This little phrase began with Charles Sheldon’s 1896 book In His Steps which has sold an estimated 30 million copies. In this piece of inspirational fiction, the question Sheldon asks as he deals with the social issues of his time is, “what would Jesus do?” For Sheldon, the core of Christianity was the life of Christ. Jesus was our moral example and to follow “in his steps” meant to embrace the social gospel and to work to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. He believed “the entire passion and purpose of Jesus’ life centered about the human being.” Thus, the phrase “what would Jesus do” emerged from a picture of Jesus as a social revolutionary who came to end oppression, care for the poor, and bring about economic justice.
Ironically, a phrase born in the mix of liberal theology and socialism would eventually find a home among largely conservative evangelical Christians in the 1990s. The WWJD movement spread from Michigan to engulf the nation with its catchy merchandising and widely accepted push for Christians to live out their convictions in their everyday lives. Now believers could be spotted by the colorful bracelets they wore reminding them to stop being jerks and to treat people decently.
While the marketing trend has faded, “what would Jesus do” remains a popular question.
During the debt debate, Rep. Charlie Rangel asked “what would Jesus do” about the U.S. debt crisis at a press conference on Capitol Hill. According to Rangel, Jesus – through the voices of spiritual leaders – would want us to cut spending but not if it affects the homeless, jobless, and helpless including the “aging that are sick or those depending on social security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”
In an article found in the New Statesman on the politics of Jesus, entitled “What Would Jesus Do”, author Medhi Hasan wrestled with the question. He decided Jesus would support the redistribution of wealth, oppose the financial and political elite, back a living wage, defend free access to health care, and bring the soldiers home.
When Albert Pujols was holding out for more money before renewing his contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Today columnist Tim Townsend posted an article titled: “In Pujols’ Case, What Would Jesus Do?” He questioned whether Jesus would hold out for money like Albert Pujols, a Christian.
In response to Nancy Pelosi’s statement to the Catholic Community Conference that she pursues public policy in keeping with the values of Jesus, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote: “what would Jesus do? Vote against Nancy Pelosi for starters.”
It would take a full length book to catalogue all of the times the question “what would Jesus do” has been raised and answered. What would Jesus do about illegal immigration? Would Jesus celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden? Would Jesus support using horses for human consumption? Would Jesus burn the Koran? Would Jesus support coercive interrogation of terrorists? What would Jesus do for a Klondike Bar?
As you read the gospels, you realize Jesus was routinely doing the opposite of what everyone expected. Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, only to rebuke Him six verses later because he was expecting a triumphant Messiah and not a suffering one (Matt. 16). After the resurrection, the disciples still think Jesus will put Israel on top of the food chain but instead He intends for them to be His witnesses (Acts 1). Everyone knows Jesus will rush to heal his friend Lazarus, yet He waits until Lazarus has died (John 11). When Jesus comes to John the Baptist, he shocks John by insisting John baptize Him (Matt. 3). Later, when John doesn’t see Jesus doing what he expected, he dispatches messengers to find out if Jesus really is the One (Matt. 11). After healing many Jesus withdraws and when the people find Him, instead of healing more like they assumed He would, He leaves to preach to other towns (Mark 1, Luke 4).
The problem with asking, “what would Jesus do” is we don’t know what Jesus would do, anymore than the disciples, Pharisees, Romans, and His own family knew. God says of Himself in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” What God thinks and what God does are so far beyond us that claiming we know what Jesus would do is a bit like a two year old claiming they know what their parents should do when they file their taxes – we’re just not going to figure Him out.
Instead of trying to do what Jesus would do – which is impossible considering He is God and walking on water isn’t going to work for us – we should stand in awe of what Jesus did and obey what He said. If we reduce Jesus’ life down to an ethic we should follow than He becomes just another social revolutionary who achieved less than Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. But if in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we find life, salvation, and the power to live for the glory of God than we have a Savior worth our worship.
So what would Jesus do? Who can know that? But we’re not left there. We have a gospel that will transform us, we have what Jesus said to guide us, and we have what Jesus did to inspire us. If we can acknowledge Jesus can’t be crammed into the mold of a conservative capitalist or a liberal socialist and that our views, as sinners, would probably be affirmed, rebuked, and challenged by Jesus than we have a good place to start humbly following the Son of God. It may not be a fashion trend, but humbly worshiping, obeying, and following might just be what Jesus wants us to do.