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One recent Sunday, we drove to a nearby town to purchase some supplies. As we waited for the light to the onramp to turn green, three well-dressed boys waited for their turn to walk across the onramp.
When our turn came, my friend started to turn onto the ramp, then hesitated to make sure the boys wouldn't jaywalk in front of us. They didn't. Neither of us thought they would, but you can never be too sure about these things.
My friend said, "They look like they're dressed to go to church." I muttered to myself something like, "What would Jesus do?" -- half-wondering if even Jesus would have walked into the path of a moving car.
Then it struck me: Which Jesus?
Everybody has a different concept of what Jesus was like -- or whether a Jesus even existed. For me, I think the case for the historicity of Jesus is rather slim. If the Jesus myth is based upon the life of a real person, that person was probably a Jewish loyalist who went up against the Roman occupation of Judaea. Others have their reasons for thinking differently upon the subject -- or for not thinking about it at all.
So, the question is not "What would Jesus do?" but (if anything), "What would which Jesus do?" To me, it matters naught what Jesus would do because he did not exist. But to others, Jesus is (among other things) the epitome of morality. Whatever one's ultimate concept of a moral system may be, Jesus is seen as the prime example of it. That's why I've never been quick to mock the "What Would Jesus Do?" movement: "Jesus" is, even in this case, imaginary.
Though imaginary, anyone's concept of ultimate moral behavior is, by definition, the best moral system that that person can think of. In this sense, to ask "What would Jesus do?" is to ask "What is the very best you can come up with?"
I realize that the Bible "Jesus," taken at face value, was abhorrently immoral: he introduced hell and used the prospects of reward and punishment to enforce loyalty. Fortunately, most believers don't read the Bible with a critical eye. They go with the sugarcoated Jesus of the popular mindset.
True, WWJD presents fiction as reality. But the "Jesus," in this sense, is, at minimum, mythical, and we all depend on powerful myths to guide our lives. Paul D. Simmons defines a myth as "an influential belief that contributes significantly to human conduct and the interactions of a given ... culture." Simmons was, on this occasion, defending the myth of academic freedom, a concept practiced at most universities. However, it is "largely unenforceable if not impotent to protect professors ... who become the object of ideological crusades." Myths are good as long as we admit they're myths.
The downside of WWJD is that it portrays the concept of perfection as reality, rather than as the abstraction that it is. I'd prefer if we'd first recognize that nobody is perfect, nobody is "The Ideal."
True, a few brilliant lights have walked among us. We do well to emulate them at certain times: How would Paine or Lincoln have brought fairness to this situation? I'd never make either a blanket example, but prefer always to do the best I know how. My real question is, "What would Cliff do?"
See also: Comment On Your April, 2000, Editorial Gerald Gage
See also: Comment On Your April, 2000, Editorial Mike
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Copyright ©2000 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon