[Caution: There may be some blasphemy in the following message, although it is certainly unintended.]
Last cold Christmas morning I took a traditional dogwalk through San Francisco's fabled Haight-Ashbury, my home of many years. It was pretty much empty of people on the streets, as almost all businesses were closed and so many San Franciscans leave town for the holidays. But left behind were a fair number of unfortunate souls lying in doorways, some with sleeping bags, some without, some with dogs and some without. I found an old Esquire magazine on a bench, and there was an article from 1969 (by John Luce, then a journalist but soon after and now an esteemed physician at San Francisco General Hospital) detailing "The Last Bad Days of the Haight-Ashbury." It's quite a read, but what struck me most were how city officials and neighborhood groups then tried to deal with "street people" by banning sleeping bags and loitering. Some things don't change, I guess. (Such measures failed then, too.)
But I was also thinking of the figure for whom this holiday is named, and could not help but recall the once-popular slogan "What Would Jesus Do?" Don't worry, I cannot and will not pretend to know, and certainly don't want to indulge in that kind of sanctimony here. But here are some thoughts, including his, anyway.
When I was an aspiring beach bum in Southern California, coastal Orange County was a locus of the Christian "born again" movement. In retrospect this was a somewhat predictable reaction to the crazed and chaotic sixties counterculture movement and all that entailed, but in any event, many people became new Christians, some temporarily and others more lastingly. The movement became widespread enough that "Pray for Surf" became a slogan even in the famously hedonistic beach culture. (Even then, that seemed to me a fairly selfish thing to pray for.) There were lots of young men around who looked a lot like our most common image of Jesus -- in other words, hippies. "Peace and love" was the dominant hippie slogan, and again, that struck me as something Jesus would agree with -- if not with some of the other hippie hallmarks. Some of the local freaks wandered the streets and beaches, handing out Christian literature and seeking new converts.
The handout I most recall was a deceptively small red pamphlet of twenty pages or so titled The REAL Bible. It contained only the words of Jesus himself, with no other commentary or other content. Reading it, I was surprised and impressed with some of the sentiments and admonishments attributed to the central figure of the Christian faith, which I had grown up surrounded by but hardly recognized in Jesus' words. Even as a teen, my world had already begun to strike me as overly materialistic, judgmental, even hypocritical. Long before, I had rebelled against going to church anymore with my devout mother and did not consider myself a true Christian. "My church is the beach," I once proclaimed to my concerned mom, who, truly faithful, nicely refrained from slapping me for being such a pompous brat.
So, what did Jesus have to tell us? Of course, there is an endless amount of writing and sermonizing on that question, much of it biased by personal preferences, of course (for example, it seems to me that Jesus would be a vegetarian in these times, but that's just me). But from a scholarly, historical perspective, it's hard to know exactly what he said, and there are many translations and even more interpretations. But some consistent words and themes have survived via the Bible. A select few quotes:
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
"What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?"
"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven"
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."
"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
"Judge not, that you be not judged."
"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
"But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
There are more, of course, but those are among my favorites. And they present a mighty tall order for human behavior and commitment, perhaps especially in modern times, but likely whenever and wherever people have striven to resist self-centeredness and the assaults of daily life. Some of Jesus' admonitions would seem to me to perhaps make some wealthy people nervous, and to give pause to many of the self-professed Christians who invoke their faith in judging others. But such people usually seem to find ways to justify their actions and words, and remain faithfully untroubled. As somebody once remarked, the human conscience often seems to be able to subsist on very questionable food. But also, for all the harm done in the name of religion, there has also been much good work, and much solace given. My greatest respect is for those many religious people, professional or not, who work to help others while tending to keep their faith to themselves. That's a beautiful thing, and perhaps a good basic definition of that much-overused word, "spirituality."
So, my overall perspective is found elsewhere in the Bible -- "By their deeds you shall know them." Or, as more commonly and modernly translated, "actions speak louder than words." I've been unable to do better than the great polymath intellectual and novelist Aldous Huxley, who toward the end of his life said he was somewhat embarrassed to be able to sum up all his learning by saying that we all should "try to be a little kinder."
I am just grateful to have a roof over my head, unlike some of those poor people just down the hill. So, what I'd really like to offer is a humble suggestion to anyone who might have a few dollars and/or time leftover from the holiday rush, and who might wish to support basic needs like food, life itself and freedom -- please do so, however you see fit. To perhaps make that easy, here are some good options that I support, and if I might be so bold, may God -- and/or Jesus, and life, and/or whomever you most respect -- bless you.
Four of my favorites, local or not: