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What in the kosmos does this have to do with James 1:27?

For those of our readers who are agnostics, atheists, Bhuddists, Hindus, New Agers, seekers, post-Christian, neo-pagan, or secular-curious, this post will be an interesting little sociological peek into what makes Christians do some of the things they do (particularly the things they do for orphans).  For Christian readers it may make you rethink some of the things you do for orphans.  For me, it explains a bit of what the Apparent Project is all about:

If you begin working on behalf of orphans you will quickly notice that a good majority of the professionals working in the field are Christians.  Besides a long history of involvement within Catholic and Mainline churches, there is a strong orphan and adoption focused movement growing in the Evangelical world right now.  Culturally, this flows out of a re-appropriation of service and social justice after years of neglect due to a theological schism over the “social gospel”, a protestant allergy to “works based righteousness”, and the perception that the liberal church was valuing social aims over fidelity to Biblical fundamentals.   Now there is a slow but growing repentance from the rather gnostic way that Evangelicals have preferred spiritual practices, concern for the afterlife, and a focus on doctrine to the exclusion of the long obscured but abundantly clear Biblical mandate to affirm and steward creation, heal the broken, care for the poor, and bring liberation wherever there is earthly oppression or bondage.  In short, we are realizing that we have been so heavenly minded that we were doing no earthly good, and more importantly, we are realizing that Jesus called us to do earthly good.  In fact, the Bible tells us, all of creation groans waiting for us to show God’s character through these actions.

Belief in the authority of the Bible is a hallmark of what it means to be Evangelical.  With new receptivity of the historical justice causes of the Church, Evangelicals have fresh eyes and ears open to Biblical texts that directly confront poverty and human misery in its’ many forms.    One of the most forceful and overt of these justice-affirming texts is James’ description of the kind of religion that God desires in chapter 1, verse 27 of his letter.  He says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

This verse, more than any other in the Scriptures, has inspired thousands of people to enter into orphan-focused work.  Why this has not created a similar movement for widows may be left to conjecture, but if you talk to many of the organizational leaders in the orphan care and adoption movements, James 1:27 will likely be quoted. For example, read this or this.   I will say that from the moments that led to the founding of the Apparent Project, this verse has inspired confidence in our pursuit of adoption and our desire to get involved in some kind of full time work in orphan care.  

But what about that last part of the verse?  The part that says that the religion God accepts is not only orphan and widow care, but keeping oneself from being polluted by the world?This call to be “unpolluted” may bring up an uncomfortable suspicion that maybe the Bible-thumping moralists with southern accents on TV are right, and that God is more interested in us being good than in us being made whole by His goodness. But what does this demand for purity have to do with orphans and widows?  I’ve never heard somebody connect those thoughts, so I did a little probing into the Greek and was surprised by what I found.  

Typically, Evangelicals major on purity.  Our preoccupation with sexual sins and shameful malfeasance tend to obscure our neglect of sins of religious pride, unforgiveness, or unjust participation in a system of inequitable global wages, for example.  Most evangelicals assume that this kind of moral purity (not being naughty) is what James is talking about when he says that God’s religion of choice is for us to remain “unpolluted by the world”. But that’s NOT what James said.  The problem is the word “world”.  

The Greek word in James 1:27 that is generally translated “world” in our English bibles is “kosmos“.  This can mean world, but it can also mean “adornment” “ornament” or “decoration” or in today’s vernacular “bling bling”.  Knowing that the chapter and verse markings were not there in the original text, if we read on into chapter 2 as the original readers would have (without pausing) James’ meaning becomes exceptionally clear.  He is talking about jewelry!  Here’s what the text says with the verse/chapter markers removed and with a better translation of 1:27: 

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted tainted by the world the appearance of excess. My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

This makes a whole lot more sense now, doesn’t it?  James 1:27’s call to orphan and widow care is contextualized in the popular cultural predisposition of the time to ignore the weak and prefer association with the powerful.  Doesn’t that sound familiar?  At that time jewelry and adornment were more specifically and exclusively associated with wealth.  This is why when Peter said, “Do not let your beauty be that outward adorning of arranging the hair, of wearing gold, or of putting on fine apparel, but let it be the hidden person of the heart,” he was actually bringing a great affirmation to those who could not afford fineries.  We see the same association of jewelry with class status when Clement of Alexandria says, “Women who wear gold seem to me to be afraid, lest, if one strip them of their jewelry, they would be mistaken for servants, without their adornments.”  James’ is speaking to this world when he ties care of orphans and widows to not being compromised by “bling bling”.  The rest of the thought then ties “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless” to the great commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  

This is where we feel that the Apparent Project comes into focus in our context in Haiti.  Orphan care is not “loving your neighbor as yourself” if wealthy American families are seen as preferable to Haitian impoverished families and thousands of dollars are being spent to take kids to America while their families in Haiti only needed a few hundred to feed them or start a business.  The “distress” of orphans in our context is often their moment of trauma… the moment at which a mother looks into the eyes of a child she loves and thinks that it may be time to sever that bond in order for the child to be saved from starvation.  To visit the Haitian orphan “in his or her distress”, then, is often to prevent them from ever becoming an orphan.  Similarly,  an “attitude of personal favoritism” is the only thing that would make somebody choose to help the child but not the mother or father.  Or, beyond this, an “attitude of personal favoritism” is why we have a well established orphan movement, but lag so far behind with widows.  Widows aren’t usually as cute, and they don’t draw the same kind of funding!  To “love our neighbor as we love ourselves” we must ask what we would want for our own kids if poverty led us to the brink of giving them away.  Would we want help to keep them?  Would we want a close friend or a nearby family member to take them in?  Would we want a foreigner to fly in and take them away?  Only personal favoritism… our preference for our own culture, or for our own standard of living, or for our own traditions and styles of parenting… only those things will muddle our ability to respond to the poor as God desires.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the orphan in Haiti, but there is a one-size-fits all love… and it is the kind of unshrinkable, unshakable care and attention to the details of the heart “in distress” that reduces the distance between cultures, class, gender, ethnicity, family structure, and any other category to see another eye to eye and ask the other what they really want, as if speaking to a mirror.  Equality is essential for true love, and love is the essence of God.  

So what in the “kosmos” does the Apparent Project have to do with James 1:27?  We are turning the “kosmos” upside down.  Decoration, ornament, and adornment are not being used to distinguish the wealthy, but to build a bridge between them and the poor. The dignified work of the poor is bringing them to the table of the global economy.   “Special attention” is on the orphan and widow as they make rings and fine clothes and are celebrated by celebrities and kings!  Our artisans are the special guests of honor at the “assemblies” of jewelry parties where women and men with more means consider their stories and their skills. They are not only preventing their children from becoming orphans, but they are even using their earnings to care for other orphaned children!  Their materials echo their story of honor in the ordinary by bringing beauty out of garbage and mud.  What could have been discarded has been preserved and what has been discarded has been redeemed!  What a beautiful ironic turn! 

  1. Good article.. may it be read far and wide.

  2. "The "distress" of orphans in our context is often their moment of trauma… the moment at which a mother looks into the eyes of a child she loves and thinks that it may be time to sever that bond in order for the child to be saved from starvation. To visit the Haitian orphan "in his or her distress", then, is often to prevent them from ever becoming an orphan."

    "To "love our neighbor as we love ourselves" we must ask what we would want for our own kids if poverty led us to the brink of giving them away. Would we want help to keep them? Would we want a close friend or a nearby family member to take them in? Would we want a foreigner to fly in and take them away?"

    Those are the two most powerful lines in this for me. Great read, Corrigan. May you and your team be a catalyst for changing the way evangelicals think about this. You need to write a book.

    Do you know what the numbers are for "true orphans" vs. "financial orphans" in Haiti?

  3. Great post, Corrigan. I don't know you, obviously, but I think you and I are thinking along the same lines here. I've written some posts recently that echo many of your thoughts here. michaelvfunderburk.wordpress.com

    Thanks for what you do.

  4. Love this, Corrigan. You have a way with words and a gift of writing! Thanks for sharing. We couldn't agree with you more!

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