What Would Jesus Do? Good question!
Once, long ago, I picked up the habit of wearing a wristband – they were quite fashionable at the time, in a nerdy God Squad kind of way – with WWJD written on it. It stood, of course, for “What Would Jesus Do?” The idea was to control for my normal human weakness and inability to live up to my ideals, but it ended up being just another reason for feeling guilty, a constant reminder of my failure even with a constant reminder of what to do.
I liked the sentiment – What Would Jesus Do? What, indeed? It seemed so simple, but so profound. If Jesus was truly God incarnate, where else would I go to find an example of how to behave? He was the ultimate man, and therefore the ideal to aspire to. Even though I struggled to apply it to my life, it seemed obvious that the principle was sound.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy as that makes it seem, and the more I think about it, the harder it gets. In order to do what Jesus would do, I first need to know what he would actually do – not easy. Okay, maybe there’s some timeless moral principle that Jesus was obedient to, but how do you determine what it is from a few pages detailing how he approached a few specific issues in 1st Century Palestine?
The argument that Jesus didn’t condemn homosexuality is now almost ubiquitous in some circles, but it’s an argument from silence and applying it to other topics shows its flaws. He didn’t condemn slavery either, and his thoughts on animal rights, fracking, subprime loans and the best voting system for Strictly Come Dancing are also notable by their absence. It’s almost as if he had no idea about the issues we would face in the 21st Century.
Rather than expecting specific pronouncements handed down on tablets of stone, the expectation is generally that we should consider what we know of his character, and work from that. That was how I used to approach it, but that made sense because my mental image of Jesus was a kind of smoothed-out composite of the various different accounts of Jesus’s life. But if you acknowledge the huge variation in the gospels, this approach starts to fall apart.
Even if you ignore the distinctive slants of the gospels and attempt to harmonise them into a single coherent narrative, how do you reconcile (for example) the violent cleansing of the temple with the beatitudes, such as “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Blessed are the meek”? Clearly, we must assume that he thought his actions were necessary, but so does everyone. How does this help us to tell the difference between reasonable exceptions and special pleading?
As a rule to live by, the WWJD cliché might be motivational in the right hands, but it’s also almost content-free and liable to be abused to fit the most extraordinary and idiosyncratic interpretations of Jesus’s ministry. At worst, it offers a perception of divine approval for whatever you can persuade yourself is consistent with a particular reading of the gospels.