Editorial Note: I was almost finished writing this post, or thought I was, when the news came that Rachel Held Evans had passed. I made the decision to push this article out a week and re-run one where Mrs. Held Evens unique way of confronting patriarchy was on display. Interestingly enough, I had not quoted the author again until this article. I considered whether to pull the quotes but opted to leave them because, as usual, Mrs. Held Evans style perfectly summed up what was appropriate. While her presence most certainly is missed, I am grateful that she shared so prolifically her struggles, doubts, questions and the answers she found along the way. I’ve linked to her book in both the text and the Bibliography. Please consider purchasing a copy.
One might justifiably sit and argue that there is no place for religion in politics. Many people consider the alleged wall between the United States government and any formal religion must be maintained without compromise. However, in practice, and certainly at the state and local levels, that concept is less clear and certainly not heavily embraced in all locales. In fact, research by the Pew Research Center shows that the constitutions of all fifty states mentions either God or the Divine. Only four, Colorado, Iowa, Hawaii and Washington, don’t refer to God directly. Colorado, Iowa, and Washington make reference to a “Supreme Being,” while Hawaii mentions in its preamble that they are “grateful for Divine Guidance.”
There is little question that matters of religion and spirituality are dominant in the lives of many Americans but with a nation so diverse and full of so many different religions many politicians find there is strength in playing to the desires of the largest religious groups. However, while most politicians lean toward the evangelical nature of protestants, at least since 2015 protestants no longer make up a majority of the population among U.S. adults. Religion swapping is more prominent than ever. Yet, on any given week, one in five people will share some aspect of their belief system online.
We already know that the greater majority of members of Congress profess to belong to some form of Christianity, even when their constituents are largely some other religion. The addition of two Muslim women to Congress was a big deal that actually angered some conservatives who fear being dragged into sharia law. Never mind that those same politicians would happily make the Ten Commandments the law of the land if they could.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that when South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg began making waves and gaining popularity among the swarm of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, the race would almost immediately take a turn along religious lines. “Mayor Pete,” as he is called vernacularly, is not only openly gay, but happily married to another man. Religious conservatives, especially evangelicals, are outraged that Buttigieg is running. Their response has been 100% predictable and Mayor Pete has been ready for them, unafraid to call out the hypocrites while quoting scripture and smiling the entire time.
Topping off the response in a most public manner has been evangelist and friend of the president, Franklin Graham. Mr. Graham, who was once expelled from college for keeping a girl out past curfew, has tweeted:
Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women.
Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham)
Almost immediately, Graham was severely criticized even among other Christians, for his hypocrisy in calling out the presidential candidate while maintaining friendship with a president whose own sins are significantly more offensive in the social ethos. One shouldn’t be surprised, though, and if Graham had not made the statement be sure that some other fundamentalist Christian leader would. Christians at large, and Southern Baptists particularly, consider it their duty to keep political leaders, or would-be political leaders in line. Evangelicals feel compelled to provide a moral compass for the planet whether the inhabitants of the planet want their compass or not.
With Mayor Pete’s popularity growing, one has to reasonably expect that the more right-wing portions of the Christian community will keep up their verbal assault on the candidate, making every attempt they can to unseat his run for office. In light of that knowledge, it only seems fitting that I refer back to some wise words of my father in a probably pointless attempt to explain why those alleged followers of Christ are engaged in the most un-Christlike of activities.
The Bible Is NOT A Contemporary How-To Guide
For the sake of those not already familiar, I should explain that my late father was a Southern Baptist minister for over 45 years. I was raised strongly in that set of traditions amidst a changing theology that morphed from compassionate and forgiving to accusatory and aggressive over a span of 20 years. By the time Poppa died in 2002, he had grown quite disillusioned with the denomination and the direction its leaders were going. At no point, however, did he question his own beliefs nor his interpretation of scripture and he bristled at many of the philosophies he said were attempting to turn the Bible into a contemporary political guide book.
Two particular examples stand out in my mind and I hope you’ll excuse the personal reference here as they serve to make my greater point. Both of these topics invoked long conversations with my father. With neither did he show any outward irritation, but the depth of my conversations with him underscore how bothered he was by their prevalence.
One incident I have to take him at his word for accuracy. As he grew older, he listened to a lot of tapes of sermons and speeches from denominational events he was no longer physically able to attend. On one of those tapes, the speaker was apparently trying to relate in some form to popular culture. While his reference was about 30 years too early for the audience he was attempting to reach, he assumed that frequent reruns of the show and a recent live-action movie would keep “George of the Jungle” within the realm of cool and hip.
First, Poppa objected to the tactic at all, saying that it cheapened the gospel and treated Jesus like a cartoon character. We talked about appropriate and inappropriate metaphors and his concern was that even though there might seem to be a parallel with an event or incident and a passage of scripture, when the comparison was with something never intended to serve a religious purpose the Bible sacrificed a portion of its authority. The more ridiculous the metaphor, and there’s little question that George of the Jungle is pretty ridiculous, the less authority the Bible could bring to bear.
What stuck in his craw, though, was the speaker’s use of the line from the cartoon’s theme song, “Watch out for that tree.” The speaker, who was momentarily popular among teen audiences, was attempting to make the argument that life was full of “trees” and one needed to be careful to not fling themselves into them as George did in every episode.
Poppa objected to the metaphor because the problem wasn’t the tree’s but rather the fact that George was an imbecile who never learned to land gently on a tree branch as his ape mentors did. The trees did nothing wrong. There was nothing inherently bad about the trees. George was just stupid.
Moreover, Poppa contended, the premise promoted an atmosphere of fear, telling teens that they had best be on the lookout and afraid of everything. He was very much against the attitude among many preachers of the period to “find a satanic boogeyman behind every corner.” Rock music only bothered him because it was loud, for example. He didn’t consider it satanic. Messages like the one on the tape, he insisted, turned perfectly normal things like movies, dating, and books into instant boogeymen rather than teaching teens how to effectively determine for themselves the appropriateness of a situation.
What prompted the second and considerably longer conversation, however, was the popular use of the acronym WWJD, which (for the sake of any uninitiated readers) stands for What Would Jesus Do. The concept was to encourage believers faced with a difficult situation to ask themselves what Jesus would do if they were faced with that situation. The acronym spread into an entire movement that is still in force today. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it and when it first started Poppa had been supportive. In fact, I’m pretty sure he had a sermon on the topic.
By 1998, when my third son was born, however, Poppa had changed his mind. Upon hearing someone admonish one of the boys with, “What would Jesus do in that situation?” Poppa pulled me to the side to suggest we discourage use of the phrase. “The Bible is not and should never be used as a contemporary how-to guide, especially in situations where there cannot possibly be any direct correlation between current and historical events.”
What? My father was dissing WWJD? Could my ears be deceiving me? There was no mistake and the conversation was one that continued off and on for a couple of years. Poppa’s premise was that in attempting to make biblical references fit contemporary situations we were inevitably, and at times irreparably, bending scripture completely out of context, trying to make the Bible fit into places where it has no place being.
For example, in the case of his young grandson, Poppa argued that it is impossible to know what Jesus would have done at age seven or eight because there is absolutely no authoritative record of his childhood. To apply the adult precepts of Jesus’ ministerial teachings was inappropriate because children, especially young ones, are incapable of reasoning at an adult level. Adult precepts as simple as “turn the other cheek” fail to make a lick of sense to a six-year-old.
So, then, does that mean parents shouldn’t provide religious instruction to their children? After all, there is little question that the whole collection of religious tomes, regardless of source, are directed to and written for adults. Should we possibly hold off all religious instruction until a person’s full reasoning capabilities are formed?
This is a problematic question for Christians, especially, who believe that once a person is old enough to discern between right and wrong that they must make a deliberate choice toward Christ or risk eternal damnation. Never mind that a person of any younger age has absolutely no sense of what “eternal damnation” might be, the religion pushes the salvation narrative as a requirement. Without religious teaching, children who tragically die prior reaching a point of at least intellectual maturity (dodging the question as to whether some never reach that point) opens them to the risk of separation in whatever afterlife might exist.
Poppa’s response was that one should respond instead with the direct quoted words of Christ, or at the very least some other appropriate New Testament passage. In the case of my son, for example, the exhortation from Ephesians 4:32 to, “Be kind to one another,” would have been more appropriate and more directly instructive. Children understand how to be kind. There is no deep philosophical reasoning required. They get it, and they can then connect that basic instruction to their limited religious understanding in a valuable manner.
As we continued the conversation, Poppa worried that the whole WWJD movement left people in the position of trying to guess what was appropriate rather than actually reading scripture and studying what Jesus actually said. As time passed, he felt that much of the movement away from well-studied hermeneutics was largely responsible for the radical right movement not only within the Southern Baptist Convention but evangelical Christianity as a whole. Poppa had spent his entire adult life wrestling with the challenges of biblical interpretation, especially New Testament literature, and saw in the shallowness of the WWJD movement and everything that followed an attempt to circumvent what the Bible actually says in favor of inserting what one wanted it to say. He worried that continued movement in that direction would lead the Church directly toward embracing heresy.
Poppa died in 2002, fortunately never seeing the mess that many evangelicals now embrace. I dare say he would, at the very least, be severely disappointed.
The Challenge to Put Christ Back In Christianity
Putting aside the scholarly arguments as to whether a physical Jesus actually existed as one person or, perhaps, represents the collected teachings of multiple messianic Jews from the early first century, when we consider the long-term effect of philosophies such as the WWJD movement and other make-your-own-religion concepts we find they have to a large degree stripped Jesus’ actual teachings away, leaving only excerpts and convenient quotes that support a wholly man-made doctrine designed with a political outcome. Christ is little more than an avatar.
Of course, those who are deeply committed to these marginally-related principles would defend them fiercely. They’ll even quote limited pieces of scripture as they’ve been taught. The sound bites are appealing and easy to follow because at first glance they almost make sense. Only when one stops and thinks critically for a moment does one find that there’s a disconnect between the concept and actual scripture. Gaps in reason require one to make a complete re-interpretation of the Bible that is not supported by the best translations. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people stopping long enough to think and see where the gaps lie.
I have to be careful at this juncture because questioning religion in general and Christianity specifically is pretty much standard operating procedure for me. No one is surprised nor terribly upset because challenging belief systems is what I do. Of course I’m going to question the validity of WWJD. I’m going to question the validity of any belief system not because I’m wholly against believing in something but because that belief needs to be genuine and personal or it is not real. Adaptive belief is hollow and lacks either conviction or meaning.
I’m not the only one asking questions, though, and some of the loudest voices come from inside the camp, in a manner of speaking. When intelligent, committed people of faith start asking the hard questions and coming up with different answers, perhaps it is in the best interest of the Church to start listening.
One of the most valid responses to Franklin Graham’s gay-bashing comment about Pete Buttigeig came from John Pavlovitz, a minister in Wake Forest, NC, right smack in the heart of conservatism. Pavlovitz has become extremely popular over the past three years for pointing out, sometimes with painful accuracy, how support for the US President and the administration’s policies is not only unbiblical but often inhuman. When Graham decided to challenge Mayor Pete, Pavlovitz took to his popular blog, Stuff That Needs To Be Said, with an open letter to Mr. Graham. I won’t repeat the entire thing here, since that would be wholly inappropriate, but at the center of his challenge he says:
Someone else’s devotion to Jesus and the veracity of their faith confession are above your pay grade.
I understand that this news likely comes as a surprise to you. The Pharisees and Sadducees of the Scriptures suffered from the same afflictive arrogance currently plaguing you.
They too imagined themselves qualified to established people’s moral worth and believed they were arbiters of other’s righteousness.
The Scriptures say that those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved; not those who conform to your preferences or acquiesce to your fears or bow to your bigotry. The saving and the life-giving and the movement of the Spirit aren’t within your control or defined by your desires.
Pavlovitz references Romans 10: 12-14, in context. Paul the Apostle doesn’t list any exceptions in his statement regarding who is eligible for salvation. In fact, Paul’s reason for making this statement is to address a matter of racism that had cropped up in the early Church. He starts out by saying, “There is no difference between Jews and anyone else.” For the late first century, that was a pretty radical idea. The Jews of that period considered themselves “God’s chosen people” and by extension that made God their private property. No one else was allowed to worship YWH without converting to Judaism first, and they tended to be rather picky about who was allowed to make that conversion.
Paul is pretty blunt in his statement, even more so than Pavlovitz. He shakes the community in Rome to its core when he says there’s no difference between Jews and anyone else (most translations use the word Gentiles, which is a little softer than the actual language Paul used). Then, Paul hits with a reference back to Hebrew scripture (Joel 2:32) to remind them that anyone can have salvation. In other words, THIS IS NOT A NEW CONVERSATION!
Even before there was a Christ figure with which to contend, Hebrew scripture predating the Apostle Paul by nearly 1,000 years negated the ridiculous idea that there could be any exception as to whom God would accept. None. Zero. [Noting that there really is no firm dating of Joel’s prophecies because he makes no direct reference to anything that can be put on a timeline.] Therefore, claiming that being gay (or lesbian, or trans, or a person who puts pineapple on pizza) prevents someone from being a Christian doesn’t hold water. The statement is unbiblical, unsupportable, hypocritical, and beyond ignorant. Moreover, there is the strongly implied inference that if God doesn’t make any exceptions then those who believe in and follow him should not make exceptions, either. Paul’s audience had just as much difficulty with that concept as do contemporary evangelicals. Yet, no matter how much one wants to put spin on scripture, any half-honest translation ends up at exactly the same place: God accepts everyone without caveat.
See what happens when one looks at what the Bible actually says, in context, versus trying to twist it into something politically or socially convenient? This is exactly why the guess-work required by WWJD is so dangerous—it takes one out of the realm of relying on scripture and puts us in the position of interpreting scripture to match the desires of the moment. Religious texts, any of them, are easily manipulated to support whatever ideology one wants when one strays from actual context. A belief system loses its credibility when it constantly changes to fit the convenience of the situation.
Another disturbing aspect to WWJD is that it completely bypasses the fact that some of the events in the Bible are wholly inappropriate for contemporary society. I know that concept rubs a lot of Christians the wrong way because they are convinced that the Bible is current and authoritative for all of modern society. That’s really stretching things a bit, though.
Expressing this dichotomy in the most lovely of manners was the late Rachel Held Evans in her book, “Inspired.” I’ve referenced Mrs. Held Evans before, but in this book she challenges the concept that “God’s ways are not our ways so don’t go questioning what you don’t understand.” Here’s an excerpt from the book:
The question of God’s character haunted every scene and every act and every drama of the Bible. It wasn’t just the story of Noah’s flood or Joshua’s conquests that unsettled me. The book of Judges recounts several horrific war stories in which women’s bodies are used as weapons, barter, or plunder, without so much as a peep of objection from the God in whose name these atrocities are committed. One woman, a concubine of a Levite man, is thrown to a mob, gang-raped, and dismembered as part of an intertribal dispute (Judges 19). Another young girl is ceremonially sacrificed to God after God grants a military victory to her father, Jephthah, who promised to offer as a burnt offering “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites” (Judges 11:31). Earlier, in the book of Numbers, God assists the Israelites in an attack against the Midianites, and tells the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child from the community. They kill all except the young virgin girls whom the soldiers divide up as spoils of war. Feminist scholar Phyllis Trible aptly named these narratives “texts of terror.”
While women are raped, killed, and divided as plunder, God stands by, mute as clay.
I waited for a word from God, but no word came.
The inability to see the difference between portions of scripture meant for instruction versus those meant to provide historical context is what gives us religious terrorists such as ISIS. Remember, Islam accepts much of the same Canon of early Hebrew texts as does Judaism and Christianity. When one applies the WWJD philosophy to those scriptures we get the establishment of caliphates that think nothing of mowing down hundreds of thousands of people in the name of religious purity. Again, Mrs. Held Evans states (emphasis hers):
If the slaughter of Canaanite children elicits only a shrug, then why not the slaughter of Pequots? Of Syrians? Of Jews? If we train ourselves not to ask hard questions about the Bible, and to emotionally distance ourselves from any potential conflicts or doubts, then where will we find the courage to challenge interpretations that justify injustice? How will we know when we’ve got it wrong?
“Belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man,” Thomas Paine said. If the Bible teaches that God is love, and love can look like genocide and violence and rape, then love can look like . . . anything. It’s as much an invitation to moral relativism as you’ll find anywhere.
Use of the term “moral relativism” requires some explanation. Moral relativism is the philosophy or belief that morality holds true (or false) based on what is happening at any specific moment in history. In other words, yesterday’s morality does not necessarily become today’s morality because the situation has changed.
Do you see how this is problematic? “If it was good enough for Abraham and Moses, it’s good enough for me,” opens the door to everything from the callous slaughter of innocents to the deliberate execution of “infidels.” The very reason Islamic terrorists are able to recruit young people is because they convince them terror answers the question WWMD (What Would Muhammad Do)?
Playing around fast and loose with scripture not only takes us toward a path of heresy but disassociates us from the teaching of Christ himself. The theological stance that the Bible is to be taken literally, that there is no use of metaphor or morality plays in any of the texts, that everything happened exactly in the manner listed and that no literary appliances were applied in the development of the stories lacks a certain amount of academic credibility on its own. When applied to choice snippets of Biblical literature, however, it weaponizes the Bible for use as a horrible bludgeon against whomever or whatever the reader wishes to oppose. We lose the deeper context and meaning implied by the text. Knee-jerk radicalism becomes the basic response to most everything.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Colorado pastor, writes in one of her books:
The Bible is not God. The Bible is simply the cradle that holds Christ. Anything in the Bible that does not hold up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ simply does not have the same authority.
Using the words of Jesus as the balance against which all other portions of the Bible are measured takes away the violence, the hate, the discrimination, the xenophobia, the homophobia, and nationalism of the Old Testament. Instead, we find an attitude centered in peace, a desire for harmony, and more than anything, a nagging insistence for forgiveness.
Again, Bolz-Weber writes:
Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” not forgive us and smite those bastards who hurt us.
Forgiveness is a big deal to Jesus, and like that guy in high school with a garage band, he talks about it, like, all the time.
One might reasonably question that if forgiveness is such a strong theme for Jesus, who is allegedly the centerpoint of all things Christian, then why don’t we see more forgiveness in the doctrines and practice of Christianity. I’m sure I’m not the only person struck by the fact that one time Jesus blew his cool in public and drove the money changers from the temple, and that becomes the character trait Christians choose to emulate more than the countless number of times he talks about forgiveness, charity, and caring for the poor. Perhaps one of the reasons WWJD do is so offensive is because those espousing that philosophy only look at the what they interpret as the more aggressive moments of Christ. They miss the quiet, comforting, accepting, forgiving personality of the deity incarnate completely.
We cannot adequately or accurately answer the question of WWJD unless we have a firm understanding of who Jesus is and we cannot begin to understand who Jesus is without confronting the mind-boggling and infinite question of who God is. The portrayal of God one receives from some pulpits is that of a damning, vengeful, “my way or the highway” kind of deity that advocates tossing people out of the family because they don’t play by the rules. That definition of God insists upon whooping our disobedient asses while intoning the most useless phrase any parent ever uttered, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.”
One more time with Bolz-Weber:
I can’t imagine that the God of the universe is limited to our ideas of God. I can’t imagine that God doesn’t reveal God’s self in countless ways outside of the symbol system of Christianity. In a way, I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand and contrive. Otherwise it can feel like I am worshipping nothing more than my own ability to understand the divine.
Perhaps here is the crux of why WWJD doesn’t work: our failure to understand the enormous capacity for God to love, to forgive, blocks us from embracing the offensive nature of grace therefore leaving us incapable of understanding the thoughts and intentions of Christ even when he laid them out for us in plain sight. Our desire to fit God inside a box, any box, leaves out too much of what deity is, all that it encompasses. We cannot begin to comprehend WWJD when one worships a deity shrunken down and confined to ancient texts of questionable origin.
Only when we look at what Jesus says, with every last bit of contextual inference and historical relativism and the immense deific perspective applied do we begin to catch a glimpse, and I’m convinced that it’s little more than a sliver, of what he would have us do. We have this horrible tendency when faced with the outward focus of any religion, because they all ultimately have that same first-shall-be-last, we-before-me thing going, to find a way to wedge ourselves into the equation somewhere toward the top.
We like congratulating each other for doing anything that might align with what Jesus taught. We reward those who give the most, those who help build the biggest hospitals, those who pastor the biggest churches, those who have the largest television ministries, and those who spend the most time in the mission field. What we fail to realize is that in doing so we relegate the poor, the sinner, the person in need, to little more than notches on a religious gunbelt. Even when one doesn’t directly do the aggrandizement for themselves, every rating system we create, every quantification of what we’ve done, pushes God out of the way so that we can take the spotlight. The moment we even think in those terms, whether we act on them or not, we stop being anything at all like Jesus. There is no concept of what Jesus might do when we completely misrepresent what Jesus says.
On one occasion, a few months before his death, I had taken Poppa to the doctor and before returning home we stopped by the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. The sight of those chairs across the lawn raised deep emotions. The names of the 168 people killed, many of them infants, tore at our hearts and prompted the inevitable question, “How could anyone do something like this?”
Poppa, wiping tears from his eyes, said quietly, “This is what happens when people think they are doing what Jesus would do.”
What Jesus Actually Said
Poppa kept a Bible next to his chair in the living room, which was a point of humor as his eyesight gradually diminished to the point that, even with a magnifying glass, the words were little more than oddly-shaped gray blobs on the thin paper. Late one evening on our last visit outside hospice, we were talking and I was expressing some discomfort with what I was seeing in the Church. I thought I was hedging my words well because I thought I knew my father’s position on just about everything. I was wrong.
Picking up his Bible and setting it on the arm of his chair, he said, “If you’re looking for God in these pages, you’re not going to find him. If you’re looking for God in a building, you’re not going to find him. If you’re looking for God inside yourself you dishonor him. God is too big to be ‘housed’ anywhere. He is as expansive as the universe. We don’t find him, he comes to us.”
GPS wasn’t yet a thing that was widely available and reliable so the comments that come to mind now would have made no sense then. Instead, our conversation came back around to things like predestination (a topic on which we politely disagreed) and various concepts of God’s presence and whether God has an audible voice. There was, at least on my end, a sense that the gap between our belief systems was widening and Poppa was trying to extend the bridge as I pushed the edges of the canyon further apart. Finally, he said:
“The core of the New Testament and the heart of being Christian is found in Matthew 5. Look deep into the social inferences of the Beatitudes and consider the expanse of what Jesus is actually saying. I’m not sure anyone who heard him that day understood what he was saying or they might have stoned him on the spot. What he’s advocating is offensive to our way of life. He’s anti-capitalism, anti-democracy, anti-authoritarian, and anti-tradition while still embracing the customs and culture of his time. This is why religious leaders turned on him—Jesus was radical good in the face of radical evil and the religious structure of the day found that offensive. Anyone who is preaching a gospel that isn’t radically good and radically offensive is not hearing what Jesus is saying, then or now.”
Sadly, as the hour grew late and Poppa grew tired, we were not given the opportunity to take that conversation much further. In the years since, though, his words have run through my head often and when they do I look at that passage in the fifth chapter of Matthew and consider what Jesus was really saying and what his words prompt us to do. Let’s do this dissection together.
When Jesus Said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He was saying, “blessed are those who find joy in things that are not materialistic, those who find pleasure in giving even to the point of their own discomfort; blessed are those who realize that we, of ourselves, can provide nothing for ourselves, neither physically or emotionally or intellectually; blessed are those who don’t chase after every trend, every new technology, or the highest position available.
Jesus was not saying, “Blessed are those who are down but pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” or “Blessed are those who are totally independent and rely on no one.”
When Jesus Said: ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
He was saying, “Blessed are those who have lost everything—a spouse, a child, a parent, a home, an opportunity, a job, a ride in the pouring rain.” He was also saying, “Blessed are those who see the injustice around them and feel their hearts torn, blessed are those who cry for people enslaved through modern tactics of economic dependency, blessed are those see the planet being destroyed before their very eyes and despite their best efforts cannot save it; blessed are those who mourn for what is right under the siege of a government intent on doing what is wrong. Blessed are those who send an innocent child to school, to learn, and that child doesn’t return home because of unchecked gun violence.”
Jesus was not saying, “Blessed are those who pout when they don’t get their way,” or “Blessed are those who cheat and get caught,” or even “Blessed are those who start an unjust war they can’t win.” Not everything we lose deserves the blessing that comes with mourning. When we are complicit in what caused the loss is is the guilt that causes us pain and without forgiveness there is no release from that guilt.
When Jesus Said: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, he was saying, “Blessed are the people who have a handle on their shit and keep it under control; Blessed are those who understand the strength of being gentle, those who understand the hurt and abuse of anger and choose to avoid it. Blessed are those who address challenges to their philosophy with respect and intelligence.” Jesus was saying, “Blessed are those who guide with a careful hand on the reigns, those who set a worthy example rather than leading by brute force.”
What Jesus is not saying is “Blessed is the angry alpha-type person who yells and screams to get what they want.” He is not saying, “Blessed is the church that exerts political power,” or “Blessed is the pastor who guilts his congregation into giving him more money or buy him a private jet.” Jesus is not defining meek as anything remotely related to weakness, but rather the ability to control one’s strength and to use that power and influence for genuine, humanitarian good.
When Jesus Said: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. He was talking about a very specific kind of justice. He wasn’t talking about the self-centered, taking matters into their own hands, religious vigilantism that has people carrying signs in protest and passing anti-abortion laws that endanger the lives of women and their children. No, not at all.
Jesus is saying, “Blessed are those who look for the long-term solution to injustice rather than the short-term bandage. Blessed are those who look for a tenacious love to overwhelm the indifference and hate of oppression. Blessed are those who seek justice through rehabilitation. Blessed are those who seek justice through mercy and grace. Blessed are those who know when justice has gone far enough.
Jesus is not saying “Blessed are those who hijack political parties in the name of religion,” nor is he saying, “Blessed are those who substitute revenge for justice.” Jesus’ concept of justice has nothing to do with making people pay for their sin and everything to do with bringing everyone back into the family.
When Jesus Said: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy, he was saying, “Blessed are those who relive the suffering of others; Blessed are those who feed the hungry, Blessed are those who give away their clothes rather than resell them; Blessed are those who take in the homeless rather than shrugging that the shelter is full; Blessed are those who meet people’s needs without asking for an ID card or proof of citizenship.”
What Jesus is most definitely not saying is, “Blessed are those who fund ministries from the leftovers of their church budget.” Neither is he saying “Blessed are those who call themselves charitable but charge market prices for their services.” When he instructs his followers to be merciful there is an implied level of sacrifice, that he expects people to actually take care of their fellow humans without any regard to what they’re getting out of it, including any presumed religious favor. Being merciful is not only giving from our abundance but giving when we have nothing left for ourselves.
When Jesus Said: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God, he’s really applying some pressure. He’s saying, “Blessed are those who don’t merely pretend to be good but are genuinely good on the inside. Blessed are those whose hearts have been refined by fire, those who have survived deception and disappointment from a false Christianity and still managed to find truth. Blessed are those who see past the obvious to perceive what is good and what is right. Blessed are those not dissuaded or fooled by Fake News or the shell games of con men standing behind pulpits in stained-glass cathedrals.”
What Jesus is not saying is, “Blessed are those who pray the loudest and the longest.” He is not saying “Blessed are those who wear the name for political game.” He is not saying, “Blessed are those whose Christianity exists only for an hour on Sunday morning.” Jesus is saying, “Blessed are those who have surgically removed all the selfishness and greed and hate from their lives to become committed to the truth.”
What Jesus Said: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God, he was addressing those right in front of him, even among those closest to him, who expected him to raise up an Army and take on the Romans. That’s not what Jesus has ever been about, though. Instead, he’s telling us, “Blessed are those who bring people together, not divide them apart. Blessed are those who put out the fires that others started. Blessed are those who let go of grudges to find reconciliation. Blessed are those who reach across the aisle of ideological differences and say, ‘We can do this.’”
Jesus is specifically not saying is, “Blessed are those with the best defense mechanism.” Neither is he blessing those who support and maintain the biggest military industrial complex in the world, and especially he is not offering a blessing to those who would put a gun in the hands of every person on the street. Jesus doesn’t buy into this strange concept that we can be peacemakers by threatening to take every life on the planet. For Jesus, the biggest deterrent toward war and violence is love, not weaponry.
When Jesus Said: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, he’s understanding that if one does what he’s already instructed them to do, they’re going to catch some serious flack. He’s saying, “Blessed are those who do what I’ve instructed and catch unholy hell for it. Blessed are those who question the patriarchy and get roasted by Christianity Today. Blessed are those who challenge centuries of Church misogyny and abuse only to lose their job because of it. Blessed are those who are fined or put in jail for feeding the hungry and homeless. Blessed are those who are asked to not return to church because the sinners they brought with them made the congregation feel uncomfortable.”
Jesus was not addressing those who are inconvenienced in respecting the differing faith of others nor those who are told “you can’t put a cross on public property.” He wasn’t addressing those who were asked to bake a cake or fill out a marriage license or pay for their employee’s birth control through their health insurance.
He even takes it a step further
When Jesus Said: Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account it was as though he was looking directly at our present day situation. He was saying, “Blessed are those who get called names by the alleged leader of the free world. Blessed are those whose social media feed is filled with trolls challenging the tenets of one’s faith. Blessed are those who put humanity before profit and are called radicals. Blessed are those who accept those seeking a better life and are called bleeding hearts. Blessed are those who are called heretics because they believe God doesn’t care how one identifies or what label might be assigned because if we are divinely made we are divinely loved without distinction.”
Jesus was not addressing those who get butt hurt when they’re called out on their hypocrisy. He offered no blessing for those criticized for building church campuses worth millions of dollars while those on the outskirts starve. Jesus provides no sympathy for those who are ridiculed when they close their church buildings rather than housing refugees and victims of natural disasters. Jesus especially provides no solace for the “bad press” that comes for ignoring rampant abuse.
Jesus, The Quiet Revolutionary
We fail to realize that Jesus quietly lays out a complete social structure that he expects Christians to follow and it is nothing like what anyone has done the past 2,000 years. He continues his sermon, at least by Matthew’s account, through chapters six and seven as well. Some have reasonably argued that the event took three days to deliver. Along the way, Jesus says some things that are, by today’s standards, rather radical.
- Uncontrolled anger is on par with murder (5: 21-22)
- Seek arbitration rather than taking someone to court (5:25)
- Take responsibility for your sexual aggression rather than blaming the victim (5:27-30)
- Give more than is asked (5:41-42)
- Love your enemies (as opposed to “bombing them back to the stone age.”) (5:43-47)
- Avoid publicity for your actions (6:1)
- Keep your beliefs private (6:5)
- Don’t accumulate excessive wealth (6:19)
- Don’t be materialistic (6:25-33)
- Judging others is hypocritical (7:1-5)
- Don’t waste resources (7:6)
- Beware of Fake News and con men (7:15-21)
Over the course of this and four other sermons Matthew records, Jesus covers a lot of ground but he doesn’t cover everything and very little translates well to modern society. We can stretch and twist like a well-conditioned yogi but Jesus doesn’t tell us how much screen time the five-year-old should have or the evilness of homeowners associations. I’m not the first person to point out that Jesus talked about attitudes and behaviors, not specific actions. That means Jesus did not directly address a host of modern issues, including sexuality (except for prohibiting abuse), gender, technology, immunization, AI, the world cup, sports in general, cosmetic surgery, soda, casual nudity, tattoos, globalism, partisanship, anything to do with the United States (sorry, Mormons), fashion, space exploration, quantum physics, super heroes, bionics, yoga, smooth or crunchy peanut butter, and which way to toilet paper should roll, among billions of other things. Asking WWJD for any of those issues or circumstances is absurdly presumptive and theologically ignorant.
When we ask What Did Jesus Say, however, the answer is rather consistent:
- Give generously, even to the point of having nothing left
- Work diligently and to the best of your ability, beyond what is asked or expected
- Love unconditionally, even to those you find unlovable and undeserving
- Endure without complaint regardless of what is said against you
- Be gentle in the face of unjust and undeserved aggression
These are tough words and from a political standpoint are even further left than Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might seem to be. Jesus doesn’t fit comfortably in a society that is focused on greed and power and grabbing everything one can grab. His words are radical to the point of being revolutionary. Jesus’ words are all-inclusive. The love of God has zero exceptions. There are no citizenship requirements. There are no borders or boundaries. Everyone is equal and over and over and over he states and demonstrates that it is our responsibility to care for everyone else without concern for ourselves.
When we look at WDJS, we realize that the United States has never followed his teachings in either spirit or law. For that matter, for the greater portion of its history, neither has the Church that bears his name.
Instead of following what Jesus says, we would rather mistakenly impose actions, attempt to control other people and what they do with their bodies. We would rather make displays of overwhelming strength and show off how rich we are. We would rather keep the poor and non-Caucasian person marginalized. We would rather overthrow governments and sow the seeds of chaos. We would rather facilitate unchecked greed in the name of innovation. We would rather beat down our opponents rather than give them a level playing field. We would rather tell women, “No, you can’t.” We would rather tell immigrants, “Go back, we’re all full up.” We would rather ignore and excuse the flagrant adultery of one while demonizing the morality of another. We would rather separate ourselves into feuding sects than sit at a common table. We would rather feed others the scraps of fast food while we dine sumptuously on steak.
We cannot begin to comprehend What Would Jesus Do because we have no real concept of what Jesus said. We have no business claiming to follow the teachings of someone to whom we’ve never actually listened. We cannot claim any moral authority to tell anyone how to behave when we completely and thoroughly ignore the one who set the standard.
That we would claim to have any concept of WWJD demonstrates our level of spiritual bankruptcy because he left no question about how we should live. It’s radical. It’s anti-democratic. It’s anti-capitalistic. It’s the very antithesis of the American society, but it’s straightforward and pure in its truth.
Give until you have nothing left to give.
Love when there’s no reason to love.
Endure to the very end.
Jesus’ words set the standard and anyone who claims to follow him but does not live up to that standard is a false teacher and a con man. So, when a politician attempts to force a matter of religion, or a preacher attempts to influence a matter of politics, the question is never What Would Jesus Do. The only question that applies is What Did Jesus Say, and if it doesn’t match up, then the follower of Christ has no choice but to reject it completely.
Like it or not, that’s the standard you’ve chosen.
Additional sources are linked directly in the article
Sandstrom, Alexandra, “God or the Divine Is Mentioned in Every State Constitution.” August 17, 2017
Lipka, Michael, “10 Facts About Religion in America.” August 27, 2015
Mazza, Ed, “Franklin Graham Gets Holy Hell After Telling Pete Buttigieg To Repent For Being Gay.” April, 24, 2019
French, David, “Franklin Graham & Lost Evangelical Witness: Transactional Approach to Politics Hurts Church.” National Review. April 25, 2019
Southern Baptist Convention, “Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials.” June, 1998
Allen, Leslie C. The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah & Micah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Eerdmans, 1976)
Held Evans, Rachel, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again (Thomas Nelson, June 2018)
Bolz-Weber, Nadia, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of Sinner and Saint (Jericho Boox, September 2013)
Bridges, Jerry, The Blessings of Humility. (NavPress, June 2016)
Cavey, Bruxy, Blessed Are The Meek (sermon)
Metzger, Paul Louis, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—not those who crave fast food justice (Patheos, January 2015)
Martin III, John C., The Sermon on the Mount (AuthorHouse, 2004)
Bourgeault, Cynthia, The Way of the Heart (Parabola, January 2017)