August 11, 2012
The other day I saw this bumper sticker:
Who would Jesus bomb?
Its clear implication was that Jesus would have been against any and all wars. The sticker raises interesting questions: What did Jesus believe about war? What would he think about the Iraq war or starting a war with Iran? This bumper sticker is far from an isolated anomaly. Such materials abound and they raise the question of what Jesus would think or do about various topics. To whom would Jesus deny healthcare? Would Jesus drive an SUV? And on it goes. Not long ago, there was an entire line of jewelry containing the letters “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do).
Why “What Would Jesus Think or Do?”
For three reasons, “What would Jesus think or do?” is a very important question.
First, millions of Americans believe that Jesus is the very Son of God after whom they wish to pattern their lives. So the question is a pressing one for them.
Secondly, even if someone is not religiously minded, it has to be admitted that Jesus is one of the most influential thinkers in history, most likely the most influential thinker. And it is widely acknowledged by people of various or no religious orientation that Jesus was a good man who lived and taught high moral ground.
Third, there is a powerful political movement in America—the conservative movement, including the political thought of Evangelicals—that wields tremendous influence today. It is not an exaggeration to say that this movement was responsible for electing George W. Bush to a second term and it will play no small role in the next presidential election. Now whether you like or hate religious conservatives, you cannot ignore them, and they are strongly inclined to be religiously conservative, even Evangelical. As a result, they derive many of their moral and political views from the teachings of Jesus and, more generally, the Bible.
For these three reasons, it is no exaggeration to say that if someone wants to understand the culture wars today and the various political and moral struggles that threaten to divide our nation, one must understand at least the perception of people as to what Jesus would think or do. And if possible, it would be important to know what Jesus actually would think or do, instead of embracing a distorted picture of Jesus.
On An Appropriate Method to Thinking and Doing
What method of approach should we use in approaching the topic of what Jesus would do or think? To begin with, it is important to state a method to avoid: We should not begin with what we want Jesus to think or do or with what many contemporary people, including members of the church, say Jesus would think or do. Why? People, myself included, tend to distort things to agree with their own predilections, and nowhere is this more obvious or dangerous, than in representing Jesus’ views. Once I debated Marcus Borg on the historical Jesus. Borg previously held an endowed chair of religious studies at the University of Oregon and is one of the three most prominent members of the liberal Jesus Seminar (remember them?). In the debate, I pointed out to Borg that in the hands of the liberal Jesus Seminar, the historical Jesus turns out to wear a tweed coat, go to Oxford on his sabbaticals, campaign for universal healthcare and gay rights, and be a prototype of (the late) Ted Kennedy. In other words, the Jesus Seminar’s methods for deciding what Jesus said and believed created a Jesus that looks exactly like the members of the Jesus Seminar.
Everyone—Hindus, Muslims, liberals, conservatives—wants to claim Jesus as their own. Why? Because he casts a shadow across world history and no one wants to acknowledge being aligned against his ideas. So we cannot turn to opinion poles, even to reductionist liberal reconstructions of the historical Jesus, for answers to our question.
Nor can we turn to emotional evaluations of what we can and cannot picture Jesus doing. I can’t easily picture Jesus wearing Army fatigues or a business suit. But, then, I can’t easily picture Him clean-shaven with a flattop. But it hardly follows that Jesus was against shaving and, in general, my inability to picture Jesus doing this or that is more a function of the imagery I associate with Jesus than with a careful analysis of his teachings.
Sources of Knowledge on Jesus
Instead, we should do three things:
First, we should do our best to interpret the Gospels in their historical setting. I believe the Gospels are historically reliable but cannot take the time to defend that belief here. If you don’t believe the Gospels are historically reliable, it doesn’t matter for our purposes. Why? Because it is the Jesus of the New Testament who figures in the culture wars and who is the object of the question “What would Jesus think or do?” So the biblical Jesus should be our object of focus.
Second, we should accept the teachings of the Old Testament (properly interpreted) as expressing what Jesus would think or do. In his most important inaugural address when he was launching his ministry and distinguishing himself from other leaders of his day, and on an occasion where Jesus was clearly presenting Himself as the New Moses who was forming a new covenant community centered around His teaching about, demonstration of, and embodiment of the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ very first teaching was his complete commitment to the entire authority of the Old Testament as the very word of God (Matthew 5:17-19). He repeatedly affirmed this belief and accepted as true the entire Old Testament. While he did critique false interpretations of the Old Testament, he never rejected the Old Testament itself, which becomes an important source of information about Jesus’ views for the following reason. If a teacher has not explicitly commented on a topic but, instead, has affirmed his acceptance of a body of literature as speaking for him, then it is fair game to employ that literature for developing an accurate picture of the teacher’s views on topics he did not expressly address. For example, Jesus never addressed the abortion question, but a clear view of the status of the fetus is taught in the Old Testament, and it would be intellectually irresponsible not to hold that Jesus accepted this view. Of particular interest will be Messianic prophecy because it quite explicitly teaches what the Messiah would think and do and Jesus repeatedly taught that he was the fulfillment of those prophecies and, in fact, was the Messiah.
Finally, for supplemental information we should turn to the teachings of those who knew Jesus best—the authoritative guardians and disseminators of Jesus’ thoughts and deeds and the designated authorities over Jesus’ community. In keeping with Jewish tradition in his day, Jesus explicitly appointed apostles to serve as authoritative preservers of information about Him and as the appropriate interpreters of his teachings to new and different situations. The apostles were appointed by Jesus to represent him accurately after his death, and they knew him well enough to carry this out. Thus, Paul—whose ideas were in complete agreement with the community authorities (e.g., Peter, James and John) in Jerusalem--is a better guide for what Jesus would say and do than is the Huffington Post or Rush Limbaugh.
It is important to keep in mind that the canonical Gospels are not the only sources of we have for what Jesus would think and do. The Old Testament and the teaching of His apostles fill in gaps that are left out of those Gospels.