Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lent: WWJD? part one

I cringe to use that overworked four-letter cliché in the title of this post, because which of us doesn't cringe when we see it? But that's the topic today, so there it is.

The idea of emulating Jesus has been around since Jesus, of course, but this particular formulation of it started with Charles Sheldon's 1896 book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? Even though it was published well over a century ago, it's still in print. It's one of the best-selling books of all time. (I confess I tried to read it years ago and I never got past the first couple of chapters.) It's a novel about a midwestern congregation that undertook to ask the question "What would Jesus do?" before they took any action.

But the question isn't easy to answer. First of all, because Jesus lived two thousand years ago. Would he carry a cell phone if he lived now? Would he have a Facebook page? Would he be a Luddite--spurning technology? Would he prefer CNN or MSNBC? or would he not want to know what was going on in the larger world so he could concentrate on the individuals around him?

The questions seem ridiculous. Probably most of us want to think that Jesus would be a simple man, eschewing the trappings of modern life, because Jesus exists firmly in our heads as a monk-like icon from a simpler time. But it's entirely possible that he was just as much a man of his times as anyone --although with a unique perspective on pretty much everything, as he expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. After all, we're talking about a man who befriended sinners, prostitutes, and tax-collectors (more or less the loan sharks of their time).

And then there's the fact that Jesus was an itinerant rabbi (teacher). He wasn't married, he wasn't raising children, and probably he would have been a little bit mystified by our current notion of what it means to hold a steady job with good benefits (as would any person from that era). He didn't have a savings account, he didn't own a home, and given the Torah's teachings against usury (charging interest), he probably would have been opposed to having a mortgage. He did few of the things that most of us would consider to be a mandatory part of a responsible adult life.

Interesting aside: when James Joyce was looking around for a role model for Leopold Bloom, the quintessential Everyman who is the central character of Ulysses, he rejected Jesus because Jesus never had to live with a woman. He went with Odysseus instead. (I know. Go figure. because Odysseus, mighty warrior and veteran of years-long absences from home, wasn't exactly your John Doe, either.)

So the question of "What would Jesus do?" is considerably more complex than the WWJD bracelet-wearers would have you believe. This came up in our small group a couple of months ago. Jesus's most direct life-choice instructions (Sell all you have and give it to the poor; "go, therefore and make disciples of all nations") imply leaving home for a Jesus-like itinerant life. They are ignored by all but a tiny minority of ultra-passionate Christians whom the rest of us secretly think are taking things just a little bit too far.

This whole issue is something that has vexed me for a long time. And honestly, my response for the most part has been to ignore it because I couldn't figure out how to resolve it. Like most people, I just try to figure out the best I can how to live a moral life. Although I'd like to be able to sugar-coat this a bit, to be entirely honest, my response to WWJD, I'm sad to say, has frequently been, what difference does it make? He was never confronted with most of the problems I face.

I can get behind "Love one another" and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I can learn from Jesus's radical perspective on power and materialism as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, but Jesus as a role model? What did he know about enforcing curfews for teenagers? When did he ever have a fight with his spouse? When did he have to decide whether or not to pay the extra 30% for organic groceries? First world problems, I know, but they're some of the ones I think about.

Huh. to my surprise, this is turning into a two-part post. I'm not sure there's enough for a second post, but this one is already plenty long. More to come.

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