Eschatology, belief about the end times based on Scripture, is central to Seventh-day Adventist theology. However, Adventist eschatology suffers from its abstractedness. Its intense focus on an imagined future too often results in detachment from the concrete realities of the present.
Partially to blame is neglect of a crucial aspect of biblical eschatology–its socio-political nature. From their beliefs about the soon coming of Jesus, the New Testament authors derived an obligation to work within the social sphere, on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.
The Adventist Church could revitalize its mission with a message focused on addressing such issues. That would entail fearlessly advocating for those marginalized by the inequalities intrinsic to global capitalism. Such a socially-conscious, practical eschatology finds its exemplary prototype in the book of James. The book offers great insight for Adventism today.
The epistle of James presents valuable wisdom for a Christian community living at the perceived end of history. The epistle is not focused on eschatology, but its text is steeped in expectation of the end times and the soon coming (parousia) of Jesus. The author exhorts his readers to “Strengthen [their] hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” and proclaims that “the Judge is standing at the doors!” (5:8-9). This is an earnest injunction for spiritual endurance in light of the forthcoming consummation of the kingdom of heaven.
During that age of expectation, Christians were told to anticipate suffering and testing. A genuinely Christian way of living was inherently subversive and would put its adherents in opposition to the world.
In that light, a contemporary end-times message should unashamedly practice a lifestyle and advance a message that challenges structures of authority. The life of a Christian who expects Jesus’ soon return must have tangible effects in the world.
Informed by his eschatology, James sees religious ethics as a primary matter of concern for Christians. The most famous passage in James is an affirmation of this practical religion: “Faith without works is dead” (2:17). While these words are pervasive in the discussion of faith as it relates to salvation, their social significance is often not considered.
James makes this assertion in a discussion of poverty. The statement is a repudiation of Christians who fail to act towards alleviating the suffering of the needy, those who are “naked” and “[lack] daily food” (2:15-16). In contrast to dead faith, James elsewhere describes religion that is “pure and undefiled before God the Father,” which is, namely, “to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).
For James, a faith that does not function in service for the most vulnerable is dead. Therefore, a church that is not attuned towards the plight of the poor is a worthless church. Poverty is of central importance for James and the church’s response to it serves as a litmus test of the genuineness of its Christianity. The church must recognize socio-economic issues like endemic poverty, and act towards solutions in accordance with its role as the body of Christ.
A deep-seated care for the vulnerable must come with a willingness to impugn the institutions and people that marginalize them. James did this readily. Observing the injustices of his day, he unabashedly exposed the spiritual decrepitness of an upper class that oppresses the meek.
One demonstration of this is a magnificently provocative section near the end of the book:
“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure during the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you” (James 5:1-4 NRSVUE).
Pedrito Maynard-Reid, in Poverty and Wealth in James, a book that explores the social context of James, provides great insight into the economic exploitation that James decries. Members of the rich, landowning class of first-century Palestine would systematically drive small farmers out of business, acquire their land, and force them to work as wage laborers (pages 82-92).
It is such behavior that James denounces as an affront to God himself. Such strong language is seldom heard within the church of today. But social injustices of the sort that James describes require an outcry of righteous indignation.
Though the words are caustic, they elucidate a beautiful picture of God, a picture echoed throughout scripture. James’s rhetoric seems intentionally reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets, who regularly denounced the powerful on behalf of the marginalized. He could also have in mind the words of Jesus, who according to the gospels uttered similar condemnations of the rich and warnings against the accumulation of wealth.
(For a great look at social justice in the Hebrew Bible, see Bruce V. Malchow’s Social justice in the Hebrew Bible. And for insightful discussions of possible influences on James’s social theology, see pages 24-37, 81-86 of Maynard-Reid’s Poverty and Wealth and Peter Davids’ The Epistle of James.)
James both adopts a prophetic role and incorporates strong apocalyptic language. The behavior of the rich is particularly offensive in light of the soon coming of Christ. An imminent judgment is evident, and the testimony stands against the wealthy: “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (5:4).
These sources affirm an incredible truth, that the God of creation has a particular concern for the poor and oppressed of the world. This is the nature of a God of love and of care.
Christians today profess belief in this God, but they often fail to care for the needy. By upholding the needs of the marginalized and speaking prophetically against exploitation, Christians can align their priorities with those of the God they serve.
This moment demands a prophetic message and movement as much as any other moment in history. Economic exploitation of the sort that James describes has not died out. Quite the contrary, globalization has produced economic exploitation on a worldwide scale.
The agricultural industry remains among the most exploitative, often relying on trafficked laborers that receive little to no pay.
Virtually every sector of the global supply chain, from textile manufacturing to cobalt mining, is to some extent built on inequality, exploitation, trafficking, and slavery.
Global industry profits from the oppression of the poor. With that being the case, the words of James remain poignant. The rightful wages kept back from laborers cry out. The God of James, of the prophets, and of Jesus, is surely indignant. God’s people must respond accordingly, speaking out against the injustice inherent to current economic systems.
A truly last-day focused Christian movement must stand against the world and its institutions of power. Social justice advocacy, over and against the powers of injustice, is a clear-cut manifestation of the Christian faith.
Reflecting God’s concern for the marginalized, the Christian must take up the prophetic task of standing up on the behalf of the poor and denouncing the unjust nature of current hierarchies. With the coming of Jesus soon at hand, the church must hold itself to the standard of pure and undefiled religion by looking out for the poor. The message of justice for the meek and oppressed is the lost last day message that the church and the world desperately needs.