If Christianity is a message of salvation to all people, in all times and places, then the practices it recommends must apply in every situation. The political and cultural societies we each live in today have only existed for a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of history, and people reading this post may be living in societies entirely different from the one I’m writing this in.
When James wrote: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” he didn’t just mean “pure and undefiled” right here and right now, but that to an eternal God whose character doesn’t change, there is a religion that remains pure in all circumstances. There is no expiration date on James 1:27.
To apply James’ words that way doesn’t mean he was using “orphans and widows” only as a metaphor for something other than actual orphans. He does mean to take care of them. But he was also using them as the best example of people unloved in his society and by the world – the ones who fell through the cracks of society, and that “to keep oneself unstained from the world” means that pure religion leaves nobody behind the way the world does.
The world has many people who believe perfect society is only a matter of time, effort, and ingenuity, and it also has many people whose very existence shows the folly of that belief. This tension reflects human history all the way back to Adam and Eve, who had to decide whether the kingdom of God they already lived in was what they wanted, or whether they wanted to build a kingdom based on their own ideas. This tension existed when Jesus ministered on earth in the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace” of the society He lived in. The Caesars declared in what they called “gospel,” or “good news,” messages that they should be revered as gods for producing the most peaceful and prosperous society the world had ever known. When Jesus came, all He had to do was walk down the street – any street – and find problems not being solved in Caesar’s great empire.  Jesus didn’t shake his fist at the utopians in protest, He just loved those in need of love, exposing the immensity of the flaws that exist in any human system, and proving by example that His kingdom is better.
So, when James says “visit orphans and widows in their affliction” he means to do as Jesus did – to seek out and care for those left behind by the utopian imaginings of the world, and its related denials that these people matter. This does include literal windows and orphans, but it’s also whoever is left behind in your area of the world. The people in your neighborhood, country, organization, or even your church that the system doesn’t notice because there is nothing worldly to be gained by noticing them. In Jesus’ eyes, even Zacchaeus, a wealthy Jew in a Jewish society that valued wealth, was one of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” because nobody saw him as a person with a personal and spiritual need. These “lost sheep” Jesus referred to in Matthew 10:6 and 15:24 need to know “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” because this world’s kingdoms have failed them.
Each and every world system leaves some behind, proof that Adam and Eve made the wrong decision to go their own way. There are always those who it is unpopular or uncool to pay attention to, even in your church. Therefore, James calls us to love the unloved and the genuinely oppressed, whoever they are, wherever you are. By definition, there’s no program to reach these people, because they are the ones who were missed. It takes the actions of individual, loving people to reach them and that’s kind of the point. Christianity is about the restoring of relationships, not systems.
But does this really apply in every time? How is the ethic of James 1:27 eternal, while other ethics are not?
At the risk of oversimplifying (inevitable in a blog!), the difference is that worldly ethics depend entirely on “progress” – on a solution that is theoretical and in the future. Those pursuing worldly utopia hope they will progress to a solution for the orphans and widows’ problem, but what about the widows and orphans of the past? Or right now? In a framework of Darwinian evolution, death is just part of the process and an inevitable circumstance we must except until we find a solution. Death itself is the philosophical orphan or widow they don’t want us to notice. A solution in the future has no real hope for people in the past or present.
In Christianity the solution already exists – it was available even to our first ancestors – and death is only the result of refusing to accept it. And in all times places and situations “love God and love neighbor” is the right ethic, epitomized by James 1:17 and to be consummated in Heaven. All those who have ever turned to God and accepted His solution, in the past, present, and future, will see His salvation. We don’t have to hope that someday our children, or their children, and so on, will be loved, and know love, perfectly.
Until mankind actually produces a utopia, it is unscientific to believe utopia is possible, but because Jesus exists and walked among us, it is scientific to say perfect love is possible, even in this world. From this perspective, Christianity is only horrendous if false; other systems are horrendous if true.
Today you may live in the greatest empire the world has ever known, or the worst tyrannical state, or you may live in a country most people on the world couldn’t find on a map. In every case, and all cases in between, there are orphans and widows among you because only the kingdom of God is a perfect solution and it will only be fully realized in Heaven. Find them in their affliction and visit them, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” – Matthew 10:7
Next up in this series: An Ethic That Shows No Law Can Provide Salvation