WWJD?

There’s a new fad abroad in the land, mostly among teenagers.
Teenagers around the country are wearing jewelry– rings (a few
actually worn on fingers), bracelets, necklaces– which bear the
letters WWJD. WWJD can also be found on hats, book bags, denim shirts
and writ large on t-shirts. A CD album entitled WWJD is at the top of
the charts.

The letters stands for “What would Jesus Do?”

One might expect such a fashion among kids in Baptist Youth Groups,
Christian campus crusaders, and chalk it up to religious
sentimentality. But some Unitarian Universalist kids are wearing the
WWJD jewelry– and this has the attention of Unitarian Universalist
parents and ministers of Unitarian Universalist congregations.

What’s going on?

When I first saw the letters a few weeks ago, I could hardly believe
what I was seeing. I’d thought that there couldn’t be more
than a dozen people left in the world who knew about the origin of the
question, “What would Jesus Do?” I had come across it over
forty years ago when I was a seriously Christian young student
preparing for the Methodist ministry. The question was the central
theme of a little book I’d found called, “In His Steps,”
written near the turn of the century by Charles Sheldon.

It’s a modest story with a simple premise. A homeless man wanders
a small town, asking help of the shopkeepers, people on the street,
the banker, the minister, the lunching ladies. He is disregarded,
turned away, chased away, threatened.

Come Sunday morning, the townspeople, dressed in their Sunday best,
are gathered in their fine church with its polished oak pulpit and
pews stained glass and plush red carpeting They sing moving songs
about Jesus and following him, walking in his steps, taking up his
cross if need be.

Then their settled and staid weekly ritual is rudely interrupted by
the homeless man, who shuffles unsteadily down the aisle, turns and
addresses the stunned congregation. He says, “It seems to me that
there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that wouldn’t
exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them
out.” With that, he fell and died. Well, to quote Monty Python,
“That cast a pall over everything.”

All those people had taught the Sunday School children the story of
the Good Samaritan. They had heard their minister preach on the text
in which Jesus says, “I was thirsty, and you gave me drink,”
I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was imprisoned, and you set me
free.”

“His disciples said, “When did we do these things?”

And Jesus said to them, “As you did it for the least of my
brothers and sisters, you did it for me.” And here was the least
of them, whom they had given neither food nor drink, but who they had
threatened to imprison: dead upon their fine carpet.

To give that congregation credit, they learned their object lesson
well.

They vowed to live for a whole year by asking themselves the question
before they made any decision, WWJD–What would Jesus do? Even the
minister–once complacent in his comfortable parish– is transformed
by the terrible object lesson lifeless beneath his pulpit. He preaches
a sermon in which he says,

What would Jesus do about the great army of the unemployed and
desperate who tramp the streets and curse the church… lost in the
bitter struggle for the bread which tastes bitter when earned, on
account of the desperate conflict to get it. Would Jesus care
nothing for them? Would he go his own way in relative comfort?
Would he say it was none of his business?


The rest of Sheldon’s little book consists of vignettes in which
various people confront situations in which their need to make a
decision is resolved –no doubt all-too-neatly– by their asking,
“What would Jesus do?”

As I say, I read that little book several decades ago, resolved to
live my life by it, as I recall, and am fairly sure I forgot it within
a week or so.

The youth group at Calvary Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan,
somehow came in contact with Sheldon’s long-forgotten novel, were
moved by it, and took the vow of the congregation in the story to
heart, promising to live their lives by the question, “What would
Jesus do?” They found someone to make woven bracelets that bore
the four letters, WWJD. Other kids asked what the letters meant (they
wanted a bracelet too), and some marketing wiz got wind of the
possibilities. At last count, four million bracelets have been sold,
along with the hats, T-shirts and other paraphernalia.

And again, to the consternation of some Unitarian Universalist
parents, it seems that many Unitarian Universalist teens are sporting
the bracelets and wearing the buttons. One UU minister reports that
his three daughters wear necklaces with little flaming chalices around
their necks and WWJD rings on their fingers.

How does he feel about that? “Well,” he says, “It
isn’t hard to understand. We are living in a time of moral
relativism, a time of immorality in high places, a time when a
president answers a question of morality by asking, “What is the
meaning of Is?”

Where can our children look for moral and ethical guidance? Where does
anyone look for guidance in making such decisions? A New Yorker
cartoon recently showed a bunch of lawyers (I think “bunch”
is correct in “bunch of lawyers”). One of them is saying,
“I don’t know what we should do, but I know what Ally McBeal
would do.”

One of our UUCA families saw a bumper sticker the other day with the
now-ubiquitous WWJD emblazoned on it. They tried to think of a
Unitarian Universalist substitution. They came up with, WWED
–“What would Emerson do?”

But I’m reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s imprisonment for
protesting the injustice of the United States war with Mexico. Emerson
visited the jail and said to Thoreau, “Mr. Thoreau, I’m
surprised to see you in there.” To which Thoreau answered,
“Mr. Emerson, I’m surprised to see you out there.”
Emerson was a brilliant philosopher, essayist, poet and naturalist.
But he was no reformer or ethical revolutionary. I don’t know of
any contemporary moral decisions that Mr. Emerson could help us with.

Perhaps Unitarian Universalists are far too “heady” to apply
simple sets of letters to complex moral questions. Confront us with an
ethical decisions and, by the time we’ve gone through the
textbooks, consulted the experts, and considered the percentages, the
deed is done and we are damned.


As I thought about it this past week, it occurred to me that I might
go for a bumper sticker which carried the letters WWJCD– no, not what
would Jesus Christ do but “What would Jimmy Carter do?” Our
Associate Minister, John Mackey, reminded me a couple of weeks ago,
when I was working on my sermon on public and private morality, that,
during the planning of the ill-fated strike to free the Americans
imprisoned in Iran, Mr. Carter refused to allow the press anywhere
near him because, he said, he didn’t want to have to lie to them.

But, before we get too exercised about our UU children wearing jewelry
and clothes that bring up the awkward matter of Jesus, let’s think
about it. Why not, “What would Jesus do?” I’ve seen a
lot more to be concerned about printed on T-shirts. And I’ve seen
a lot worse jewelry stuck in kids noses, ears, tongues and
god-knows-where.

Consider this: It was not the ethical and moral teaching of Jesus that
drove Unitarians and Universalists to the edge of the theological
spectrum. It was the magic, miracle and mysticism in which the church
buried his humanity after his death.

All that of virgin birth and resurrection, all that the Christian
right peddles as fundamental to Christianity, is irrelevant to the
core ethical and moral teachings of Jesus. Those teaching can stand as
dependable guides quite apart from the window dressing of faith.

The 19th century Unitarian ministers –such as Emerson, Parker and
Channing– preached that people are not “saved” by miracles
associated with Jesus, or by the supposed miracles of his birth and
death. We are “saved,” they said, that is, we are led into
the fullness of life and spirit, by absorbing his teaching and by
emulating his life. What shall I do about the homeless, the
downtrodden and abandoned? What would Jesus do? “Love your
neighbor.” Who is my neighbor? Jesus tells the story of the Good
Samaritan. Go and do the same.

“Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” “Do
unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

These precepts come from the teaching of Jesus, but they are also
universal precepts. In his work, “The Golden Bough,” in
which he collected the stories and teachings of the world’s
religions, James George Frazer quoted several passages from worldwide
religious literature which are essentially the Golden Rule attributed
to Jesus.

In the beautiful book, “The Good Heart,” his holiness, the
Dalai Lama, offers meditations on the Christian gospels. Of the
teaching of Jesus, “Love your enemies and pray for those who
persecute you,” his holiness writes, “This reminds me of a
passage in a Mahayana Buddhist text known as The Compendium
of Practices
in which Shatideva asks, “If you do not
practice compassion toward your enemy then toward whom can you
practice it?” He refers also to Jesus’ teaching of turning
the other cheek, going the second mile, and turning one’s back on
no one in need. “(the Christian passages),” the Dalai Lama
says, “…could be introduced into a Buddhist text, and they
would not even be recognized as traditional Christian
scriptures.”


And so, while there’s a good possibility of denigrating the
teachings by reducing them to letters on T-shirts, there is also a
universality to the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus which lends a
high degree of legitimacy to the practice of asking “What would
Jesus do?” as a way of arriving at a good resolution to a
problem.

What about whether or not I should make a copy of computer software,
or copy music or videos? What did Jesus know about that? What about
sexual harassment in the workplace? What about cheating on my taxes?
Obviously, there isn’t a hundred-page index to the teachings of
Jesus which will point us to the specific answer to the particular
issue with which we struggle.

But there is one undergirding “Law”–moral absolute– which
upholds any response to the question “What would Jesus do?”
and that is what is known as “The law of love.” The Law of
Love is itself grounded in the so-called “Golden Rule”–
“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and,
“Love your neighbor–love others–as yourself.” These are
the universal principles upon which Jesus–the Dalai Lama, Jimmy
Carter, Mother Teresa, your sainted Aunt Elsie–would do in your
place.

Absolute love for the other– whether the other is your partner,
child, parent or a software company– absolute love consists of
putting oneself in the other’s place and doing as we would have
done to us. When we cheat, steal, kill, hurt, betray we can do so
because we have contrived an “other,” a “not me.”
We can do unto “not-me’s” as we please. The Law of Love
puts us in the place of the other, makes the other, not other, but
part of our humanness, and asks if we would treat ourselves in that
way.

And the Law of Love says, “Love the other as you love
yourself.” Loving yourself has to do with self-love, self-esteem,
wholeness, integrity. What action can you take that will not cost you
your wholeness? What action can you take, what decision can you make
that will not cost you your integrity, that will not then cause the
death of your spirit?

These are the principles upon which Jesus taught and this is the
essential law on which his teachings rest, the Law of Love–loving the
self and loving the other as the self.

Asking “What would Jesus do?”, then, is something of a
short-cut to ethical decision-making which is based on the Law of
Love. Asking “What would Jesus do?” personifies the Law of
Love. When faced with a moral or ethical dilemma, “WWJD”
allows one to bring to mind a person who lives absolutely by the Law
of Love, and to know what the Law of Love requires by knowing what
that person would do. Go thou and do likewise.

It also needs to be said the “What would Jesus do?” is not
only reactive, but is morally proactive; that
is, Morality, the Law of Love, does not wait for a moral issue to
arise but recognizes that moral issues already exist. Remember the
minister’s sermon in Sheldon’s book asked what Jesus would do
if he was confronted with the homeless, the jobless, the sick and
hungry. What would that person do –the one who lived by the Absolute
of the Law of Love– in the face of the sufferings and injustices of
the world.

Need we ask?

We know what the Law of Love requires. Jewish
religious law was summed up in these words, “What does the Lord
require of you, but to love Mercy, Do Justice, and walk humbly with
your God?”

We know what Jesus would do– we know what
Absolute Love would do– coming upon the shaking, stupefied man with a
cardboard sign standing by the side of the road.

We know what Jesus would do– we know what
Absolute Love would do– after walking through the outpatient rooms
and wards of Grady Hospital, after walking the nightmare streets of
Atlanta. We know there would be no peace in the Assembly Halls, the
Commissioners meetings, the offices of mayors and governors and
bureaucrats of every ilk. “O you hypocrites. O you brood of
vipers.”


I part company with some of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues. I
have no problem with our youth wearing the WWJD letters. I remember
the youth who wore the swastika on their arms, hats, jewelry. Their
only passion, their only concern was with what the embodiment of evil
would have them do.

What would Jesus do? I would be delighted to think that our youth or
any youth would gather to seriously consider that there is, in fact, a
higher law than self-indulgence, that it makes a difference what
choices we make, that there are, in fact, universal guides to help us
in making moral decisions. I would be delighted to think that any
youth would gather to consider, not only what Jesus would do, but why
he would do that. And I would be delighted to think that any youth
would gather to consider that there are Moral Heroes in human history
–as well as fun heroes of music, movies and sports– whose teaching,
precepts and example, when followed, make a difference in the world.

I know many Unitarian Universalists are leery of Jesus, Christians and
Christianity. But it seems to me that, if we really want to know how
we and our children can live morally and ethically in a complex world
in which such questions hardly seem relevant at times, when we hear
“What would Jesus do?” It really wouldn’t hurt to find
out.