I first encountered the shortcomings of WWJD when I was in sixth grade. I went to a Christian school, see. And there was this girl that was crushing on me, and I didn't like her back. It was getting pretty bad. So at one point I pulled aside a teacher I trusted and, without specifying the problem, asked for some general advice.
My teacher nodded sagely and said, "Well, Chris, when you don't know what to do in a situation, the best thing to ask yourself is... What Would Jesus Do?"
"Guh?" I said.
"What Would Jesus Do," repeated my teacher. "You imagine Jesus in your situation, and whatever he would do, that's what you should do."
I said nothing, and tried to imagine Jesus having a girl crush on him when he didn't like her back. It didn't work out in my head.
My teacher, evidently satisfied that her words of wisdom had fallen on good soil (as evidenced by my contemplative silence), nodded her head and walked away, satisfied as to a Job Well Done. While I was more confused than ever.
It wasn't until I grew older that I noticed the fad (among Christians) of owning WWJD bracelets, WWJD pendants, WWJD T-shirts, WWJD backpacks, WWJD wall plaques, WWJD lunchboxes, WWJD thermoses, WWJD underwear, WWJD posters, WWJD bumper stickers, WWJD flamethrowers...
I have been thinking about it, and I've been coming to the conclusion that "WWJD" as a motto is, from the Christian perspective, flawed.1) History
To be fair, although the WWJD thing experienced a re-awakening in the 1990s, it's far older than that. The phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" was from a book called "In His Steps"
published in 1896. The book centers around members of the church of Rev. Maxwell. A homeless man, after being refused help by the church a la the Luke 10 priest/Levite, addresses the congregation one Sunday. He berates them for singing "All For Jesus, All For Jesus" while failing to help the poor, homeless, and needy. The homeless man then keels over and dies.
The book follows several members of the church who, moved by this event, take a vow, for one year, to ask "What Would Jesus Do?" before making any decision. What this means practically: The editor of the local news stops running stories about prize fights, stops advertising liquor and tobacco, and discontinues his Sunday edition. The machine shop superintendent makes a new break-room for his workers and resigns because of his freight suppliers' illegal operations. The church soloist refuses to use her voice for the purpose of making money, turns down two marriage proposals... EVENTUALLY (on page 49) the characters finally get around holding a revival in the poor section of town (Finally, something that actually impacts the impetus of their vow!), but it seems rather fruitless, and they end up instead channeling their energies into a political party that will drive out the saloons. Half the book seems more about the Temperance Movement than anything else.
I know this book is regarded as a "Christian classic," but I have several issues with it. Firstly, it denies the life-changing power of redemption. The reason the tent-revival doesn't work is, the characters tell us, because of the continued presence of saloons in the area. The newly-saved former drunks simply cannot
resist the call of alcohol, it is not possible, and thus it must be resisted for
them. In other words: Christian salvation is an ineffective treatment for sin, and vice must be battled not at the personal level but at the legislative level. As a libertarian I have major problems with that idea.
Secondly, the book contains a rather classist atmosphere. All the characters who take the "What Would Jesus Do?" pledge are upper-class rich folk. All of the lower-class manual laborers are treated as errant children in many ways, children who need to upper class to guide them and to protect them. As an egalitarian, this bothers me six ways from Wednesday.
Still, the book has some very good points. The Christian life is one that must be walked, not just talked--this is true. Christians are supposed to become like Jesus--this is true.
But there's more that bothers me about the WWJD thing than just its origins.2) Wrong Focus?
Where is the emphasis, when you ask yourself "What Would Jesus Do?" Well, you're looking for an action. You're looking, quite obviously, to find out what Jesus would do. The emphasis is on right action. And action is external.
Now don't get me wrong, right action is important. It's important to do good things, and Jesus did good things. A "faith" that doesn't involve doing good things is no faith at all (James 2:20). And we, as Christians, should be becoming more like Jesus. That's part of what it means to be a "disciple." A discliple learns from his master, and ends up behaving and acting like his master. Christians should be as Jesus is.
But how does one become like Jesus? Is it by willing oneself into acting like Jesus? No. One does not become like Jesus by acting like Jesus. One acts like Jesus because one is becoming like Jesus.
The thing is, right action is something that anyone can fake. Just because you see a person helping the homeless doesn't mean that person is like Jesus--that person could be absolutely horrible to his wife and kids when no-one is looking. CEOs of corrupt corporations can donate thousands to charities, but that doesn't mean they're becoming like Jesus by doing so.
There were a lot of fakers in Jesus' day--very good at following the externals, doing the good deeds. But still Jesus calls them out. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean."
- Jesus of Nazareth
I think that asking "What Would Jesus Do?" is asking the wrong question. Anyone can act like Jesus some of the time, and no-one can act like Jesus all of the time. While it is very important that Christians act like Jesus, that act should be overflowing out of who they have become--coming out of the internal--instead of being something externally attempted. You cannot will yourself into acting like Jesus. Become like Jesus, and you will act like Jesus. Clean the inside, and the outside will follow.
So really, while we should be doing as Jesus did, our focus
should not be on doing as Jesus did. That should happen naturally as we focus on Jesus himself. Perhaps, instead of asking WWJD?, we should ask ourselves, WIJH? (What Is Jesus' Heart?)Next, in Part 2: Asking the wrong person and Jesus' example