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Hearing and Doing
Summer Quarter: Many Faces of Wisdom
Unit 3: Faith and Wisdom in James
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 9, 2020
By Rev. Ashley Randall
Lesson Scripture: James 1:19–27
Key Verse: James 1:22
To affirm the importance of letting what we say we believe guide our actions
A Betrayal of Trust
People expect their doctor to be guided by certain specific ethical standards. The Hippocratic Oath is one of the earliest – and most widely known – medical texts. To this day, physicians promise to “use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing.” Furthermore, they swear, “Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.”
The origins of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) can be traced to the establishment of a system of Marine hospitals in 1798. Following the end of the Civil War, these were consolidated into the Marine Hospital Service, and the position of Surgeon General was established. In 1889, the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHSCC) was established. Its stated mission is “to protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of the people of the United States.” According to the PHSCC, this mission is achieved through rapid and effective response to public health needs, leadership and excellence in public health practices, and advancement of public health science.
In 1880, W.F. Foster, a former Confederate Colonel, was a candidate for re-election to the Alabama Senate representing Macon County. Foster proposed a deal with a local Black leader, Lewis Adams. If Adams could successfully persuade the Black constituents of Macon County to vote for Foster, Foster would, if elected, push the state of Alabama to establish a school for Black people in the county. Adams succeeded, Foster won his seat in the Senate, and followed through with a grant from the state to establish the school. Adams hired Booker T. Washington as principal of the new school. Washington opened the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers on July 4, 1881, on the grounds of the Butler Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
In addition to academic subjects, Washington was determined to train students in skills, morals, and religious life. He believed these practical skills coupled with righteous character would impact the communities from which they had come, and to which he hoped they would return. He wanted his students to see labor as practical, but also as beautiful and dignified. Washington urged the students “to return to the plantation districts and show the people there how to put new energy and new ideas into farming as well as into the intellectual and moral and religious life of the people.” Washington gradually attracted notable scholars to Tuskegee, including the botanist George Washington Carver, as well as raising money to support its mission. When Washington died in 1915, Tuskegee’s endowment exceeded $1.5 million, and the campus had grown to nearly 2,300 acres.
In 1932, Taliaferro Clark, head of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), formed a study group of the venereal disease section. His initial goal was to conduct a study to follow untreated syphilis in a group of African-American men for six months to one year and then follow up with a treatment phase. At that time there was no effective generally accepted treatment for syphilis. Thomas Parran, Jr., the Health Commissioner of New York State (and former head of the PHS Venereal Disease Division), recommended that, “If one wished to study the natural history of syphilis in the Negro race uninfluenced by treatment, this county (Macon) would be an ideal location for such a study.”
In collaboration with Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), PHS enrolled a total of 600 impoverished, African-American sharecroppers in the study. Of these men, 399 had latent syphilis, with a control group of 201 men who were not infected. The men were promised free medical care from the federal government of the United States. When they lost private financial support, a treatment program was deemed too expensive. Clark, however, decided to continue the study, interested in determining whether syphilis had a different effect on African-Americans than it did on Caucasians. The researchers disguised placebos, ineffective methods, and diagnostic procedures as treatment. The subjects were told they were being treated for “bad blood,” a colloquialism that described various conditions such as syphilis, anemia and fatigue. The men were initially told that the study was only going to last six months, but it was extended to 40 years. The men who had syphilis were never informed of their diagnosis, despite the risk of infecting others, and the fact that the disease could lead to blindness, deafness, mental illness, heart disease, bone deterioration, collapse of the central nervous system, and death. Penicillin became the recommended treatment for syphilis in 1947. Nevertheless, PHS researchers convinced local physicians in Macon County not to treat the participants, in order to track the disease’
s full progression.
In the mid-1960s, a PHS venereal disease investigator, Peter Buxtun, learned about the Tuskegee study and expressed his moral and ethical concerns about it to his superiors. In response, PHS officials formed a committee to review the study, but ultimately opted to continue it, with the goal of tracking the participants until all had died, autopsies were performed, and the project data could be analyzed.
Dissatisfied with their decision, Buxtun leaked the story to a friend who was a reporter who passed it on to a reporter with the Associated Press, Jean Heller. Her story was published in the Washington Star
on July 25, 1972. The following day the story appeared on the front page of the New York Times
. Within a few weeks – and a Congressional hearing – the study was found to be medically unjustified and forced to shut down. By that time, 28 participants had died from syphilis, 100 more had died from related complications, 40 spouses had been diagnosed the disease, and 19 children had been born with congenital syphilis.
A Congruence of Word and Action
In the opening paragraphs of his letter, James has moved quickly to raise some significant concerns and sharing his counsel. He has dealt openly with the opposition, challenges, difficulties, and trials confronting these early believers who are scattered across the region.
James challenges them to “Consider it an opportunity for great joy” (1:2b, NLT). He urges them to take a broader perspective on the trials they face. It is easy to lose focus when the going gets tough. James wants them to remember that there is a bigger context. There is more in store for them than what they can see in the present moment. Like exercising a muscle to exhaustion, testing produces greater strength. In this case, the strength to endure, persevere, stand fast, overcome. James is confident that developing this kind of endurance leads to maturity.
An essential part of growing to maturity is to accept the wisdom God offers. Wisdom is the recognition that there is more to this life than satisfying our physical appetites. Wisdom leads one to “
walk blamelessly.” And when a person is walking blamelessly – in a way that honors God’
s mission and purpose – that path leads to righteousness, justice, and equity.
God’s wisdom is a gift meant to enrich the quality of our relationships and the strength of our communities. The enduring value of wisdom is that it carries with it the understanding that my relationship with God and my neighbor are more important than any pleasures that might tempt me to do any less than love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love my neighbor as myself (see Luke 10:27).
Living this kind of life – a wisdom-directed life – requires a particular single-mindedness. James warns his readers about being double-minded. We can be distracted not only by trials, but also by wealth and ease. When we have all we need and more, there is a real temptation to become more focused on keeping what we have than in ways we can use what we have to serve and bless others. We can begin to see others as competitors rather than as fellow citizens of the kingdom God sent his son to establish. We fail to recognize God as the source of “every good gift, every perfect gift” (1:17a), and begin to follow the way of the world: “Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them” (1:14).
This is where James says clearly: “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry” (1:19b). Let’s be clear: James is calling believers to listen carefully to those who speak wisdom’s truth. He is not saying that we should find someone who is proclaiming a message that affirms the voices in our heads to satisfy our cravings, and attend to that message. Living in a world that does not love God or follow God’s ways makes it easy to justify following our own desires. Again, we depend on the gift of God’s wisdom to discern what leads to life and what leads to death.
When we attend to God’s way of living (“walking blamelessly”), it does conflict with the way of the world and with our natural desires – our cravings. Our first impulse may be to take offense. “Why are you trying to keep me from doing what I want?” We act like toddlers who are told to share our toys. This kind of anger doesn’t lead to greater maturity: “because an angry person doesn’t produce God’
s righteousness” (1:20).
Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness,
and welcome the word planted deep inside you—
the very word that is able to save you. James 1:21
Notice that it starts with humility. This is another way to talk about acknowledging our position before God. It is really just another way of saying “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 9:10). It is the willingness to acknowledge that God deserves our respect, our obedience, and our utmost regard for the ineffable wonder of God’
s presence, power, and glory.
Once we accept the nature of God’s character, the decision to “set aside” all that is opposed to God, it opens up the way to the kind of single-mindedness James commended earlier – to “welcome” God’s word – God’s wisdom. But it is not enough to only accept the word of God; “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves” (1:22).
It seems that James is quite familiar with those who are well-versed in God’s word, but who fail to let it rule their lives. Jesus warned about “
the legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). Jesus repeatedly says, “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites!” (23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). Why? They know the Law; they know what God requires; they teach others; but they fail to practice “the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith” (23:23).
James compares them to those who look in a mirror, “They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like” (1:24). God’s word does reveal the true nature of our character. God shows us the kind of people we were created to be, the depth of our disobedience, and the possibility of our restoration. Unfortunately, many hear that message, see that vision, and choose to “walk away.” Once they have, it is as if they had never heard it or seen it.
The good news is that this vision is not beyond our comprehension. “There are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’
t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do” (1:25). Those who experience the fullness of God’s blessing are those who not only receive God’s wisdom, but who are guided by it in their daily lives – in their relationship with God and with one another. They discover that the “perfect law” sets them free from bondage to their cravings and free to live into the gracious abundance of God’s kingdom. Again, James sounds like he has overheard his brother: “
You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31b-32).
Once again scripture affirms the enduring value of wisdom – of letting our thinking be shaped by the will of God. My relationship with God and my neighbor are more important than any pleasures that might tempt me to do any less than love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love my neighbor as myself (cf. Luke 10:27). This is important because wisdom leads one to “
walk blamelessly.” And when a person is walking blamelessly – in a way that honors God’
s will and purpose – that path leads to righteousness, justice, and equity. These are the characteristics that mark a covenant community – a community where people are living in right relationship with one another.
If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. James 1:26
James must have been in the crowd the day the Pharisees and legal experts came to Jesus and asked him, “Why are your disciples breaking the elders’ rules handed down to us? They don’
t ritually purify their hands by washing before they eat” (Matthew 15:2). That day Jesus quoted scripture to call out the depth of their hypocrisy: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human rules” (Matthew 15:8-9, Isaiah 29:13). What you say is a reflection of what guides your heart. “Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles’” (Matthew 15:10-11).
Still, the bottom line for James, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us” (1:27). The test for whether a community reflects the nature and character of God is how it treats those who are most vulnerable. The world’s value system may be based on money, power, and pleasure, but those who choose to participate in God’s beloved community love their neighbor (and particularly those most in need) as themselves and they express that love in practical ways, by what they say and what they do.
A Lingering Shadow
Kafui Dzirasa was the first African American awarded a PhD in neuroscience at Duke University in 2007. He is a medical doctor and a scientist. He has led a National Institutes of Health-funded research lab for almost a decade, and was awarded the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Prize in 2019. He is an American Association for the Advancement of Science Alan I. Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, and he has hosted TEDMED three times.
He is a scholar, teacher, mentor, speaker, and mental health advocate. He has served on national commissions, advanced federal policy, and has even “held court with a president of the United States.” He has published in scientific journals, and as a peer reviewer, he has worked to advance the scientific rigor of his colleagues. In spite of all of his accomplishments, he laments, “Yet, most days, I am unseen and unknown.”
Dr. Dzirasa shares his story in an article published online in Duke Today. “I started medical school 20 years ago full of the belief that everyone was equal and that scientific evidence was fair, unbiased, and always reflected the truth. Yet, I was soon confronted by overwhelming images of black men in my textbooks who all had advanced-staged sexually transmitted diseases. Surely it wasn’t only black men that get STDs? These subtexts about race and health infected many of the narratives that accompanied daily morning rounds in the hospital.”
The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male was established and continued in a climate of racism. The clinicians who led the study assumed that African-Americans were particularly susceptible to venereal disease because of their race and that they were not interested in medical treatment. Taliaferro Clark said, “
The rather low intelligence of the Negro population, depressed economic conditions, and the common promiscuous sex relations not only contribute to the spread of syphilis but the prevailing indifference with regards to treatment.” In fact, one writer, after researching the project, said he felt like the physicians were fixated on African-American sexuality. They seemed to believe that African-Americans willingly had sexual relations with infected persons.
As a result of the Tuskegee experiment, many African Americans developed a lingering, deep mistrust of public health officials. In a 1999 survey, 80 percent of African-American men said they believed the men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment had been injected with syphilis. A 2016 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found “that the historical disclosure of the [Tuskegee experiment] in 1972 is correlated with increases in medical mistrust and mortality and decreases in both outpatient and inpatient physician interactions for older black men. Our estimates imply life expectancy at age 45 for black men fell by up to 1.4 years in response to the disclosure, accounting for approximately 35 percent of the 1980 life expectancy gap between black and white men.”
This lingering mistrust led President Clinton to issue an apology in 1997, stating, “
The United States government did something that was wrong – deeply, profoundly, morally wrong… It is not only in remembering that shameful past that we can make amends and repair our nation, but it is in remembering that past that we can build a better present and a better future.” A year later on May 16, 1997, Bill Clinton formally apologized and held a ceremony at the White House for surviving Tuskegee study participants. He said: “What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry…. To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist.” The final study participant passed away in 2004.
In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established a national program to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities. The Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program gives funds to state and local health departments, tribes, universities, and community-based organizations. Recipients use these funds to build strong partnerships to guide and support the program’
s work. In November of 2018, the YMCA of Coastal Georgia, in partnership with Healthy Savannah, was awarded a five-year, $3.4 million collaborative grant.
The CDC affirms that, “A core principle of public health is that every person should be able to reach his or her full health potential. The CDC seeks to remove barriers to health linked to race or ethnicity, education, income, location, or other social factors.” CDC is currently working with 31 partner organizations across the country to reduce health disparities among racial and ethnic populations with the highest burden of chronic disease such as hypertension, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. These partner organizations use community-based, participatory approaches to identify, develop, and disseminate effective strategies for addressing health disparities, particularly through culturally tailored interventions to address preventable risk behaviors (like poor nutrition, smoking, and physical inactivity).
“You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves” (1:22). Pray that our resolve to follow the way of wisdom may grow stronger each day so that we may not betray the trust that others have placed in us.
Ashley Randall is the pastor of Garden City UMC. He serves as a co-chair of the steering committee of Healthy Savannah, working with a network of more than 200 public and private community organizations to lead and support a culture of health in the Savannah area by: creating an environment that makes a healthy choice an easy choice; building a collaborative network that identifies and shares resources & collects and disseminates information; and promoting best practices, innovative programs, and advocating for effective policies. healthysavannah.org
- How do you feel when you realize someone has betrayed your trust?
- When have you responded in anger to someone who helped you see you were pursuing a goal that was contrary to God’s purpose and mission?
- What should people of faith be willing to do to repair the damage that has been done to others by pervasive and persistent injustice?