As was widely reported by the media both in Britain and in this country, on October 15, 2011 Occupy London (the British imitator of the Occupy Wall Street movement) put up a protest camp in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral. With more than two hundred tents in place, the camp impeded the regular activities of the Cathedral, though it did provide an additional tourist attraction of sorts. There were differences of opinion within the Cathedral clergy and within the Church of England in general. Some, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed vague sympathy with the protesters, others (including the Bishop of London) took a dimmer view of the disorder imposed on this venerable symbol of Christianity. Most were reluctant to call in the police to clear the area. The situation is unresolved at the time of writing. All of this would be interesting to discuss. But on this post I want to take off from one small incident that occurred during this episode. One of the clerics came into the camp to discuss with the protesters. He was confronted with a sign that said “What would Jesus do?”. He said that he too was worrying over this question.
What would Jesus do? Does this question make any sense?
It has a curious history. In 1896 Charles Sheldon, a Congregational pastor in Topeka, Kansas, published a novel with the title In His Steps, and the subtitle (you guessed it) What would Jesus do? The message of the novel was that Jesus would above all be concerned with the plight of the poor. The novel became a bestseller, in a few decades sold over forty million copies and was translated into more than twenty languages. By his own admission it influenced Walter Rauschenbusch, the key figure in the Social Gospel movement. The novel had a new lease on life in 1989 when it happened to be read by Janie Tinklenberg, a young woman in a Reformed church in Holland, Michigan. She persuaded her youth group to wear bracelets with the inscription “WWJD”. The practice caught on. Within ten years fifteen million bracelets were sold, and wearing them was a fad among young Protestants in the 1990s. I don’t know if this is still the case, but as recently as 2010 a successful film was made with the WWJD title. I have not read the novel nor seen the film, though I have frequently come across the WWJD question both among Evangelical and liberal Protestants. The incident at St.Paul’s Cathedral made me reflect about it.
At first blush it seems obvious why this question would be asked by Christians, or by non-Christian admirers of Jesus like Mahatma Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. On further reflection it is less obvious. The basic assumption behind the question is that Jesus was primarily a teacher, to be imitated and taken as a guide in facing moral challenges of any kind in our own time. One can look at Jesus in two (not necessarily contradictory) ways—in purely secular terms as a historical individual, without the presupposition of faith—or in theological terms as an object of faith, the redeemer in whom God took on human nature. It seems to me that the WWJD question makes little sense in either perspective.
For over two centuries now scholars have tried very hard to employ the tools of modern scholarship to get a hold of the historical Jesus. This has been difficult. The scholars have been going round and round the single primary source, the New Testament, which is hardly an objective account. (One would wish, say, for just one report from the third precinct of the Jerusalem police department.) There continue to be hugely different scholarly interpretations. Yet there are a number of reasonably sound results which serve to undermine the assumption of Jesus as, primarily, the great teacher. There is the rather interesting fact that the Apostle Paul, whose letters are the oldest texts included in what is now the New Testament, did not show the slightest interest in the teachings of Jesus—his focus was exclusively on Jesus as the Christ whose resurrection has inaugurated the redemption of the cosmos. The synoptic Gospels do indeed say a lot about Jesus’ teachings, summed up in the Sermon on the Mount (which as such was very unlikely to have ever been preached, but rather was a collection of sayings handed on by word of mouth). But the teachings, what Jesus said, must be seen in the context of what he did—going about healing people and performing other miracles, all in the expectation of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God and the Day of Judgment. He did indeed pay special attention to the poor and the marginalized, and he practiced poverty and non-violence in his own life. He did recommend these habits to his disciples, but it is important to keep in mind that these were meant to be a so-called “interim ethic” until the arrival, very soon, of the end time.
The Golden Rule has often been taken as the core principle of Christian morality. The sociologist Nancy Ammerman has coined the term “Golden Rule Christians” for those who understand that moral maxim to be the core of what the faith is all about. Obviously for them the teachings of Jesus are of foremost importance. Most of them think that Jesus invented the Golden Rule: “As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31; Matthew has a slightly different wording). Actually, Jesus was quoting Rabbi Hillel the Elder. (There are no footnotes in the New Testament.) Hillel was active in Jerusalem from about 30 BCE to 10 CE. He founded one of the two great early schools of Jewish law (the House of Hillel, which was generally milder than its rival, the House of Shammai). Hillel’s wording: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary”. One might say that all of Jesus’ moral teachings were a commentary on Hillel’s, modifying the latter by a greater emphasis on the poor and, very importantly, by placing morality in an eschatological context. If morality is all that Christianity is all about, the best place to find out “what Jesus would do” is a yeshiva with a good program of Talmudic commentary.
In sum, leaving aside any theological definitions of his person from Paul on, Jesus was a Jew of his time. If transplanted into our own time, he would have been completely baffled. To ask him, say, what to do about the current economic crisis would have been as futile as asking Hillel about the puzzles of nuclear physics.
Of course one can also look at Jesus in the light of Christian theology, as the incarnate second person of the Trinity—in the words of the Nicene Creed: “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.” The early centuries of Christian history were consumed with conflicts over how to define the relationship between the true God who made the galaxies and the Jewish miracle-worker from Galilee. Against those who would over-emphasize the divine in Jesus, as well as against those who would over-emphasize the human, the central tendency of Christological thought was to insist on both equally. For most (not all) the churches the most comprehensive definition came at the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE), whose creed contained a phrase that is helpful in our reflection about WWJD.
While spelling out in exhaustive detail, adjective piled on adjective, how Jesus is both “truly God and truly man”, the creed says that in the latter “nature” Jesus is “in all things like unto us, [but] without sin”. I think that this implies that, as “truly man”, Jesus in his time on earth had the consciousness of a Jew of that time, with all the limitations indicated above. Just one telling example: as “truly God”, Jesus from all eternity must know the full course of his earthly ministry, including the resurrection to follow his death. As “truly man”, he uttered the terrible sentence on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:47)—a sentence which we have reason to regard as authentic, if only because the evangelist reports it in Greek as well as in Aramaic (presumably because he knew that some believers would like to doubt it). As the risen Christ, “seated on the right hand of God, the Father”, Jesus must be omniscient. We have no access to this omniscience, thus we cannot know “what God will do”.
There is another way of looking at Jesus in his human nature, not so much as teacher than as exemplar—a long tradition of “the imitation of Christ”, as classically formulated in the book of that title by Thomas à Kempis (1380-1470): “At the Day of Judgment we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done”. From the Desert Fathers to the Mennonites, from Francis of Assisi to Tolstoy, the “imitation” has meant to live as closely as possible to the way Jesus lived—totally committed to the service of others, in peacefulness and disdain of material possessions. It goes without saying that this tradition has brought forth some very admirable individuals—if you like, saints—perhaps icons of a future Kingdom of God. However, if large numbers of people were to live in this way before the advent of the Kingdom, ordered society would be impossible. Human nature being what it is, the most predatory individuals and groups would take power. A modern state and a modern economy would collapse, with catastrophic consequences for all its inhabitants. The Sermon on the Mount cannot be a blueprint for any society larger than a monastery or a small utopian community.
Back to our present economic crisis, which motivates the various Occupy movements: leave aside the rival demagogic suggestions that would only prolong the crisis: “Not one dime of new taxes!” – “Punish the rich!” There are very few serious strategies on offer: Stimulus. Austerity. Deregulation. Or some combination of these. Economists, despite their pretention of being the most scientific of human sciences, are as divided on which of these would work best in the twenty-first century as Biblical scholars on how to understand what happened in the Holy Land in the first. Asking what Jesus would do cannot be of the slightest help in choosing the right course of action in dealing with the economic crisis.