Wealth and Poverty in the Letter of James


The letter of James is famed for its stirring ethical clarity. This is especially true of its teachings on wealth and poverty, which constitute one of the leading concerns of James’ missive. In this essay, I will argue that James provides a coherent ethical view of wealth and poverty for his audience,[1] which undergirds his specific exhortations on the matter. The essay itself will unfold in three (unequal) sections. First, I will exegetically survey the relevant passages in James, parsing his main lines of thought according to three, conceptual categories: the epistle’s notion of eschatological reversal; its prophetic critique of wealth and economic injustice; and its forceful moral entreaties. Second, I will “delve beneath” those initial results and argue that the ethics of the OT and of Jesus have decisively shaped James’ economic teachings. Finally, I shall outline the implications of the aforementioned, particularly in relation to James’ overall theological-ethical agenda. Indeed, it is within this overarching framework that James’ economic counsel must be placed, as he sets out his vision for a people renewed, living in a liminal age.

James’ Teachings

The five main passages on wealth and poverty in James (1:9-11; 1:27; 2:1-7; 2:14-17; 5:1-6) reflect a cohesive programme for how to approach these matters. I have grouped James’ teachings within three inter-related categories, linked by his theocentric outlook: the eschatological reversal of status; prophetic denunciations of the (unrighteous) wealthy; and exhortations towards proper treatment of the destitute. These categories represent different facets of the larger issue of wealth and poverty in James’ epistle, evincing a spirit of social and economic egalitarianism.[2] Moreover, because these threads are woven into James’ controlling narrative, I shall pick them up at the essay’s end.

James’ teachings on wealth and poverty often focus on the eschatological reversal of the fortunes of rich and poor.[3] Indeed, James signals his conviction that present struggles (cf. 1:2-4) – borne out of economic deprivation and/or the exploitation of the poor by the rich[4] – are transitory, subject to God’s ultimate (i.e. eschatological) verdict and purposes.[5] This lies behind his initial exhortations on the matter, in 1:9-11: the Christian in lowly circumstances (“brother”) should exult in his “high position,”[6] whilst the “one who is rich” should focus upon his “low position.”[7] For James, present status and hierarchies will be overturned – reversed – when God’s purposes are fully and finally revealed. Poor believers are to “take pride” in their impending vindication in God’s kingdom, and are encouraged to look beyond their current earthly status (v.9);[8] the rich, on the other hand, are to “boast” in nothing more than the fact that they have been accepted as servants within that same kingdom (v.10-11).[9]

James 1:9-11 effectively argues that God will erase present injustices.[10] Believers should therefore evaluate themselves by spiritual, not material, standards, and orient their lives around God’s final purposes, rather than the present.[11] James underscores the ephemeral nature of riches when he says that the affluent believer may pass away even as he goes about his business (v.11). Life’s impermanence, James implies, should caution against overreliance on material goods for one’s security; thoughts of self-sufficiency, owing to economic security, are anathema (cf. 4:13-16). Significantly, James speaks of one’s future eschatological position as simultaneously present – of a status that is already a reality, even if it awaits final consummation.[12] I will return to the larger issue of this tension at the essay’s end.

Eschatological reversal also surfaces in Jas 2:1-7. There, James castigates his audience for discriminating between people based upon their socio-economic status – an issue that seems to have been very real in the communities to which James wrote, given the space he devotes to the matter.[13] James partly bases his criticisms on the fact that such favouritism is wholly contrary to God’s own special concern for the lowly and downtrodden – demonstrated particularly in the fact that he has “chosen” the poor to inherit his kingdom (v.5).[14] Like 1:9-11, the ethical exhortations in 2:1-7 are partly rooted in God’s eschatological judgments. Because the Creator and Judge has deigned to exalt the poor, any kind of behaviour within the church that mirrors the stratified world around it is sinful. James 2:1-7 also contrasts earthly poverty with spiritual wealth (esp. v.5), implying that worldly status and divine worth do not necessarily coincide. James’ point is clear: not only is it wrong to treat poor brethren so disdainfully, as it is they to whom God directs his mercy; a believer’s present earthly position, whether she be poor or rich, in no way reflects social relationships within God’s kingdom.

James’ denunciations of the wealthy in 5:1-6 reflect similar concerns to 2:6b-7, and demonstrate the relationship between this polemical exposure and James’ belief in the eschatological erasure of status and hierarchy.[15] James 5:1-6 offers a trenchant critique of the rich, tinged with prophetic indignation.[16] His letter speaks not only about the future (though partly realized) upheavals of the present socio-economic order, where misery will befall the unrighteous rich (vv. 1-2, 5); the catalogue of sins listed in 5:1-6 reflects James’ warnings about the present dangers of “unrighteous Mammon”, cohering with passages elsewhere which evince a condemnatory attitude towards materialism and avarice (cf. 4:13-16).[17] Here, wealth’s transience gives way to the testimony of judgment (vv.2-3). Of course, James does not denounce the wealthy qua wealthy. He states precisely why they are liable to judgment: they have acted oppressively and exploited the poor (vv.4-6).[18] But he also criticises them for hoarding their wealth whilst others have suffered penury (v.3b). In any event, James writes convinced that the unrighteous rich will not be able to sin with impunity forever.[19]

As noted, these passages are joined together by an important theological point of orientation for James – the purposes and nature of God. James, for example, can say that the Lord hears the cries of the exploited (5:4c): in a world where they are defenceless, he is their guardian.[20] Rooted in God’s supreme compassion and mercy, Jas 1:27 and 2:14-17 exhort his audience to use wealth and resources righteously – upholding the vulnerable, and supporting those who are materially bereft. For him, the proper stance towards wealth and economic status is imitative of God. James 1:27 explicitly links care for the poor – exemplified via widows and orphans – to unsullied religion acceptable to God.[21] He condemns rapacity (4:2; 5:1ff), whilst commending generosity.[22] James calls the Lord “Father,” subtly suggesting that care for the fatherless recapitulates God’s own paternal largesse (1:27; cf. 1:17). So, too, 2:14-17, where authentic devotion, reflected in the language of “faith,” is expressed via deeds of mercy towards impoverished brethren.[23] Indeed, James’ illustrative choice is telling. One may also cite 2:1-7, which reflects James’ concern about honouring, godly attitudes towards poverty and the poor.

James’ Influences

Whether viewing economics through the lens of eschatology, or urging his audience to use what they have compassionately and justly, James grounds his teachings in God’s character and purposes. However, he did not create this perspective de novo; rather, his economic teachings reflect dependence upon a long and rich tradition, stemming from OT-Jewish thought regarding God’s just and merciful character, and the corresponding obligations placed upon his people.[24] James’ letter builds upon, and grows out of, this consistent biblical theme.

James’ reliance on OT prophetic and wisdom traditions has long been recognized, as has his use of categories of vulnerable people the OT frequently employs (Jas 1:27; cf. Deut 10:18; Ps 68:5).[25] Particularly influential for James’ teachings regarding wealth and poverty, however, is the law. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James condemns partiality in the redeemed communities. He roots his condemnation in an extended application of the law of neighbour love, found in Leviticus 19:18 (cf. Jas 2:8ff), and his teachings reflect a broad dependence on the law’s social concern.[26] An expression of God’s character and will, the law informs James’ economic teachings, especially at this crucial point (cf. 1:27, applying the command to follow the word). Partiality (or selfishness and apathy in the face of poverty) is contrary to the law – and, therefore, contrary to the fundamental image of God as compassionate Father who treats all image-bearers equally.

However, James doesn’t simply allude to OT-Jewish tradition; his letter also echoes the voice of Jesus. For James, God’s attitudes to poverty and wealth – as well as the corresponding obligations of God’s people – are particularized and fulfilled in Jesus (e.g. 2:1).[27] Scholars note the many verbal links between Jesus and James.[28] For our purposes, Jesus’ social and economic teachings are relevant. Contrasts between listening to, and obeying, the word (Jas 1:22/Matt 7:24ff); promises to the poor of a royal inheritance (Jas 2:5/Matt 5:3); denunciation of the wealthy (Jas 5:1-6/Lk 6:24-26); the basic importance of eschatological reversal (Jas 1:9-11/Matt 19:30; 20:16); and, most saliently, the significance of the Levitical law of neighbour love (Jas 2:8/Matt 22:34-40), all suggest Jesus’ overriding influence upon James’ thought. Reference to the “royal law” (Jas 2:8) nuances OT legal codes according to the law of the kingdom (v.5; cf. 1:25), embodied in Jesus.[29] For James, the law – which helps animate his teachings on wealth and poverty – is taken up into the ethics of Jesus, becoming the implanted word that “can save” (1:21).[30] James views the communities to which he writes as the Messianically-renewed people of God (cf. the language of 1:1b),[31] and writes in the light of that reality. Jesus, God’s agent in eschatological restoration, constitutes the defining voice behind James’ economic exhortations and admonitions, shaping them at a deep, structural level.[32]

James’ Controlling Narrative

For James, God’s past revelation and future purposes – effecting justice, denouncing economic oppression and commanding mercy – are drawn together in Jesus’ establishment of a redeemed community, embodying God’s kingly righteousness. This leads us to James’ controlling narrative, tellingly illuminated by 1:18 (with its overtones of new creation):[33] the church is the “first fruits” of God’s redemptive reign.[34] His teachings on wealth and poverty reflect reliance upon this fundamental salvation-historical story.[35] Consequently, James urges his audience to live according to the requirements and implications of the eschatological inauguration of God’s kingdom, anticipating its consummation via a just, compassionate – indeed, counter-cultural – approach to the harsh socio-economic milieu they inhabit.[36]

And so we come full circle, returning to the fruits of our exegetical survey. James’ broader eschatological concerns and context,[37] within which he situates his teachings on wealth and poverty, are clear. Aside from the already-surveyed confluence between eschatology and economics,[38] James’ whole letter brims with eschatological conviction: he consistently invokes divine judgment to motivate right living (2:12; 4:12; 5:7-9), whilst picturing the Christian life as a trajectory moving towards its final goal (1:2-4). Moreover, James’ partly realized (i.e. inaugurated) eschatology suggests that he thinks of his audience as living in a liminal phase – the first of a burgeoning, divinely-ordained future (1:18; cf. 2:5). His audience, having been “birthed” through God’s saving word (v.18), operate as his redemptive vanguard. Through his instructions on wealth and poverty, James implies that the values of the kingdom should be practiced proleptically – offering an “advance model” of what God’s just reign will look like.[39]

Paired with this view is James’ sustained, thematic call to “wholeness,” “completeness” or “perfection.”[40] The audience’s obligation to approach wealth and poverty in the way(s) he urges are part of a complex of behaviours by which believers, both individually and communally,[41] demonstrate their devotion towards God and each other. James seeks to encourage economic behaviour that is oriented towards God’s present injunctions and his future rule. His letter is replete with terms that reflect this constellation of thought,[42] and it carries concern for ethical completeness (and within that, a godly approach to economics) in a number of ways: commendation of “pure religion” (1:27); a “whole” faith, manifested in good deeds; endurance towards one’s spiritual telos or goal (1:2-4); criticism of the “double-minded” (1:7-8); and, in a crucial passage, the excoriation of spiritual “adulterers” and encouragement towards purity (4:1-10). James urges unity within Christian assemblies (cf. 2:1-7), which coheres with the complete devotion and spiritual wholeness to which he enjoins individuals.[43] He repeatedly envisages eschatological “wholeness” as a present requirement; by calling them to live in an “undivided” manner – to which acting righteously in regards to wealth and poverty provides powerful attestation[44] – James instructs his audience to anticipate the ultimate perfection that a just and compassionate God will bring (cf. 2:5).


The foregoing analysis has attempted to provide a summation of the main facets of James’ teachings on wealth and poverty. His letter features several, related concerns that are especially prominent: the eschatological reversal of socio-economic status/hierarchy; the prophetic exposure of economic unrighteousness and oppression; and the corresponding regard for those who are impoverished and/or vulnerable. James evinces basic sympathy towards the victims of present injustices, grounding it in God’s nature and purposes, and the corresponding ethical implications for his people. James relies upon the consistent witness of the OT regarding treatment of the poor, evidenced in his use of the law to condemn practices contrary to God’s fundamental character. That character is, for James, exhibited in Jesus, the decisive voice in the letter’s economic-ethical teachings. These findings suggest that James’ instructions on wealth and poverty are situated within a controlling narrative, one which sees Jesus as the inaugurator of God’s (partly realized) eschatological kingdom. James writes to his audience as the “first fruits” of that inauguration, urging them to embody God’s perfect rule through economic justice and generous stewardship.


Bauckham, Richard. James. New Testament Readings. London: Routledge, 1999.

————————-. “Eschatology.” Pages 333-339 in New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition). Edited by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer & D.J. Wiseman. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

Beale, Greg K. “Eschatology”. Pages 330-345 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. Volume Two: New Testament Survey. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Carson, D.A. “James,” Pages 997-1013 in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Davids, Peter. Commentary on James. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Johnson, Luke T. The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 1 vol.; Anchor Bible 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995.

————————. Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

————————. Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Lemcio, E.E. “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (1988): 3-17.

McCartney, Dan G. James. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Martin, Ralph P. James. Word Biblical Commentary 48. Waco: Word, 1988.

Maynard-Reid, Pedrito U. Poverty and Wealth in James. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987.

Moo, Douglas. James. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Ross, Allan P. Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002.

Wachob, Wesley Hiram. The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (Studies in the New Testament Series 106. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

Wall, Robert. “James, Letter of.” Pages 545-561 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Williams, Robert Lee. “Piety and Poverty in James.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22 (Fall, 1987): 37-55.

Winbery, Carlton L. “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James.” Theological Educator 34 (Fall, 1986): 26-34.

Witherington III, Ben. The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses. Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009.

[1] See Douglas Moo, James (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 22-24; Craig L. Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. New Testament Introduction and Survey, Volume 2 (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), 390, for similar reconstructions of the identity of James’ audience.

[2] Luke T. Johnson, The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1 vol.; AB 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995), 82.

[3] Ralph P. Martin, James (WBC 48; Waco: Word, 1988), 25-26; Dan G. McCartney, James (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 70-71.

[4] Moo, James, 65. On the socio-economic conditions of the first century, see Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987), 12-23.

[5] On eschatology and the later NT (and James esp.), see Greg K. Beale, “Eschatology,” DLNTD, 330-333, 335; Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” NBD, 333-334.

[6] Carlton L. Winbery, “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James,” TE 34 (Fall, 1986): 28.

[7] Moo, James, 68, argues that the rich person is a Christian; cf. Martin, James, 25-26. I agree with Moo that the term “brother” (v.9) governs both individuals.

[8] Robert Lee Williams, “Piety and Poverty in James,” WTJ 22 (Fall, 1987): 43.

[9] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 29; Moo, James, 66.

[10] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 28.

[11] McCartney, James, 98.

[12] Martin, James, 25, 28; Johnson, The Letter of James, 185; Moo, James, 30.

[13] Moo, James, 98.

[14] Moo, James, 35.

[15] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 31-32.

[16] Moo, James, 211.

[17] McCartney, James, 232.

[18] Moo, James, 210.

[19] Johnson, The Letter of James, 309.

[20] Moo, James, 216.

[21] Martin, James, 52.

[22] Johnson, Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 92.

[23] Martin, James, 52.

[24] See Moo, James, 35-36 for a discussion of this general theological-ethical trend; cf. Peter Davids, Commentary on James (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 42.

[25] See D.A. Carson, “James” CNTOT, 997-1013. On the influence of wisdom and prophecy, see Johnson, The Letter of James, 32-34.

[26] See Johnson, The Letter of James, 30-32; Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 127-135; Carson, “James,” 999-1000. On Leviticus 19, see Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 351-365.

[27] The consequential relationship between faith in Jesus and rejection of partiality is clear. See Wesley Hiram Wachob, The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (SNTS 106; Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 77.

[28] See esp. Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009), 298; Wachob, The Social Rhetoric, 138.  

[29] Moo, James, 98, 112; Carson, “James,” 1000.

[30] McCartney, James, 110.

[31] The language suggests that James sees his audience as the renewed “Israel” of God. See Davids, Commentary, 63.

[32] Bauckham, James (NTR; London: Routledge, 1999), 147.

[33] McCartney, James, 111.

[34] Moo, James, 24, 80.

[35] On the unifying story of the NT, see E.E. Lemcio, “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament,” JSNT 33 (1988), 6.

[36] On the narrative cast of James’ letter, see Robert Wall, “James, Letter of,” DLNTD, 556-557; Bauckham, James, 100; Winbery, “The Attitude,” 33; Johnson, The Letter, 85-88.

[37] McCartney, James, 70-71.

[38] Cf. Moo, James, 36-37.

[39] Bauckham, James, 173; Moo, James, 24.

[40] See Bauckham, James, 165, 173-179, for an extended treatment; Martin, James, lxxix.

[41] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[42] See esp. Martin, James, lxxix.

[43] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[44] Moo, James, 97-98.


Ethics and the Birth of Jesus

It is a truism to suggest that Jesus’ life and teachings are inescapably ethical. Even a cursory glance at, say, the Sermon on the Mount reveals the moral hue of much of what Jesus’ claimed, did and taught. Less obvious is the way in which events that happened to Christ bear the unmistakeable traces of ethical significance. It is one thing to argue that the life of Jesus, to the extent that he exercised authorship over its shape and trajectory, was a moral one; quite another to suggest the same of moments in his life over which he (ostensibly) had no control. Still, we must not forget that the New Testament presents Jesus’ earthly sojourn – all of it, from beginning to end – as an epochal event, pristinely reflecting the eternal will and nature of God. Birth was no different. It was something Christ chose; it was not foisted upon him, and nor was he the unwilling subject of divine fiat. No: he decided, in concert with the Father and the Spirit; he acted, in complete accord with the other members of the godhead; he sacrificed, the ground of which was the loving union of the Triune God. It is the very beginning of Christ’s life, when he entered the flow of creation and time, upon which I want to meditate; the moment at which sovereign divinity deigned to inhabit the fetters of mortal humanity. Clothed in the fine garment of infanthood, the Word incarnate demonstrated the full character of the godhead. Moreover, in doing so, he left an ethical model for followers past and present – one which remained consistent, and constant, until the very end of his life.

All this is very well; but even if we agree that Jesus’ birth was the result of God’s decree (whose identity, of course, cannot be separated from Jesus’ own), in what way does it constitute an ethical act? In what way does it function as a pattern to be imitated by Christians? I submit that it does so in three ways, by way of movement hierarchical, metaphysical and social. The first act of movement rests upon Jesus’ voluntary decision to lay aside his innate glory and live amongst his own image-bearers. The second act rests upon the singular, inimitable nature of his birth, by which he bridged the metaphysical [1] chasm between deity and humanity. And the third act rests upon his identification with the poor and disenfranchised. In reality, the various threads are deeply intertwined – the metaphysical “gap” that exists between the Creator and the creation is also a hierarchical one, whilst the social identification of Christ is an extension, or specification, of his entry into the realm of humanity. That said, for the purposes of this essay, I shall parse them out to make clearer my reflections – and, in the second part of this piece, the ethical implications thereof.

Let us begin with the hierarchical or vertical axis of the Son’s great migration. In becoming man, Jesus moved from the unshielded glory of God’s presence, as well as the acknowledged and unfettered glory of his own nature, to the “soft envelope” (to borrow Tozer’s phrase) of finite human existence. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians expresses well this aspect of Christ’s birth. In a few short verses, the Apostle deliberately establishes a contrast between the innate equality Jesus had with God prior to his advent, and the fact of his humble entry into the created world (2:6-7). In speaking of that great event, Paul uses language that conveys deliberation, control and voluntary self-abnegation – qualities that one might argue are necessary (though not sufficient) for any act to be considered ethical. Indeed, he declares that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant; he humbled himself”, and so on (Philippians 2:7-8; italics mine). Paul is emphatic, in declaring that Jesus made himself “nothing” (v.7). We might think that he is simply talking about Jesus entering this world as a powerless, impoverished individual – the son of parents who lived in penury and want. That is true, so far as it goes (I shall return to this theme below). However, what Paul means by “nothing” is humanity itself. Whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless, influential or marginal, humans are comparatively “nothing” when placed next to the infinite glory of God.

In a previous essay, I spoke about the incomparable nature of the Deity, whose awful majesty swallows up the grandiose notions of his subjects. Whereas humans are bound, God is boundless; whereas we are finite, he is infinite; and whereas we are subject to corruption and decay (physical, moral and spiritual), God – being uncreated – is utterly untouched by these forces, governing them with complete freedom. His resplendence is “above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1), which is a way of proclaiming his complete sovereignty over all there is. Time and again, the Psalms wax lyrical about Yahweh’s kingship. It is an apt metaphor that describes the hierarchical distinction between the Creator and his creation. Remarkably, however, he left what was his by nature, “emptying” himself to make possible the redemption of his creatures. Paul’s careful language preserves the paradoxical distinction between the first two persons of the godhead. Christ is at once the One who intrinsically possesses the essence of God and the One who can still relate to the Father, being as he is “with” him (Phil. 2:6). God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, and it was the latter that was fully expounded in the humble person of Christ, whose self-oblation upon earth quietly began at the moment of his birth.

The NT elsewhere picks up on this theme of the king’s voluntary pauperism. Take Luke’s birth narrative, for example. He deliberately sets his account against the backdrop of national and international history. To set the scene of the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth – he who would herald the arrival of the Messiah – Luke mentions the reign of (the non-Jewish) Herod over Judea (the name given to Judah at that time) (1:5). As context for his account of the birth of Christ, Luke refers to the reign of Augustus Caesar over the Levant (2:1). Quite clearly, he wants his readers to note the jarring contrasts. On the one hand, God’s people were ruled by a petty tyrant, a vassal of Rome who was not even Jewish (cf. Matthew 2:6); on the other, they lived under the domination of a foreign overlord, whose pomp and power were unmatched. But with delicious irony, Luke subtly suggests to us the identity of the true king of Israel, and therefore, the world. Jesus, the One to whom the Baptist was to point (Luke 3:4-6), did not reside in a palace in Judea, or a royal house in Rome. Rather, he came as an infant, shed of all the overt trappings of deity in order to consummate the Father’s redemptive plan. For all their worldly claims to rulership, the men into whose realms Jesus was going to enter were mere parodies of the true king. The point here, however, is that the true king humbled himself deeply, adopting the limitations of his creatures and entrusting himself to their imperfect care. Once more, we see the willing self-abnegation of Christ demonstrated, as he bore the lowly circumstances of those made in his image.

In laying aside his heavenly glory – something which he did not have to grasp, as it belonged to him by eternal right – Jesus also traversed the metaphysical edges of heaven and earth, humanity and divinity. This particular aspect of Christ’s birth closely follows the already-discussed overtones of hierarchical movement, whereupon he added created existence to his pre-existent nature. One might say, then, that it was the crystallization of that impossible union. In his own, writhing body, the infant Jesus personified the union between God and man; between two, apparently irreconcilable natures. Moreover, his birth was the first concrete sign that heaven and earth – the spiritual and the material – were being drawn together in loving harmony by the Creator. His life was a microcosm of that union, and a foretaste of what will be the case universally. The Gospel of John, to which I often turn, marks out the transcendent nature of God’s wisdom. Jesus, the pre-existent Word, was God and was with God “in the beginning” (Jn. 1:1). This language, much like Paul’s ode in the Philippian Letter, preserves the paradoxical nature of the Deity: combining simultaneous affirmations of the Word’s eternal identity with God and his distinctiveness. That is important, for the supervening agent in creation, who proceeds eternally from the depths of the Father, in time became one of us. John declares that “the Word became flesh” (v.14; cf. Rom. 8:3; 1 Tim. 3:16). Here, “flesh” stands for mortal, created existence, in contrast with the utterly uncreated existence of Yahweh (cf. Isaiah 31:3a). How could these two states – these two metaphysical worlds – be bridged? More to the point, how was it possible that in one being, these two natures, so seemingly irreconcilable, could be united harmoniously? How could the eternal One take on the substance of those he created without ceasing to be what he always had been?

These questions are largely imponderable, and the metaphors that abound can only offer a dimly lit path towards the truth. One, for instance, likens the coming of Jesus to a person who adopts dual citizenship. The person is fully a member of two nations, of two political groups, by virtue of legal reality. Going further, one could use the example of someone with multi-ethnic parentage as a metaphor for the manifold identity the Son adopted at birth. Like an individual who is, say, Spanish and Fijian (to select two ethnic groups that are largely unalike), Jesus combined in his own person two natures, two identities – two “streams”, unified in one person. Even this image, however, is limited, for it cannot adequately repeat the utter dissimilarity between humanity and divinity. Unlike a dual citizen, or a bi-racial individual, divinity and humanity do not occupy the same ontological territory; there is no space – save for Jesus himself – where they mingle. It required an act of God to create this new reality, when he “came upon” a virgin by his Spirit, and poured his life into her womb (Luke 1:35).

Lastly, I come to the socially significant nature of Christ’s birth. Whereas the hierarchical and metaphysical facets of this movement lay behind material reality, the social and economic environment into which Jesus was born reflects more visibly the extent of his identification with the created order. Even allowing for the Son’s act of “emptying”, by which he condescended to humanity in the flesh, it was yet still possible for him to be born into, say, a royal family – or at least a family of some influence. Why should he, the radiance of the Father, not have taken his place amongst earthly powers? Of course, the possibility was always present, but in an act of sheer grace, he chose to identify with the lowliest of his image-bearers; to inhabit this world as a person of poverty; to enter the flow of creation and time as an occupant of social and economic weakness. Nowhere is that truth plainer than at the time of his birth. One small example will suffice. We read in Luke 2:24 that Joseph and Mary offered a sacrifice of two doves when they presented the infant Jesus at the Temple. A seemingly innocuous detail, perhaps – but the presentation of doves was a legal stipulation for people who were unable to afford a lamb (see Leviticus 12:8). Quite clearly, then, Jesus’ earthly parents were poor. They could not afford the normal offering, and were compelled to offer a sacrifice out of their poverty. Thus, Jesus went beyond mere identification with humanity in some vague and ill-defined manner. He did not appear in power and glory, taking for himself worldly riches. Indeed, it was precisely the opposite. Through his birth (not to mention his life), Christ identified deeply with the poor, the outcasts and the marginal.

We ought to remember that Jesus’ life was an unfurling of the nascent qualities glimpsed at the Nativity. It certainly does not stand in splendid isolation. However, far from simply marking the beginning of the Word’s incarnation, Jesus’ birth was an intrinsically ethical act. Indeed, it continues to possess moral significance in its own right. I trust that others reading this will be able to discern some of the ethical consequences of this act for those who claim to follow Jesus. In the second part of this piece, I shall sketch out some ideas in an effort to demonstrate the implications for Christians’ lives as they attempt to pattern them on the birth (not to mention the life) of Christ.

[1] By “metaphysical”, I am referring roughly to the substance, essence or nature of things.

The “Ethics” of Fourth-Trimester Abortions

I work in organisations that care for, and support, some the most vulnerable people in our society – those with a disability, and those with a serious mental illness. As such, I have the good fortune of being able to routinely witness some fine examples of human nobility. Nevertheless, there are moments when I am shaken out of my reverie and reminded that all is not well (to say the least) with our culture.

One such moment occurred a couple of weeks ago, when I perused an article in The Age newspaper (Henrietta Cook, “Abortion Paper Led to Death Threats”, March 2nd, 2012). As many of you are aware, the story concerned outraged responses to an academic paper arguing for what the authors termed “post-birth abortions” – in other words, infanticide (perhaps the authors momentarily realised the savagery of their suggestion. Hence, the euphemism “post-birth abortions”). It was, I must admit, the sort of read that made my stomach churn. Here were two “ethicists”, Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini (hereafter, G & M), arguing for the legitimacy of the killing of infants if they became an “unbearable burden” to their families. What’s more, their arguments were published in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Medical Ethics (“After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, 23rd February, 2012). It’s difficult to articulate the horror one experiences when confronted with the sober reality, the monstrous nadir, of our moral undoing. Claims that this was simply a theoretical discussion, not meant for a general audience, are, I would argue, beside the point. The fact that they were suggested in a mainstream intellectual forum forces me to come to grips with, not only the ethical decrepitude of the principal authors, but also the present nature and future trajectory of our culture – a culture that has enabled such views to be aired and sponsored.

It is of course tempting at this juncture to lean on Leon Kass’ notion of “the wisdom of repugnance”, and leave it at that: some ideas are so intuitively abhorrent that opposition to them needs no defence. I sympathise deeply with that response, to be sure. This particular idea, that newborns can be killed in certain circumstances (something I shall interrogate below), is a legitimate target for such revulsion. Indeed, to suggest such a course of action is to offend our deepest, most basic sense of right and wrong. But to simply rest on an inarticulate sense of moral outrage is, I believe, inadequate. No view, regardless of how demonstrably evil it may appear, should be espoused with impunity. If for no other reason than to expose philosophical fallacies and academic depravity, I shall attempt to engage with the ideas, assumptions and premises that underlie G & M’s argument.

Our ethicists commence their piece by suggesting that, in some cases, the birth of a child may be intrinsically unbearable for the mother. Later, they suggest that some children constitute an “unbearable burden” for families and society. Given that society already permits abortion within the womb, G & M argue that the same conditions ought to apply to newborns. This, they seek to defend on the grounds that newborns and foetuses are not persons, and should therefore be treated similarly when questions of abortion arise.

Leaving aside the authors’ conception of personhood for a moment, it is clear that G & M begin their paper with a tenuous, nay completely unsupportable, premise. Their argument that there are certain instances where the birth of a child is intrinsically unbearable – not because of disability or deformity, but because the act of giving birth to, and raising, a child is itself unbearable – is unwarranted. Now, there are some things in this life that truly deserve to be described as such: a man attempting to uphold a 15-tonne container is, according to basic science, engaging in an unbearable act. But having a child cannot be seen as unbearable prior to doing so. No one can predict with certainty that doing so will present an impossible task for the prospective parent(s), even after a few days or weeks. How can it be argued that raising a child will present an insufferable burden for those who have the responsibility of doing so? That is what the word “unbearable” suggests – an absolute certainty about the nature of a situation.

The problem is that one cannot posses this level of knowledge prior to, or just after, the birth of a child. We are historical creatures, bound by time and the flow of events. What may seem to be unbearable at a certain point will not necessarily be so days, weeks or years down the track. As William M. Briggs, a professor at Cornell University, has remarked, “since [the] birth and…subsequent care of a child is a contingent event, we cannot claim that any birth and rearing is unbearable in advance” (“Academics – Who Else? – Call for the Killing of Babies”, 28th February, 2012). Moreover, making this kind of prediction groundlessly assumes that the reality of an impossibly burdensome newborn is an exclusive one. In other words, the notion of the “unbearable” implicitly suggests that a newborn could be nothing else but a burden – and an insufferable one – to its parents. According to this view, it could not, at the same time, be a joy, a challenge, an enriching experience and an embodied example of the gift of life. Most people reading this will likely agree that such a view is demonstrably false. And so, we see that G & M have already built their argument on a fallacious assumption.

Even more serious is the inconsistent case G & M try to mount in order to reduce the moral status of newborns. Our authors argue that a child just born is on the same moral plane as a foetus, largely because neither can be called persons. G & M ground this assertion in a certain conception of personhood – namely, that one first has to have the ability to formulate aims and appreciate life. Only then can one be called a person and have a moral right to the life they possess. What one notices, however, is that G & M themselves appear to be confused about the essential nature of a newborn baby. For instance, in developing their argument for the non-personhood of newborns (and therefore, the lack of harm done to them if they are intentionally deprived of life), our authors suggest that they are “not persons in a morally relevant sense”. I’m not sure if what they wrote was a slip of the tongue (or pen, or keyboard), but they still grudgingly admit that, in some sense, a newborn is a person. According to G & M, a newborn child may not be a “person” in relevant moral terms, but they cannot escape using that word to describe it. Perhaps our authors still have an incipient awareness that a human baby is a person; indeed, to use that word is to make an implicit declaration about the subject in question. Maybe G & M, on some level, still recognize this.

In any case, I’m unsure at this stage how to interpret their statement regarding newborns, personhood and moral relevance. Do they mean to argue that a newborn is a person, but in a morally irrelevant sense? If so, what does that signify? If their definition of personhood is the sine qua non of the concept, then a newborn child is no person at all. Indeed, I think this is what they mean by “morally relevant”. Nevertheless, their inability to escape the fact that a newborn is in some sense a person is reflected in their compulsion to use the word. Later, however, G & M make a startling admission: if someone asked them if they would had been harmed if their parents had decided to kill them as newborns (or foetuses), they would have replied “no”. And why? Because there would have been “no one” in existence to be harmed. It’s difficult to reconcile this concession with the abstract definition they offered earlier. And, apart from a chilling statement of self-condemnation (or an example of perverse courage, depending on how you look at it), the authors seem to be unaware of a very important fact: the newborn baby is hardly “no one”; it is very much “someone”, even if G & M have trouble unambiguously affirming its personhood. It is patently absurd to describe a crying, writhing infant as “no one”, as if no one existed. Of course, our authors would have to admit that something does “exist” – but if not a person, then what? How would one categorise a newborn if not to use the concept of personhood to describe it? It seems that our authors are ignoring embodied evidence that, at the very least, weakens (further) their strident claims.

Nevertheless, G & M insist that a newborn is not a person, and that to deprive it of life does not constitute harm. However, their confused argument does touch – briefly – on a fundamental issue that forces them into such an inconsistent view of a post-natal baby. Whilst denying it the status of personhood, our ethicists admit that it is hard to determine exactly when a human baby becomes a person. That is precisely correct. Personhood is not a static concept, and it would appear to be a notoriously difficult task for an external observer to definitively state when an individual “becomes” a person. No matter: our enlightened pair skate over this minor detail on their way to a confident affirmation of the newborn’s non-personhood. One is left agog at G & M’s seeming insouciance in the face of life-and-death issues. They largely ignore the crux of the issue – namely, the apparent moment someone enters the realm of personhood – which leaves their argument in tatters. If it is so difficult “to determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’”, is it wise to make such bold assertions about its moral rights (or lack thereof)? It appears that G & M have condemned their argument with their very own hands.

Here, we reach the heart of the matter – and the centre of the debate between advocates of abortion and those who venerably oppose it. G & M, perhaps unwittingly, have given us a glimpse of the basic philosophical problem: just when does a human subject become a person? Of what does personhood consist? Our ethicists would argue that one becomes a person upon attaining some measure of value for life, and an ability to formulate aims. Personhood as a concept and personhood as an epochal stage of human development are, for our authors, indissolubly linked. But again, I would argue that they are working with a deficient definition of the person. Implicit in their argument that newborns are non-persons is the idea that one has to have actualised all the attributes of personhood in order to possess the rights thereof. Yet this ignores the unfolding nature of the concept. Personhood is, I submit, an emergent phenomenon. Now, as a Christian, I believe that the creation of human life results in a person from the moment of conception. However, it is also true to say that this does not become apparent at one moment in time, fully formed. From the moment of conception – and on, through all the stages of life until death – a person is a cascading genesis of human development. A foetus and a newborn are potential persons, in that they contain within themselves the seeds of their own individuality. Now, G & M explicitly eschew the notion of “potential personhood”. But why? Why should their static, actualised version win out over a philosophical model that seems to fit better with “facts on the ground” (so to speak)? A newly born infant (or a foetus) may not have highly developed goals, or a sophisticated appreciation of the value of life. But the capacity for developing those goals, and appreciating life is intrinsic to the newborn. It is not something that is imposed, externally. It resides within the individual, and emerges, gradually, over time. Moreover, it continues to develop over an individual’s life course. It could be said, then, that the project of personhood is an unfinished one. G & M concede that the moment of personhood (as they define it) is hard to determine. And so it is, if one adopts the narrow, actualised conception upon which our ethicists seem to rely.

In suggesting that a newborn is not harmed if deprived of life because it does not count as a person (according to their narrow conception), our authors fail to appreciate the intimate connection between the post-natal infant and the more developed individual. They ignore the fact that the two are inextricably linked – if I were not an infant, for example, I would not be here now. That much is absurdly obvious, but the value G & M ascribe to existing persons is based in part on qualities that were already present, though not yet actualised, in the infant (and even the foetus). Again, they may appeal to the non-actualisation of qualities as a way of arguing their case. I would argue, however, that there is something decidedly curious about arguing for the value of so-called “actualised” persons, over-against newborns, when the two are developmentally inseparable. In writing about the unborn (though the quote is equally relevant when concerning newborns), Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith writes that they are “…actively disposed to develop into a mature version of [themselves], though never ceasing to be the same being” (emphasis mine). Despite the many and varied changes a person undergoes throughout his life; despite the unfolding nature of existential reflection he might experience; despite the historical perspective he will eventually develop: he is still bound to his earlier, infant self. That is why there is nothing odd, for example, about referring to myself at the age of two weeks as “me” or “I”. Suggesting that no harm is done to a newborn, and that it can therefore be killed, inadvertently devalues and relativises the more mature life that grows organically from it.

Even if G & M’s definition of personhood were accurate in an exclusive sense, how do they know that newborns fail to meet the relevant criteria? For instance, how do they know that a post-natal infant has no aims? Now, it’s true that an individual at this stage of life does not possess the more sophisticated aims that one might attribute to someone older. A newborn obviously does not dream to be a professor or an astronaut, to write music or to work with disabled children (how can it, when any hope of formulating goals supposedly worthy of the right to life is snuffed out by our authors’ suggestion?). Nonetheless, we can say that it most certainly does have aims of a more basic nature. A newborn aims to eat, to sleep, to be close to its parents, to experience love and intimacy, and to absorb whatever information it can about the world around it. One might even say that a newborn is actively developing towards the point at which it is able to self-reflect and actualize its appreciation for life. These are plainly goals, and though the newborn may not be able to articulate them, they deeply challenge one particular dimension of G & M’s conception of personhood.

Chillingly, personhood, as defined by our authors, risks sliding down the so-called “slippery slope”. Now, it’s true that many progressives hate the slippery slope argument. And, of course, it’s difficult to argue on the basis of something that hasn’t happened (yet). Still, in addition to representing the latter stages of one slippery slope, G & M’s paper stands at the head of another. It opens up the possibility that not just newborns, but also others who don’t fit their definition of personhood, are theoretically liable to their recommendations. If it’s so difficult to pin down the moment of personhood, how long does the pre-personhood stage of human development last? Two weeks? Two months? Two years? What about people who are profoundly disabled intellectually? Those with late-stage Alzheimer’s? Those in a coma who may never emerge? What about people who simply don’t think a lot about their lives, and what they mean? (OK, that was more in jest). These categories of individuals evidently fall outside the authors’ philosophical zone of personhood. Can they be deprived of life if they become a burden to their families and society? This line of reasoning may appear extreme, but once the absolute right to life is removed, then there is no logical reason to stop. Indeed, the authors argue something rather similar, in that they justify the notion of post-birth abortions on the current reality of pre-natal abortions. My rhetorical questions above simply extend the horrific logic further.

G & M’s paper, awful as it is, represents the final stage of a cold, logical process. The authors argue that this debate has been raging for several decades, and in this they are correct. The question of personhood – or its commencement, at least – has been debated with alacrity and vehemence as a consequence of organised advocacy of abortion. Once the attribution of personhood to the foetus was challenged, it was only a matter of time before the boundaries of the concept, along with the rights that went with it, were pushed further out. More to the point, once the objective moral status of the foetus (grounded in the “concrete” distinction between life and non-life, before and after conception) was abandoned, any demarcation between person and non-person was always going to seem arbitrary. Our authors have, in some ways, exposed that arbitrariness. But they have also offered us a ghastly utilitarian ethic that coldly pits the interests of the family against the needs of our society’s most vulnerable members.

*   *   *

To conclude: one wonders whether, in the words of columnist Barney Zwartz, our authors are “…allow[ing] thuggish thinking to smuggle in the desired conclusions of the premise” (“Killing Inconvenient Infants, The Age, March 7th, 2012). Indeed, our authors seem intent on reducing the moral status of newborns in order to uphold a brutish recommendation. Whether this is certainly the case is ultimately unanswerable. What is not unanswerable is the question of what this paper reveals about the present state of Western culture. Most people are bound to feel some sense of moral outrage if confronted with these suggestions, and rightly so. I wonder, however, if we shouldn’t also feel some collective sense of shame. Although the reasons for cultural, social and philosophical shifts are sometimes difficult to delineate, I would argue that this paper also represents a particularly extreme example of what happens when a society loses hold of certain perspectives that once underpinned the nobility of human dignity and value. In this case, it is the Judeo-Christian notion of the imago dei that has been lost – or rather, spurned. It is clear that the absolute dignity of life, whether in the womb or just beyond it, has been founded upon the metaphysics of Judeo-Christian thought. It is equally clear that we have lost that mooring, to our own detriment.

But our predicament is one of our own making. The fact that such thoughts and ideas could be entertained in a serious journal of ethics ought to compel us to reflect upon what we have done – or failed to do – to prevent our society reaching such a point. Ideas do not develop within a vacuum; rather, they constitute the climax of historical and philosophical processes that take place within, and between, societies. As some ideas are lost or rejected, others take their place, offering us a culmination of incremental trends. The idea that it might be morally justifiable to kill a newborn is one such culmination. It has had its genesis over many years of thought and reflection – not just in the rarefied arenas of academia, but also on the ground, in the street and in the home. We are complicit in the emergence of this particular idea, because we have failed to arrest the trajectory of a culture that has led to its promulgation and dissemination. And for that, we should be ashamed.