Throughout middle school, high school, and even into college, I studied French. You’d think I’d be able to speak the language passably. But I haven’t had much opportunity to practice. I’ve only been to France once, for a conference, many years ago. Somehow, through a mixture of broken French and hand signals, I managed to make myself understood, though I suspect I sounded like a bad imitation of Inspector Clouseau.
On that trip, I landed in Paris and had to take a shuttle to a smaller airport in Orly, south of the city, for a connecting flight to the south of France. Traffic was heavy, I missed the flight, and had to rebook. By the time I arrived at my final destination, the car that had been waiting to pick me up was long gone. I had to take a cab and communicate with a driver who spoke no English.
Money needs to be “translated” too, and I hadn’t visited a currency exchange station. For the entire ride — probably about 20 miles — I sat in the backseat of the taxi worrying if I had enough money.
When we arrived, the driver told me how much the fare was. I did a quick mental calculation of the equivalent in U.S. dollars, and gave him more than enough, explaining the exchange rate to him in my high-school French. He seemed perfectly happy with the deal, and off he went.
A few minutes later, I realized he had dropped me in the wrong place.
Fortunately for me, he was only off by a few blocks. I was able to get hold of the organizers of the conference where I was supposed to be speaking, and they sent a car to pick me up.
. . .
Different nations trade in different currencies. And in a sense, each culture and subculture, even at the level of groups and organizations, has its own social currency as well. What do people show that they value — not just by what they say, but by their behavior and priorities? What brings a person higher status?
America, for example, has a culture of “conspicuous consumption.” Our status is shown by the things we buy that others can see. Cars, clothing, you name it: we don’t just buy things because they’re a good value, we buy them because they’ll raise our status in the eyes of others.
But it’s not just about what money can buy. In academia, for example, status is attached to publication. How many books and articles have you written? Were they published by major publishers and top-tier journals? In the world of social media, the currency is views, likes and follows: Hey, I’ll like your site if you like mine...
So when the apostle James writes about the attitudes of the rich and poor, he’s not just talking about money either. He’s talking about status, about what is most valued in the community that supposedly follows Jesus: “Brothers and sisters who are poor should find satisfaction in their high status. Those who are wealthy should find satisfaction in their low status” (James 1:9-10). This sounds paradoxical because it’s upside-down and backwards from the way we typically think, even within the church.
But as we’ll see, it’s also the way Jesus thought and taught.
. . .
What’s your currency? As I suggested above, and as someone who has spent decades in academia, one main institutional currency is publication. It’s a key factor in the tenure and promotion process; it’s how one’s success and impact is measured. “Publish or perish” is a real thing, though we’re nicer about it in a seminary as opposed to a university context.
Still, I have envied how much others have published, or how many books they’ve sold; others have envied me. And I suspect that regardless of how much or how little people have published, everyone wonders to some extent, Have I done enough? Do I belong? Or to put it differently, Given what people value here, am I valued?
This, I think, is similar to what James is trying to get across. What he saw in the church was the same social currency that he saw outside the church. Whether they were aware of it or not, people were judging others by their outward appearance: did they seem rich, or poor? Did they have status? The result was that high status people were being treated with more kindness, courtesy, and deference (cf. James 2:1-4). James will return to that issue in more detail later in the letter.
Meanwhile, he would have us ask what social currency drives the way we treat one another. Jesus, after all, preached what theologian Donald Kraybill referred to as an “upside-down kingdom,” one whose core values ran counter to the values we typically absorb from the world around us. Money and wealth are typical marks of status, but they’re not the only ones.
And if our faith is to be embodied in our behavior, we may first need to exchange our currency.