Sunday, 9 September 2012

WWJD

Pieter Brueghel the Elder Christus und die Ehebrecherin

Neither WWDC, nor WWJZD, but WWJD - “What would Jesus do?” A question that, in this specific form, originates in the writings of the US evangelical pastor Charles Sheldon, that has regained currency in the 1990s with evangelical youth groups and that has even been adopted by parts of the current Occupy movement (e.g., including protesters camped outside London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral).

It is not without critics though, such as the US evangelical and academic Dr. Conrad Gempf, who has the following to say:
“[The Early Church] didn't copy Jesus. [...] They didn't walk on water. Jesus didn’t tell us to do what he did, he told us to do even greater things.”
To my surprise even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, whom I greatly admire, has some things to say against WWJD:
“The Jesus we meet in the Bible is somebody who constantly asks awkward questions [...] rather than just giving us a model of perfect behaviour.”
Instead of getting het up about the above, it is worth realising that the point of the criticisms is not about being against imitating Jesus (Dr. Williams starts his talk by saying “Well, an archbishop is hardly going to suggest that it isn’t a good question to ask!”). It is all about a well-founded concern regarding the dangers of oversimplification (maybe tinged also with a pinch of cynicism - that I too share - regarding the wearing of the now-popular WWJD bracelets). Simply mimicking Jesus’ actions verbatim, taken out of context and without the benefit of either an attempt to develop a relationship with him or of learning from how his followers have imitated him over the centuries, runs the risk of going off course.

Even if naive extremes, like attempting to walk on water, taking up carpentry or growing a beard are left to one side, there is still plenty of room for error, just like there would be with mindlessly applying the Golden Rule (“What do you mean? I would like it if you made me watch football!”). Dr. Williams comes to the following conclusion in his criticism of a headless use of WWJD:
“First, what changes things isn’t a formula for getting the right answer but a willingness to stop and let yourself be challenged right to the roots of your being. And second, we can find the courage to let this happen because we are let into the secret that we are in the hands of love, committed, unshakeable love.”
To me this doesn't sound like he is challenging WWJD at all - he is merely highlighting two important aspects of it. WWJD? He would want to get to the root of things (“The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)) and away from the formulaic. WWJD? He would place his trust in his Father, who is love (For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16)).

It is also worth noting that the idea of following the example Jesus set is fundamental to Christianity and has been a core part of it since day one. Jesus called the apostles to follow him (“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)), he called all to embrace their sufferings and follow him (“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)) and his call has been heard by every generation of his followers (e.g., look at St. Augustine and St. Francis, who deeply believed in an imitation of Jesus, and at Thomas à Kempis’ book even entitled The Imitation of Christ).

Personally, asking myself the question of what Jesus would do is something I have been encouraged to practice since my childhood and is something that I see as an effective guide also for my sons. Even to a four-year-old the answer is obvious when the question is asked in a situation where they have to make a choice. Focusing on Jesus in a decision making moment helps to introduce the selfless, altruistic and loving into a context that may otherwise be steered to an excessive focus on oneself or on following conventions. And even when at times I cannot answer the question unequivocally, placing myself in front of Jesus is of value in and of itself.