23 June 2013
by Caleb Anderson, Graduate Diploma in Theology (Christchurch)
The other day, a classmate avoided a parking fine due to a clerical error, and started a discussion about whether he ought to own up and pay it. The conversation hadn’t progressed long before the inevitable half-joking question arose; WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?).
WWJD is obviously a question Christians need to ask ourselves (see e.g. Phil 2:5), but most of the time it seems the response isn’t an answer to WWJD so much as an answer to WKOJDYBI (What Kind of Jesus Do You Believe In?). Jesus wouldn’t swear, smoke or speed - or maybe he would. Jesus would get the most gold stars for good behaviour, or the most awards for outstanding contributions to the community. Jesus would dress how I dress, think how I think, vote how I vote.
Too often, 'Jesus' act as a placeholder for our personal consciences. It doesn’t remind us of Jesus’ specific ethic but a general morality, derived in varying degrees from family, church, culture, ‘common sense’ and (interpretations of) the Bible. Even within the Bible, we can draw more on the epistles and wisdom literature than Jesus.
But even when we actually look at WJD (What Jesus Did), how much of it should we be repeating anyway? Should we be celibate, circumcised, sandal-wearers? Should we be carpenters, preachers, healers, exorcists, prophets, table-turners? Should we include sinners, challenge them, presume to forgive them? And what about the fact that - unlike Jesus - we’re sinners ourselves?
In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder helpfully draws our attention to the biblical version of WWJD: imitation of Christ. Thankfully, this is a lot clearer than WWJD. The New Testament doesn’t ask us to imitate Jesus in any way except the ‘Way of the Cross.’ Imitation of Christ means following a way of discipleship corresponding to Jesus’ path from Galilee to Jerusalem, where he was killed for threatening the dominant moralities of his time. Imitation of Christ is more than a bracelet or a thought-experiment, it’s a collective way of life patterned on crucifixion, sustained by hope of resurrection.
We’ll have a true answer to WWJD insofar as we have deep, nuanced and realistic understandings of the whole person of Jesus, the society he lived in, and the society we live in. But we’ll have imitation of Christ only insofar as we enact that understanding, and follow together the path Jesus established: the Way of the Cross.