The Law of Freedom

By Oliver O’Donovan

One can never hear St. James’s warning about accepting the claims of social status without being struck by it. But what makes it especially striking is the warning he associates with it, about judging one another. “Have you not become judges who rely on faulty reasoning?” he asks. Instead, be like those who are to be judged by the law of freedom.

Perhaps it is not obvious to us that the little scene he depicts of people coming into church is about judgment at all. “If there enters your assembly a man with gold rings in a spectacular outfit, and then there enters a pauper, shabbily clothed, and you take one look at the man in the spectacular outfit and say, Do sit in this nice seat! and you say to the pauper, You’d better stand, or sit, over there, beside my stool.”

Of course, the ways in which social status are projected in James’s satire strike us as very elementary. Dressing to kill doesn’t get you far these days. When I go into an expensive restaurant (an occasional treat), I look around and see that I am the only man, apart from the waiters, wearing a jacket and tie. Don’t be fooled! my wife says to me. Think what those jeans and tee-shirts cost! Every age has its social signals, and we have ours. The phone, the turn of speech, the spectacles, the hairstyle — “so much more than a haircut!” cries a window-display not a hundred yards from here. They serve to place us just where we want to be in other people’s estimation, to make us a center of attention. How impressionable people are! That is what we recognize at once in James’s little scene. It is not that they are judging, we may think, but that they are incapable of exercising any judgment at all. They are swayed by the slightest breeze of glamour and importance.

Do not hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ together with accepting status! It is a nice word James uses; it means “accepting faces.” “Respect for persons” was how the old versions of the Bible translated it, but since that phrase is easily misunderstood today, more recent translations say “partiality,” which is not quite right. You can have a perfectly good reason for being partial to someone; you may appreciate her sense of humor, enjoy her liveliness, trust the practical head on her shoulders, or whatever. People have different qualities and we appreciate different qualities, which is fine so long as do not close our minds to other qualities which other people have.

But that is not what James is talking about. He is talking about status, which has nothing to do with personal qualities but is created entirely by the social structures that distinguish those who fit in and make their way effectively from those who do not and are left behind. This is about the “face” people show in society. And about our tendency, when presented with the “face” of social competence and success, to take it at its face value. Do not hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ together with accepting face values!

Which is why James’s first response is rather unexpected: Are you not wavering? Back at the beginning of his letter, James taught us to ask for wisdom in faith without wavering, for one who wavers, he said, is like the swell on the sea, driven by the wind. Now James comes back to the same point. Are you not wavering in your sense of purpose? You asked God for wisdom, and now the wind that carries you along is the wind of fashion, social status, wealth and appearances! Are you not wavering in your worship? You hold the faith of the glorious Lord Jesus Christ, but when another kind of glory comes through the door you are enthralled! Are you not wavering in your message? You proclaim that you are brothers and sisters— how often James repeats that! — and yet you have developed a little hierarchy among yourselves, which sends out mixed signals.

Behind this wavering and irresolution, so easily seduced by social pressure, James sees something else, which is judgment. Judging is all about accepting and rejecting, about regarding people and disregarding them. And the best way of exercising judgment, he has told us, is to do it very slowly. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath! We need to hold back on our eagerness to make our minds up about people. Judge not, that you be not judged! Jesus taught, For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get.

So James, too, wants us to remember that we ourselves shall be judged. It is a great aid to a judge’s reasoning to remember the Court of Appeal! Judgment is necessary in society; we should not imagine we can do without it. But there is also judgment that is unnecessary, and in these days there is a great deal of it. When I was young, I thought society was too tolerant, too lazily relaxed about the evils in its midst. Today I find it far too censorious. Is that just me getting older? I am not sure it is. The clamor of constant accusation that fills the columns of the media is all too persistent. At all times, but in these times perhaps even more urgently, Christians need to be different, to look around at all sides of any case, before they speak the critical and accusing word. If we know that we are to be judged, we shall be slow to judge others, suspicious of first appearances, ready to wait and see what better acquaintance may bring.

So how do we teach ourselves again the meaning of Jesus’ “Judge not, that you be not judged”? First of all, James tells us, we fix in our minds who we ourselves are. “Has not God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him?” When we meet in the church, we meet as the poor, in one way or another needing help, for poverty takes many forms. When we meet in the church, we meet as poor people who have, quite contrary to expectations, received from God not the dismissal the poor usually receive, but a special welcome. So we meet in the paradox of Christian existence, knowing our poverty, but not stamped by the demoralization of those whose esteem is low, but with a confidence that we are recipients of the promises of God. That is what it means to be rich in faith.

And there is a logical consequence of this for our place in society. As those who know ourselves dependent on God’s wealth, we have little to expect by way of appreciation in a world that structures its relations quite differently. “Is it not the rich who push you around and drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the good name that has been given you?” Of course, we will reply, that depends on who the rich people in question are. But there is an inherent tendency of power, wealth, status and fashionable opinion to conglomerate and centralize, and that is what sets the terms on which we may or may not be allowed to live in peace. Such a habit is not friendly to the name of Christ, which was given us in our baptism. There were rich Christians in James’s day, and there have been times in history when Christians have exercised considerable power and wealth and have used it for good, as many educational institutions and hospitals bear witness. Yet there has always been the deep tension between the social hierarchies that inevitably form around wealth and the demand of what James calls the royal law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” All Christians, rich and poor, have to learn to handle that tension with humility. The royal law is not just what the politicians call “equality” — a fair chance for all, a level playing field, and so on. It is about seeing life with the neighbor’s eyes, feeling it with the neighbor’s frustration, and hoping for the neighbor, who may have no hope for himself, that he may enter into the riches that are offered him as God’s child. Judging is precisely what stops us looking at our neighbor that way.

“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of freedom.” Why, finally, is the law of love described as the law of freedom? Freedom means that our real nature prevails over defects, constraints, and limitations. The rule of freedom is reality. We act freely, when we know fully what we are doing, who we are who do it, and who the God is that has called us to act in his presence. And the reality of God would set us free from the pressures and demands for conformity and competition that society presses upon us — hard pressures to bear, but ultimately fantasistic and unreal. Our freedom lies in seeing other people and ourselves without the distorting mirror which is constantly held up to our eyes.

And that means being freed from the need always to be judging, which is, of course, the only way we shall ever learn to judge well. Christ’s rule of judgment is that “the judgment you give will be the judgment you get.” And James adds, “Judgment is unmerciful to those who show no mercy.” Hasty judgment on others earns hasty judgment on ourselves. But then he adds the great words: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” That is the law of history, that is the Gospel, that is the nature of God himself. Man lives by judging, but God has intervened to sweep human judgment away and replace it with his own merciful judgment. Our freedom consists in the opportunity, as we pray for his merciful judgment, to learn, perhaps not easily, to judge others mercifully, too.

The Rev. Dr. Oliver O’Donovan is professor emeritus of Christian ethics and practical theology at the University of Edinburgh.


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