Public Virtue


Daily, public figures reveal their lack of basic human decency. This shame of our age displays itself constantly through the hour-long news cycle, with a sexual assault by an actor revealed at noon just before a politician’s unethical exploits hits the wire at 1:00, to be followed by shady dealings of the media itself in the 2:00 hour. Later that day we’ll find the failings of a sports star deliciously paired with the current faux pas of a B- list producer. By the evening, boorish comments from a social media star will begin to register, and there is sure to be some backlash. The evening will certainly bring troubled news from a corporation whose PR machine can’t keep the wrong story out of the news.

A portion of the deluge can be chalked up to the purveyors of news, whose responsibility to fill the networks’ time slots with controversy must impose a heavy burden. This week, I was at the gym on the stationary bike, and thus subjected to the cable news networks dueling stories. CNN and Fox News were competing for my attention with ticker crawls proclaiming “Fashion becomes Political”, and “Twitter Comments Spark Outrage”. They can’t churn out enough real news to pay the bills. I couldn’t pedal fast enough to escape.

There is more to the story than the coverage, though—the exhibits of bad character littered thought the public square are simply what happens when people who neglect character formation remain on display for longer than they can maintain the façade. Of course, few of them were given status because of their character in the first place. We give people fame and power in exchange for a very narrow set of skills (or because they have risen through serendipitous circumstances), and are surprised that such persons fail in tests of character. This surprise is perhaps the most hopeful part of the equation—perhaps something survives within us that truly does desire to see goodness from people.

And yet character formation remains neglected, not only by the famous folk, but by most people. Too few people have mentors helping them develop character, too few have practices that cultivate virtue and which restrain our vices. Humanity seems to recognize the importance of character, but to ignore the paths that lead to its formation.

This, too, makes me believe in the critical mission of the church.

Unpolluted, Unstained

A metaphor for the ritual effect of cussing.

Growing up, I got the sense that when the church talked about being “different from the world”, that was more or less code for a fairly defined set of behaviors, things like cussing, drinking, and sexual activity.  (Maybe smoking, but that was on the fence, at least for anyone over 35 years old.)  Those things represented something like distinctive marks of christian nonbehavior, another layer in addition to the other marks of good people generally agreed upon by society at large: honesty, respect for other people’s property, etc. I don’t honestly know that anybody was really saying that, or if it was just the way my immature mind heard it all, but for a long while I felt like this was a pretty good summary of what people thought it meant be “different than the world” as a Christian. The back half of James 1:27 would have been given that idea words in my young mind—it was a text I often heard in church.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself  from being polluted by the world.

In my understanding, this text gave a kind of summary of faith, with two main ideas.  Do positive things (care for widows and orphans), and don’t do negative things (“keep oneself from being polluted by the world” Read: don’t drink, cuss, or have sex.). Such was my youthful understanding of holiness.  For a preadolescent kid, before fermented or sexual opportunity presented themselves, the bar was admittedly low.  Still, resisting the small amount of pressure I got from wanting to fit in with my friends in the neighborhood who skillfully cursed while we played basketball and kick the can generally made me feel like I was doing what God wanted me to do. As I grew older and was able to generally fend off the other two behaviors in the unholy trinity of worldly behavior, I reinforced within myself the idea that being a Christian person really wasn’t all that tough.  And truthfully, unless you have some addictions or at least some deeply grooved habits, that brand of christianity really isn’t that tough. I mean, when it really comes down to it, you can do whatever the heck you want, as long as you say heck instead of hell. I suppose I could have lived like that for a long time without much problem, except maybe boredom.

When I started really listening to the Bible, though, I started getting a radically different kind of idea about what God wanted me to be like.  Take that verse in James, for instance.  That earlier line of interpretation of what it means to be polluted by the world is pretty easy to understand in the context of our american church culture.  But it doesn’t really ask the important interpretive question, “What did James mean by polluted by the world?” And when you really ask that question, you don’t just get an ambiguous idea of what it means, because James spends a good part of his letter describing what he seems to see as the influence of the world.  Indeed, the section right after this verse, in James 2, rails against viewing rich people as more valuable than poor people.  At the end of chapter 3, he talks about wisdom that’s worldly as being marked by envy and selfishness.  That discussion that trails into the beginning of chapter 4 where being covetous about physical wealth (and perhaps the honor and respect that came with it) sparks James to ask, “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God.”  His rant goes throughout that chapter, and in the back half of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five he uses some pretty flaming rhetoric to talk about the wealthy who presume to set their own agendas without concern for God’s authority over their existence or concern for the needs of the poor! (Seriously, that language in chapter 5 is smoking hot. No wonder it is probably the least publicly read part of James.) When you read all of that together, you can begin to put some content in James’s phrase “keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. It’s not just a few nitpicky behaviors that James is concerned about. James critiques the whole assumption of the world that we have no responsibility for other people, that our wealth is our own to do with as we please. To the extent that I adopt that mentality, I have allowed the world to pollute my faith.

James’s statement about true religion here isn’t a divided concept. Widows and orphans were an important group of “the poor” for the Jewish mind, people who were defenseless and vulnerable without the financial or legal help of other people. Caring for them is a specific expression of what people who are unpolluted by the world do. It is a way people show that they don’t think of their possessions as truly their own.

See, true religion is inconvenient.  Not because of all those church meetings that keep us from sleeping in on Sundays, or it might refine my beverage selection. It forces me to reevaluate the way I think about stuff, and my relationship with it.  It forces me to take responsibility for the poor and the way they are treated in my society. It keeps me from just doing whatever the heck I want. It challenges my “wants”, my desires, my greed, as motivations for my life.

It raises the bar.

There are certain behaviors that we have come to think of as producing something like a moral stain, a sin grease mark that has to be dealt with, and we often think about the biblical language of defilement in those terms almost exclusively. But we could take a significant step forward in understanding our faith if we can grasp that the real stains on our souls are not just behavioral slip-ups.  They are the deep stains of materialism, the deep stains of our thought patterns and habits, colored by the assumptions of the world around us. 

The opposite of being polluted by the world is precisely what James mentions in the first half of 1:27, the care for the widows and orphans. It’s what the Hebrew Bible refers to as “justice and righteousness”, a way of living in the world that respects the dignity of each of our neighbors as an image bearer of God. In the spirit of James, the practice of justice and righteousness is not just the maintaining the absence of evil—it is about the active love of our neighbors that goes beyond words and is fulfilled in action.