Rev. Yme Woensdregt
I’m sure we’ve heard this slogan before: What Would Jesus Do? It became popular in the 1990s as an evangelical slogan. Members of evangelical churches used it as a personal motto to remind themselves that they were called to act in ways which demonstrated the love of Jesus.
Eventually, as is the way with such things, it became a fashion statement. The slogan was emblazoned on bracelets, T–shirts, license plate holders, bumper stickers, and even shorts. If I remember correctly, I also saw it on the elastic band of boxers.
In some ways, WWJD harkens back to a book written in Latin by Thomas a Kempis between 1418–1427 called “De Imitatione Christi” — “The Imitation of Christ”. It has become a spiritual classic, offering spiritual teachings and instructions on how we might align ourselves with the love of Christ as we live in the world. A Kempis didn’t used the words of the slogan, but certainly the notion of imitating Christ is inherent in those words.
I was curious about where the actual wording came from. I had simply assumed that it arose about 20 years ago as a way for contemporary Christians to think about their faith. I had also assumed it first developed as an individualistic kind of sentiment. I was wrong.
The words “What Would Jesus Do?” were the subtitle of a novel written by Rev. Charles Sheldon in 1896. The novel “In His Steps” grew out of a series of sermons Sheldon delivered in his Congregationalist Church in Topeka, Kansas. The book has sold more than 30 million copies.
The novel opens with Rev. Henry Maxwell struggling to finish writing his sermon for next Sunday. A homeless man, Jack Manning, comes to his front door, asking for work. No one in the town helps him, including Rev Maxwell and his wife.
Jack interrupts Maxwell during his sermon and accuses the people of the congregation for their apathy. They don’t care about those who are not so well off. He confronts the good people of the congregation about their lack of compassion for the unemployed, the homeless, and those who are struggling. As he finishes accusing the congregation, he collapses. A few days later, he dies.
Rev. Maxwell is deeply moved by these events, and by Jack’s death. He starts questioning his own actions, whether he acted appropriately. The next Sunday, he challenges his congregation. “For the next year, do not do anything without first asking, ‘What would Jesus do?’”
That challenge is at the heart of the novel, and is the driving force behind the plot. The rest of the novel focusses on characters around town as they try to live up to the challenge. As they do so, the lives of the people in the town are radically transformed.
Unlike most of contemporary evangelical theology or practice, Sheldon’s novel and theology was shaped by a commitment to Christian socialism. This movement sees capitalism as idolatrous because it is rooted in greed and competition. Proponents of Christian socialism argued that Jesus’ teachings are best lived out as we care for one another first.
Christian socialism came to the forefront in a movement in the early 20th century known as the Social Gospel. Followers of the social gospel applied Christian ethics to social problems: economic inequality, homelessness, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, child labour, inadequate wages, and so forth. Those conditions sound very much like the early 21st century in which we live.
Sheldon and Social Gospellers would suggest to us that we need to be open to the spirit as we look at the social conditions around us.
What Would Jesus Do?
Would Jesus buy a new car, or help the homeless?
Would Jesus surround himself with luxuries, or devote much of his income and time to help the poor?
Would Jesus ignore the bum standing on the street corner, or would he reach out and treat that person as someone with dignity?
Would Jesus waste time on facebook or snapchat or Instagram or twitter, or would he use the time to help other people?
The list of questions can go on, almost to infinity.
Peter Gomes, professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School, suggests that rather than asking WWJD, it might be more productive to ask, “What would Jesus have me do?”
Asking the question that way helps us think through the way the gospel presents Jesus, and then choose how we might live out the Great Commandment in our own context: to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
My hope would be that as we do so, our world might also be transformed.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook