many moderns never learned or have forgotten–that whatever one does to others, one does to oneself.  They grasped that human beings are responsible to and for each other, under God.  These sages understood the importance of orthopraxy, grounded in an inseparable from orthodoxy.

Reading these ancient texts in historical, cultural, and political contexts tells us what they originally meant.  Then we can properly apply these texts to our contemporary situations.

I write these words during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I witness the economic disparities the pandemic has made worse.  I see needless suffering.  I notice that many people have fallen though the cracks in the social safety net.  I witness cynical, opportunistic, fearful, and selfish people refusing to do what is necessary and proper to take care of each other, especially those too young to get vaccinated.  I also notice much shameful behavior (such as I have described in this paragraph) coming from self-identified Christians.

Lord Jesus, save me from your followers!

Timeless principles may seem vague.  This is why the Bible includes many culturally-specific examples of them.  In that spirit, I offer a new, updated version of James 1:27, just for these times:

Pure, undefiled religion, in the eyes of God our Father, during this pandemic, is this:  getting vaccinated when eligible (unless one has a legitimate medical reason not to do so), wearing masks, practicing social distancing, coming to the help of the elderly, the young, and those with compromised immune systems.  It is living in accordance with the Golden Rule and the Lukan Beatitudes.

How is that for a sound and a radical standard?









Divine and Human Authority   Leave a comment

Above:  Conscientious Objectors at Camp Lewis, Washington, United States of America, November 18, 1918

Image in the Public Domain


For the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity, Year 2


Lectionary from A Book of Worship for Free Churches (The General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches in the United States, 1948)

Collect from The Book of Worship (Evangelical and Reformed Church, 1947)


Absolve, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy people from their offenses;

that from the bonds of our sins which, by reason of our frailty,

we have brought upon us, we may be delivered by thy bountiful goodness;

through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth

with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever One God, world without end  Amen.

The Book of Worship (1947), 228


Isaiah 32:1-8

Psalm 146

Romans 13:1-7

Luke 13:23-30


Don’t get me started about submission to government authority (Romans 13:1-7).  Okay, now that I have started, I am off to the proverbial races.

The Bible is inconsistent regarding submission to and resistance to civil authority.  Romans 13:1-7 represents one strain.  One may think of Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15-22), who let newborn Hebrew boys live, in violation of a royal order.  One may also recall the Book of Daniel, with more than one instance of remaining faithful to God by violating a royal decree.  Perhaps one recalls 1, 2, and 4 Maccabees, in which fidelity to the Law of Moses required disobedience to Seleucid kings, such as Antiochus IV Epiphanes and other  (1 Maccabees 1:15-9:73; 2 Maccabees 6:1-15:37; 4 Maccabees 4:15-18:24) .  I would be remiss to forget about Tobit, who violated a royal order yet obeyed the Law of Moses by burying corpses (Tobit 1:16-20).  Finally, the Revelation of John portrays the government of the Roman Empire as being in service to Satan.  In this strain, Christians should resist agents of Satan.

When one turns to Christian history, one finds a long tradition of civil disobedience within Christianity.  Accounts of Quakers, Anabaptists, and other pacifists suffering at the hands of governments for refusing to fight in wars properly arouse moral outrage against those governments.  The Third Reich presents a stark example that evokes apocalyptic depictions of Satanic government.  Anti-Nazi heroes included Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a plethora of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant martyrs, among others.

Furthermore, the Third Reich has continued to inform a strain of German Christian theology since the 1930s.  When to obey and when to resist authority has remained especially prominent in German circles, for obvious reasons.

Governments come and go.  God remains forever.  Wrong is wrong, regardless of whether one commits it independently or as part of one’s official duties.

Isaiah 32:1-8 depicts an ideal government at the end of days.  In Christian terms, this text describes the fully realized Kingdom of God.  That is not our reality.

Psalm 146 reminds us:

Put no trust in princes

or in any mortal, for they have no power to save.

When they breathe their last breath,

they return to the dust;

and on that day their plans come to nothing.

–Verses 3-4, The Revised English Bible (1989)

The bottom line, O reader, is this:  Love God fully.  Keep divine commandments.  Live according to the Golden Rule.  If doing so is legal, you are fortunate.  If doing so is illegal, love God fully, keep divine commandments, and live according to the Golden Rule anyway.  God remains forever.





Of Their Time   4 comments

Hymnal 1911-1917

Above:  The Title Page of the Presbyterian Hymnal (1911) with the Supplement of 1917

Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor


World War I (1914-1918) was a devastating conflict which changed the map of the world.  Many of the problems of today have much to do with that war and the events of the years immediately following it.  Europeans promised the same territory to both Jews and Palestinians, created Iraq (where the British military became bogged down in an insurgency for years), broke up empires, and created new countries, some of which (Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia) which have ceased to exist.  U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (in office 1913-1921) oversold the conflict as a war to make the world safe for democracy.  Meanwhile, back home in the United States, which entered the war in 1917, early in Wilson’s second term, which he won on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” xenophobia, nativism, and irrationality reigned.  The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, banned performances of the music of Ludwig von Beethoven, an anti-imperialist who died in 1827.  Had the great composer been alive in 1917 and 1918, he would have opposed the policies of Kaiser Wilhelm II.  But why let reason stand between one and an irrational fear?  Mobs burned books in the German language or about Germany, vandalized buildings belonging to congregations where worship was not in English, dachshunds became liberty hounds, the state of Iowa outlawed public gatherings where the spoken language was not English (although many sheriffs in the state permitted Danish Lutheran congregations to worship in Danish), et cetera.  Opposing state-sponsored violence became a crime, one for which many pacifists went to prison and conscientious objectors suffered.  Really, were the Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers threats to national security?  Were the Dutch Reformed (of the Christian Reformed Church in North America in particular) and the Lutherans (especially those in the denominations we call The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod these days) worshiping in other tongues that threatening?  In November 1918, at the organizing convention of the newly merged United Lutheran Church in America (1918-1962), derived from German immigrant stock in North America since the 1700s, delegates felt the need to demonstrate their patriotism by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America,” due to lingering suspicions related to Germany, German-Americans, and the war.

The study of the past tells me that the war did not live up to its billing, that wartime hysteria and intolerance turned into widespread disillusionment, and that the psychological scars of the “Great War” or the “World War,” as people called it before World War II, influenced national decision-making (often for the worse) leading up to World War II.  Accounts of the “Lost Generation” and the false sense of security the Maginot Line engendered testify to the aftershocks of World War I.

These and other facts influence how I read certain texts from World War I and the time immediately following it.  How can they not, given my temporal relationship to that conflict?

During that war and immediately afterward some denominations amended their recent official hymnals.  The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. added the “Supplement of 1917” to its Hymnal of 1911.  This supplement consisted of three patriotic hymns:  “God of Our Fathers, Known of Old,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  The National Council of Congregational Churches of the United States added three hymns to The Pilgrim Hymnal (1912) after the war.  Hymns #542a-c were, respectively, “O Land of Lands, My Fatherland,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “America, America, The Shouts of War Shall Cease.”  “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was already present.

Two of those texts intrigue me.  The first is “O Land of Lands, My Fatherland.”  The author was the Reverend Washington Gladden (February 11, 1836-July 2, 1918), whose feast day in The Episcopal Church is July 2.  Gladden, a proponent of the Social Gospel, opposed corruption in government, favored civil rights for African Americans, and supported the labor movement.  He wrote many poems (including hymns), the most famous of which might be “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee.”  In 1918 he composed the following text:

O Land of lands, my Fatherland, the beautiful, the free,

All lands and shores to freedom dear and ever dear to thee;

All sons of Freedom hail thy name, and wait thy word of might,

While round the world the lists are joined for liberty and light.


Hail, sons of France, old comrades dear! Hail Britons brave and true!

Hail Belgian martyrs ringed with flame! Slavs fired with visions new!

Italian lovers mailed with light! Dark brothers from Japan!

From East to West all lands are kin who live for God and man.


Here endeth war!  Our bands are sworn! Now dawns the better hour

When lust of blood shall cease to rule, when Peace shall come with power;

We front the fiend that rends our race and fills our hearts with gloom;

We break his scepter, spurn his crown, and nail him in his tomb.


Now, hands all round, our troth we plight to rid the world of lies,

To fill all hearts with truth and trust and willing sacrifice;

To free all lands from hate and spite and fear from strand to strand;

To make all nations neighbors and the world one Fatherland!

The second text was, as the hymnal labeled it, “A National Hymn of Victory Inscribed to the Builders of the ‘League of Nations.'”  The author was the Reverend Allen Eastman Cross (December 30, 1864-April 23, 1942), a Congregationalist minister from Manchester, New Hampshire.

America, America!

The shouts of war shall cease;

The Glory dawns! the Day is come

Of Victory and Peace!

And now upon a larger plan

We’ll build the common good,

The temple of the Love of Man,

The House of Brotherhood!


What though its stones were laid in tears,

Its pillars red with wrong,

Its walls shall rise through patient years

To soaring spires of song!

For on this House shall Faith attend,

With Joy on airy wing,

And flaming loyalty ascend

To God, the only King!


America, America,

Ring out the glad refrain!

Salute the Flag–salute the dead

That have not died in vain!

O Glory! Glory to thy plan

To build the common good,

The temple of the Rights of Man,

The House of Brotherhood!

To mock the optimism and idealism of the texts is easy to do, but I propose that to do so is in error.  No, these hymns did not predict the future accurately.  Yes, the brutality of history since World War I has belied these texts’ highest sentiments, but the dream those hymns represent has never ceased to be a noble one.  The texts are of their time in two senses:  certain references to nations and the level of optimism regarding the future.  Without a goal to which to aspire, however, how are we humans supposed to improve the world?

I value precision in language, so I mark the difference between the Social Gospel and Neo-Orthodoxy.  The former is more optimistic regarding human potential for effecting goodness than is the latter.  Neo-Orthodoxy, with its sober understanding of human nature, incorporates the best of the Social Gospel and emphasizes the human obligation to reform society and its structures for the better while stating that only God can usher in the Kingdom of God.  I read these quoted hymns through my lens of Neo-Orthodoxy and recognize a combination of naiveté and realism as I mourn the fact of those dashed hopes.  May nobody permit pessimism to prevent one from doing what one can to leave the world (or one’s corner of it) better than one found it.  God can save the world, but we can improve it.  We can love our neighbors as we love ourselves and seek to reform unjust social systems and institutions.  We have a moral imperative to do so.







I have provided hyperlinks to some sources.  My other sources were:

Bachmann, E. Theodore, with Mercia Brenne Bachmann.  The United Lutheran Church in America, 1918-1962.  Edited by Paul Rorem.  Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 1997.

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints.  New York:  Church Publishing, 2010.

Mortenen, Enok.  The Danish Lutheran Church in America:  The History and Heritage of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Philadelphia, PA:  Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1967.

The Hymnal Published in 1895 and Revised in 1911 by Authority of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America; with the Supplement of 1917.  Philadelphia, PA:  The Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work.

The Pilgrim Hymnal with Responsive Readings and Other Aids to Worship.  Boston, MA:  The Pilgrim Press, 1912.  Amended and reprinted, 1919.