Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sin (James 5:19-20)

My sisters and brothers, if you should wander from the truth and another should bring you back, remember that whoever turns sinners from the error of their ways saves them from death and cancels a multitude of sins.
James 5:19-20

Our Lady, by Alma Lopez @
James is a tough book to read. It enjoys its present position toward the end of the Greek Scriptures due to the great reformer Martin Luther who considered it a “right strawy epistle.” Although in Luther’s defense, it appears he missed the major emphasis of this book: faith formation as the key element in communal living.

I can also commensurate with James – it takes hard, hard work to build the beautiful community. That is the community where justice and righteousness or harmony and balance mark all relationships.

James (in theory the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem) is interested in the question of power. Particularly the question of how power plays out in a community of equality. James exhorts us to be stringent in the disciplines of the faith. These disciplines call on us to relinquish our hold on control, turn to those in need, and let go of carefully crafted priorities so they may be replaced by priorities of the crucified and resurrected One.

It is James’ unwavering focus on community that stands out. There is little room for the personal journey here. We are all in it together and we need to live compassionately together. Communal living is hard at best. Living compassionately in community is even harder. Love calls me to put others first, to think in terms of selfless concerns, and to move beyond the constraints of my own comfort zones.

Here at the close of his book James speaks of those who “wander from the truth,” and sinners being turned “from the error of their ways.” In conventional thinking by those who hold power this is a sure prohibition against sin. That I agree with. What I disagree with is how conventional thinking defines sin. Typically, this definition slants life against those without power. For the boss the worker is lazy, for the rich the poor steal, for the heterosexual the queer is unnatural.

But James resists this hierarchy of dominance. James, leading from the underbelly, defines sin as giving privilege to the wealthy, spreading false rumors about each other, and faltering in the work of faith formation.

Speaking from the margins for an equitable community James encapsulates what we may well begin to understand as a queer definition of sin – the use of power to subjugate, a dynamic keenly felt and articulated among the dyke community. As a lesbian friend of mine once said, "The sin is not that I love women, the sin is that I have been kept from loving women because 1) I am a woman and 2) I am a lesbian. On both accounts I am lesser than a male and being a lesbian who 'spurns' men I am less than a heterosexual female." She went on to say that if her "lifestyle" is a sin, then she had no problem dyking sin up a bit.

What my friend speaks about is what James wrestles with: helping the underbelly, that is the people oppressed as "sinners," to resist power-centric definitions of sin. This is religious harassment for the purpose of manipulating people through prejudice and self-righteousness. More urgent, then, is James exhortation to “bring back” and “turn sinners from their error” for the sake of the beautiful community.

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