I work for part of my time as the manager of a community organisation in Sheffield called Darnall Forum. It provides adult community learning, especially for people who didn’t grow up speaking English, gives employment advice and runs the local post office. But ‘austerity’ has hit us hard.
Older readers will remember a song about a Wild West settler called George whose wagon - loaded with all his possessions and carrying his wife and children too - is being pursued by Cherokee Indians. ‘Three wheels on my wagon,’ he sings, ‘But I’m still rolling along!’ That’s how it often feels at Darnall Forum. The wheels are coming off the wagon, one by one, but we’re still just about rolling along.
My wife sometimes asks me, ‘How long is Darnall Forum going to keep going?’ and I never know the answer. James tells his readers, ‘You should know better than to say, “We’ll do business in the City for a year and make a lot of money.” What do you know,’ he goes on, ‘About tomorrow?’ Well I certainly think Darnall Forum will never make a lot of money any time soon, but, as I said to someone the other day, ‘Tomorrow continually surprises me.’
And it continually surprises politicians, doesn’t it? I predicted a month ago, when we were reflecting on the lessons we might learn from the sudden and unexpected defeat of a proud and mighty ruler in the time of the Prophet Isaiah, that Theresa May would be in trouble if she didn’t win a landslide in the general election. It seems her advisers would have done well to consider James’s words, ‘What do you know about tomorrow?’
The same advice applies to every one of us, doesn’t it? Human beings are hardwired to be optimistic and to make plans for the coming week, the coming month and the coming year, on the assumption that life will go on much as before. If we weren’t made that way our ancestors would never have dared to get up in a morning and go out onto the plains to hunt and forage for their dinner. They would have been so worried that a leopard was going to jump on them that they would have pulled the covers over their heads and stayed by the embers of last night’s campfire.
No one goes to a concert, or out to dinner, or sightseeing, or to pray, or to bed in their own home, thinking that some terrible tragedy is suddenly going to unfold around them. But James asks, ‘How can you be so sure about your life?’ He doesn’t want us to be totally dismayed, but he counsels that ‘[our life] is nothing more than mist, which appears for only a little while before it disappears.’
That could seem a rather bleak way of looking at things and, as I said, thinking like that runs counter to the way we’ve evolved as a species. Except that James doesn’t tell us we shouldn’t be optimistic. He just reminds us to temper our optimism with a bit of humility. He advises us to think like this, ‘If the Lord lets us live, we will do these things.’ In other words, life doesn’t owe us a living. We should place our trust in God and hope that - whatever comes our way - he will help us to accept and deal with it.
This doesn’t mean that James is fatalistic. He isn’t suggesting that everything which happens in life is the way God means it to be. There used to be a verse in ‘All thing bright and beautiful’ which went,
‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.’
That’s far from the way James thinks about life. If he wants us to be humble, and not to expect too much out of life, that doesn’t mean he wants us to be passive and put up with injustice and wrongdoing. As one commentator puts it, ‘For James holiness without justice is an impossibility,’ so we can’t be holy just by putting up with things the way they are now. We can only be holy by working for change.
James warns wealthy people, ‘Here on earth, you have thought only of filling your own stomachs and having a good time. You keep on storing up wealth in these last days. You refused to pay the people who worked in your fields, and now their unpaid wages are shouting out against you. The Lord All-Powerful has surely heard [their] cries.’
Is James thinking here about the parable of the rich farmer, who built bigger and bigger barns to store his surpluses in, only to die before he could enjoy the benefits? If so, he’s referring to a longer version where it turned out that the farmer was amassing so much wealth only because he was exploiting his workers.
We may not be farmers but the lesson still applies to our situation. In Sheffield the City Council reluctantly gave planning permission for a big new store, but on the strict condition that the store’s owners employed as many local people as possible. This was partly because the Council’s public health officers had warned that traffic pollution, caused by cars queuing to get into the store car park, would shorten the lives of local residents. However, having a job helps people live a little longer, so the officers hoped to balance out the harm caused by extra pollution with the benefit brought by providing extra jobs for unemployed people.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that. Only five per cent of the jobs went to local residents. And this is just typical of a pattern of broken promises, where local people - who will be the worst affected by a new development - are given assurances that turn out to be just as elusive as the mist that James described.
Of course, the same sort of thing happens round here sometimes, too. This week I conducted the funeral of someone who, back in the 1950s, helped to build the British Coal power station at Grimethorpe. As he went on to hold a very responsible position, working on contracts across the North of England, I surmised that he might also have been involved in a groundbreaking experiment at Grimethorpe to see whether electricity generated by burning coal could be made more efficient and environmentally friendly. If you’ve not heard about this so-called ‘clean-burn technology’ it’s because in 1988 the government decided to stop funding it.
One of the local MPs protested to an empty House of Commons. He said, ‘The project has been very successful. The decision to withdraw funding is somewhat shortsighted, not only because of the continued threat to jobs and the community in that area, but because of the mounting pressure both in Britain and throughout the world for more environmentally acceptable methods of producing electricity.’ But, of course, his and the protests of other local MPs fell on deaf ears and we all know how the story ended.
Of course, our problems pale into insignificance compared to the issue of cladding high rise tower blocks with materials that weren’t fire resistant, just to save £5,000 out of a £10 million project. No wonder James warns that people who make these kinds of decision may sometimes ‘have condemned and murdered innocent people, who couldn’t even fight back.’
What is James’s answer to injustice and wrongdoing? Well, he tells us to ‘be patient like farmers who wait patiently for the spring and summer rains to make their valuable crops grow and don’t give up.’
I’ve been trying to grow dwarf runner beans and French beans this summer. I must have planted a couple of hundred seeds. At first I planted them under cover. The first batch either didn’t come up,because of the cold, or rotted because the compost was too damp. I tried again, and this time those that survived withered in the hot sun. So then I planted them either directly into the ground, in a raised bed, or in containers, only to have the birds hunt for them very efficiently, leaving me with about five plants so far to show for all my efforts! I must admit my patience is running out.
But James says, ‘Be patient and follow the example of the prophets who spoke for the Lord. They were patient, even when they had to suffer.’ Notice again how James doesn’t ask us to do nothing, to stoically put up with what’s wrong. He tells us to be to be like the prophets and speak against injustice and wrongdoing, even if we have to suffer. There’s nothing easy about the faith of James. He expects us to have to struggle for what is right, to endure setbacks and to face hardship and challenge. However, he offers us this promise, ‘Finally [the Lord will help us]… because he is so merciful and kind.’