09/19/2005 09:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Would Jesus Do?

I must admit to a bit of consternation when the WWJD fad became so popular in the US, primarily because the answers one often heard seem to be rather contrived and only superficially connected with any actual claims that Jesus made. My second concern was that asking the question this way could easily miss the fact that there were some aspects of his life that did not expect everyone to imitate. For example, Jesus never married, but made it clear that Christians need not imitate him since he expressly affirmed marriage. Yet, my biggest concern was how much the question invited facile proof-texting--you know, the tendency to quote one small verse as if it provided the answer to a complex question. The bible is a rich and complex book that, as has been shown too often, can be used to support just about anything once individual texts are allowed to be separated from their place within the overall story. This is why, in what follows, I talk more about what we find if we study the bible as a whole, and the Gospels in particular, than citing specific passages.

(In order to keep this post short, I have abridged the points listed below. Please go here for the longer version. As always, I appreciate your comments, but in this case I’d ask you review the entire, longer post first.)

First, it says something about the very heart of God that when he sends his Son into the world, he sends him, not as a king, not as a warrior, not as a wealthy business person, but as a lowly “commoner.” A line from a song by Rich Mullins referenced Jesus as follows: “the hope of the whole world rested on the shoulders of a homeless man.”

Second, when Jesus engaged in criticism and condemnation of those around him, it was disproportionately aimed first at the class of religious leaders. He observed that they loved to engage in public acts that gave them a facade of piety

Third, interestingly, Jesus seemed to engage in relatively less condemnation of those who were popularly considered sinners. In fact, he hung out with them all the time. His normal cohort included tax collectors (whose behavior was considered treasonous by many) and women of ill repute. Did he care about these sins? Of course, but his means of transforming folks revolved around personal engagement and the sharing of his life with them, not exclusion.

Fourth, it seems we can reasonably surmise from Jesus’ actions and teachings that he would hold what we might call a non-contingently pro-life position. I realize this phrase does not fall trippingly off the tongue, but it is intended to capture something of what Cardinal Joseph Bernardin referenced as “a seamless garment of life” that must run through a broad range of issues. Convenience abortion? Yes, but also capital punishment, poverty relief, nuclear disarmament, access to health care, etc.

Fifth, Jesus resisted all attempts by others to coopt him into a war for liberation from Rome. If there ever would have been a case where someone had a just cause, surely first century Jewish oppression was it. Whatever position one thinks Christians should hold regarding war, the non-negotiable is that we must love and pray for even our enemies.

Sixth, Jesus taught and embodied a way of being that was radically oriented toward others. If I genuinely loved my neighbor as myself, what would I not do for my neighbor? And, who is my neighbor, according to Jesus? Well, he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to answer this question, and the answer is shocking–the person you take to be the most unlikable!

What would Jesus do? At the end of the day, this is a legitimate, in fact critical, question for Christians to consider. To answer it, though, it is not enough to appeal to popular conceptions of Jesus or to try to determine what Jesus might do from some notion of “common sense.” Rather, we will have to engage the resources we have that give an indication of what Jesus did when faced with different circumstances–namely, with the biblical writings and the writings of the early church.

For the longer version of this post, join us here.