The Letter of James in contexts of inequality: A Latin American Perspective

Alejandra Ortiz

The ministry of IFES in Latin America and the Caribbean has adapted to the reality of the pandemic. Online events have become the norm. But moving the student ministry online in this continent is a privilege. Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean is also revealed by the amount of people who have access to internet and digital services. While almost 70% of the wealthiest households have internet access, less than 40% of the poorest families have access at home. It is estimated that only about 20% of Latin Americans are able to choose to work from home[1]. I became more aware of how privileged we really are when my husband and I were invited to give a talk on the book of James to IFES student leaders in the Andean states (Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador). As we delved into the book, we recognised our own situation and the many benefits of being able to isolate ourselves at home, with two small children and jobs that continue in the virtual world.

Latin America and the Caribbean are the most unequal regions in the world. Ours is a history of conquest, exploitation and plunder. To this day, transnational agreements and large corporations trample on workers’ rights, thousands of people suffer labour or sexual exploitation, and farmers and indigenous people continue to be dispossessed of their lands, either by large landowners or by violence and crime. Latin American and Caribbean countries suffer inequality gaps that are caused by the concentration of power, widespread violence, lack of protection for the most vulnerable and perceptions of inequality itself.2 The United Nations Development Programme Report mentions the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic worsens many of the inequalities and primarily affects access to education, thus having an impact on young people. While gaps in access to basic education have closed, access to and completion of higher education remains a privilege.3 It is estimated that 10%-25% of university students have dropped out or will drop out of university during the pandemic.4 There are many different reasons for this, but financial uncertainty, added to the need for internet access, puts the poorest students and those from rural and indigenous communities at a greater disadvantage, and they are unable to continue their studies.

What does inequality have to do with IFES movements?

Inequality in Latin America is a result of injustice and takes on many forms. Inequality exists when accessing food, housing, social protection, health and education. While some people have no problem meeting their basic needs and have enough to spare to store resources, 20% of Latin Americans do not have enough to eat.5 Inequality kills and also causes and spreads violence throughout the region. It is not surprising that Latin America is also the most violent region in the world. IFES movements are no strangers to these dangerous conditions. Some of these situations are studied at university, but students are still vulnerable to inequalities and violence. Many students are unable to stay in university because of their precarious financial situation, despite being the ones who have historically protested against inequality and injustice in their own countries. Education and the university, in essence, must contribute to the common good.

As Christians, our commitment to God’s Kingdom also leads us to work towards the common good. As N.T. Wright said in the last issue of Word & World, the Church of Christ “(…) is a sign and foretaste of God’s purpose for the whole world ”.6 God, through Jesus, has brought his Kingdom to earth and allows us to take part in it. God’s Kingdom has another logic that is very different from that of the kingdoms, powers and empires of this world. It is a kingdom of love, life, justice and peace that is not imposed, but made evident through those who follow Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus further describes the nature of this counter-cultural Kingdom announced by the prophets in the Old Testament and brought forth by Jesus himself. In his letter, James reminds us of many of Jesus’ teachings and, like other New Testament letters, helps us to live for God’s Kingdom, praying for its coming and looking forward to its fulfilment at the end of time.

So, ignoring the forces that bring death and perpetuate violence and injustice does not allow us to fight for peace, justice and life. If we acknowledge all the grace and privileges that university students and professionals have in Latin America, but we fail to think about the ways God invites us to serve and use what he has given us to promote the well-being of others, we will just be selfish disciples. The gospel is good news for all people, without distinction, and it invites us to live out this good news. In a continent where inequality is rife, which longs for good news for all, sharing the gospel cannot be separated from living it out. Our faith must be accompanied by action. The calling to live out the gospel and God’s Kingdom will look different for each person, but it demands our allegiance, to love God above all else, and our neighbour.

What does James tell us?

The letter of James is simple, but it is not easy to read and process. Not surprisingly, it has been a somewhat ignored and despised letter in church history. Its apostolic authority and canonicity were even questioned.7 It is a “dangerous” book for those who want to live a life of comfort and privilege, and it is full of challenging warnings and recommendations, particularly for the rich and for those who, despite being Christians, discriminate against the poor and favour the powerful. James gives pastoral recommendations based on the teachings of Jesus and calls for the repentance of those who are replicating the models of the world in their use of power and money, and stripping the poor of their dignity.

In the first-century world that James lived in, violence and uncertainty about the future prevailed. Financial insecurity and political oppression were daily occurrences. The communities of believers were not exempt, and inequality was present in their midst. Some believers were slaves or peasants who barely had enough to eat because they had been dispossessed of their land, while others served as patrons and could take pride in their status. The problem was discrimination based on economic criteria, appearance and convenience. In the Roman world, it was difficult to think of climbing the social ladder, but it was essential to have a patron or benefactor for legal protection and economic favours.8

James’ call to repentance for pursuing selfish aspirations makes perfect sense, because the brothers and sisters in the church were more interested in satisfying their own needs and desires than in the welfare of others (James 4:1-3). In his letter, James warns about the deceitfulness of riches and favouritism toward the rich: Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?” (James 2:5-6).James also tells us what true religion is – looking after those who are vulnerable (James 1:26-27). Finally, he leaves us with no excuse when he declares that faith and wisdom without action (compassion, justice and solidarity) are dead (James 2:14-26 and 3:13-18).

How can our faith respond to inequality?

Christians who start university with aspirations of social advancement, more money, and greater comforts are confronted with this letter. When we talk with Christian students, they normally tell us that their motivation for going to university is the same as everyone else’s: mainly personal and family wellbeing. The letter of James calls us to lament and repent.

From my perspective, IFES movements in Latin America and the Caribbean are at risk of not recognising our privilege and therefore not accepting our responsibility. If we fail to do this, we will perpetuate ideas that lead to inequality and discriminatory practices against the weakest and most vulnerable people in our countries. For those with access to university education, it is easy to dismiss or ignore the needs of the poorest members of society. Many mistakenly believe that enrolling in university is the result of family and personal effort, and they lack a clear perspective of the responsibility of such privilege and grace. Ignoring inequality perpetuates injustice.9

Many young people do not access university education because they do not aspire to do so. For example, studies show that the inequality gap will widen because of the amount of people dropping out of school due to the pandemic, because the poorest children and young people do not have enough family support to face the challenges of education, basic conditions to study or digital tools to learn from home.10 Being aware of the reality of our context and the particular stories of the most vulnerable is an antidote to pride and the myth of meritocracy.

James invites us to live counter-culturally, to name, call out and not replicate the structures of inequality we find in the world as we live out our faith in our Lord Jesus. Our work personally and as a community must involve discerning motivations, desires and passions, allowing Scripture to reveal to us our selfishness and friendship with the world. In order to confess, we need to turn to the honesty of lament and repentance in the face of our desires to be, to have and to accumulate which do not lead to love. Prophetic criticism of systems of oppression is the fruit of resistance, individually and as a community, to the forces that oppose life.

The way Christian university students respond will be diverse and creative, if they are dedicated to God’s Kingdom and his justice. There are no recipes, but we are inspired to be faithful to God and to love our neighbour in a radical and supportive way. Calling out prophetically does not replace sharing the gospel – these two things go hand in hand. IFES movements, faithful to Scripture and context, will take the proclamation of the good news of Jesus seriously, presenting it as good news for all, especially the most vulnerable. God’s Kingdom is present. As Christian university students, professionals and academics, the grace we receive is just that: grace. There is no room for pride because God does not prefer the powerful, successful and rich. God gives grace to the humble.

IFES has many examples of people being creatively faithful to God’s Kingdom. As part of the Logos and Cosmos Initiative in Latin America, which seeks to foster dialogue between science and faith, there are university professors and academics, dedicated to God and to the university, who are being trained in this area. They are an inspiration and a clear example of how you can use your career to serve others. I would like to mention two of them. Sandra, from Mexico, is a university lecturer who is pursuing a PhD in Community Psychology, and her field of research is violence and enforced disappearances in her country. Her work has led her to seek changes in legislation, to accompany search brigades, to encourage the church to provide this type of support, and to work for God’s restorative justice, the fruit of which is peace. Johnny, from Guatemala, is studying a Master’s degree in Development, Economics and Climate Change and his motivation is to promote sustainable development in his country. Johnny wants to address development issues in rural areas by studying the relationship between poverty relief efforts and the protection of natural resources. His interest lies in both academic dialogue and practice.

To conclude, I would like to leave some questions for reflection, hoping that our faithfulness to the gospel will lead us to respond. How do we respond to the challenges of the letter of James in our contexts? In what way are our privileges a grace from God? What inequalities do I see around me? What have I received by grace which God invites me to use to serve others? I hope we are able to find creative answers in our lives to these and other questions, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Questions for discussion

  1. Ortiz details the scope of economic inequality throughout Latin America, and describes some of the impact on university study and student ministry. How do you see this kind of inequality affecting studies and ministry in your area? What might the Letter of James have to say about your response? 
  2. ‘As Christians, our commitment to the Kingdom of God also leads us to contribute to the common good.’ How should this conviction shape our approach to student ministry and to the university itself? 
  3. How is the context in which James first wrote similar to what you see in your region? How is it different? How do these similarities and differences impact your understanding and application of what James teaches? 
  4. ‘For Christians entering college with aspirations of social advancement, more money, and greater comforts, this letter confronts us.’ Do you see this in your own life, and/or in the lives of your academic colleagues? How does reading James help us confront and grow beyond these motivations? 

ENDNOTES

1 “Coronavirus Reveals Inequality in Internet Access and Digital Technology in Latin America: ECLAC,” Voice of America, accessed September 29, 2021, https://www.vozdeamerica.com/a/ america-latina_coronavirus-revela- desigualdad-acceso-internet-tecnologia-digital/6067517.html. 

2 “REGIONAL HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT 2021. Trapped: High Inequality and Low Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean,” accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.onu.org.mx/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/undp-rblac-PNUD_IRDH-2021_ES.pdf, 2. 

3 Ibid., 38. 

4 Julie Turkewitz, “Millions Drop Out of College in Latin America Because of Pandemic,”The New York Times, September 4, 2020, sec. in Spanish, https://www.nytimes.com/es/2020/09/04/ espanol/america-latina/crisis-universidades-coronavirus.html

5 “REGIONAL HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT 2021. Trapped: High Inequality and Low Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean”, 23. 

6 N.T. Wright, “Undermining Racism,” IFES Word and World, Race and Justice, no. 9 (June 2021): 18. 

7 Samuel Escobar and Eduardo Delás, Santiago, la fe viva que impulsa a la mission (Lima: Puma, 2013), 11.

8 Maria Luisa Melero, Letter of James (Spain: Verbo Divino, 2015)., 37. 

9 “REGIONAL HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT 2021. Trapped: High Inequality and Low Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean”, 113. 

10 Ibid., 79-81.

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