War of the Worlds was written by H. G. Wells in 1898. Though it hardly raises an eyebrow by today’s standards, it was pretty heady stuff then. England was at the height of its imperialism and creatures from another planet would be considered about the only qualified candidates to take down the Empire. Scientists were speculating about life on Mars with astronomers reporting sightings of strange light and possible (irrigation) canals. Wells himself had even written a piece discussing Martian life. Then too, technology was coming of age so the types of things he, Jules Verne, and others envisioned and wrote about were on the fringes of believability.
The plot of WOTW is straightforward: creatures from Mars have landed on earth and are taking over England. Their existence and man’s existence are incompatible (they actually feed off humans). Their two worlds are mutually exclusive and cannot co-exist. It is a war of the worlds.
With apologies to H. G. Wells, James is writing to a group of Jewish Christians, who are facing a similar situation. They have allowed the values of the world to invade their lives (4:4). In 4:2, he mentions desires, fighting, quarreling, coveting, and killing (though it doesn’t seem that we are to take this last one literally). He follows that by speaking of wrong motives and pleasure centered living (v. 3). Their response to the tyranny of some of the wealthy (5:1-6), had been to descend to their level though envy and selfish ambition (3:14,16), slander, judgment, and speaking against them (4:11-12).
It’s instructive to note that they didn’t start out this way. We have no indication that James is dealing with a situation like Corinth, where a significant segment of the church was composed of people who came from backgrounds where sexual immorality, lawsuits, and participating in pagan rituals were all deeply rooted in their culture. No, the sins that James targets apparently came into being as a result of his readers mishandling the injustices suffered by them. (This is why his letter begins with instruction on how to deal with trials – 1:2ff). They had allowed the oppression they experienced to warp their judgment and their behavior.
This should speak to us today where, for the most part, we’re highly sensitized in regard to our “rights.” The corollary to this often seems to be that when wronged, there can be a disproportionate sense of outrage and incendiary behavior. James would have us to understand that experiencing injustice does not entitle us to be unjust. We must remain humble and discerning, recognizing that acting out our anger does not achieve God’s righteousness (1:19-20). We must choose which world we wish to embrace — the values of Christ’s kingdom or those of the world. But we cannot live in both, for they are at war.