In the 1990s, the letters WWJD became quite popular. This acronym was featured on bracelets, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and even billboards. It was the acronym for the question, "What would Jesus do?". It was intended to remind Christians of their moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the love of Jesus through not only beliefs, but also actions that would be in alignment with Jesus' own actions. Although the question was quite provoking, the sentiments it sparked lacked depth and biblical accuracy.
In the 1990s when this question was posed, many thought of simple acts of kindness, such as opening a door for a stranger or paying for their coffee, as a way to enact the mission of Jesus. Actually, the original posing of this inquiry was the beginnings of what would be know as the Social Gospel.
The 18th century evangelist, Charles Spurgeon, first posed the question in a sermon. He challenged worshippers to consider Thomas à Kempis' work Imitatio Chisti (The Imitation of Christ) in which Kempis asserted: as disciples of Christ, we are called to imitate and embody all characteristics of Christ. Years later, borrowing the question "What would Jesus do?" Charles Sheldon wrote the book In His Steps which later inspired 19th century theologian Walter Raushenbusch to develop the theology of the Social Gospel.
Rauschenbusch has often been called the father of social justice as his theological works gave rise to the Social Gospel movement in America. Essentially the Social Gospel movement emerged as Protestant Christians sought to improve the economic, moral, and social conditions of the working class. The group applied Christian ethics to social problems from everything from poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, child labors, poor schools, unclean environment to the dangers of war. They looked to the Jesus of the Gospels for their inspiration for action and protest. For many this seemed radical and contradictory to the image of Jesus they had been taught about in Sunday School, and had been depicted in art.
Today, a Social Gospel may still be thought of as radical and contradictory to the image of Jesus people have been taught or have created. Yet, I think there is something vital and faithful about considering the ethical framework of Jesus' ministry and message, as well as the type of justice Jesus himself advocated for in his day. I believe there is great value going back to the Gospels to see the Jesus that emerges, as well as the people and issues in which he was invested. For if we believe we are called to follow in his footsteps and to carry on his mission and ministry, it is important that we understand fully to whom he ministered. Yet, we also need to be prepared to be surprised.
I know for myself I have been surprised every time I go back to the stories of the Gospels and rediscover the Jesus that emerges. It is not the passive, quiet Jesus of my Sunday School lessons, but rather a radical, outspoken Jesus who is not afraid of offending those who were more interested in maintaining the status quo than "proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovering the sight of the blind or setting the oppressed free."
The Jesus of the Gospels is the Jesus who...
......stormed into the temple courts, overturned tables, and drove out people because he was sickened by the greed and corruption of religious hypocrites;
......spoke so boldly in his home synagogue that the people wanted to throw him off a cliff;
......broke the religious expectations and laws of the day;
......openly rebuked, held accountable, challenged, and called out people who refused to change from their misguided ways;
......empathized and advocated for the oppressed, hurt, abused, downtrodden, abandoned, alienated, and victimized;
......brought awareness to gender inequality, religious hypocrisy, political corruption, racism, hate, segregation, empowerment, and social injustice;
......devoted his life to speaking, helping, supporting, defending, empowering, healing, freeing, and loving everyone, especially saving those who were in desperate need from the hands of oppressors, rulers, officials, mobs, and those who intended to harm, kill, and destroy;
......and humbly sacrificed and served to advocate for the outcasts, protect the poor, shelter the homeless, uplift the exploited, show hospitality to stranger, energize the weary, and love humanity.
So today as we consider the racism, hatred, bigotry, violence, oppression, injustice, as well as the immoral and inhumane practices of our world, I believe it is imperative that we ask ourselves: What would Jesus do?
I believe Jesus sought to defend the humanity, dignity, and worth of ALL people in order to reveal the love and grace of the One who created us in the Divine image and loves us completely.
Are we willing to do the same?
Blessing, Rev. Shana Johnson, Conference Minister