What would Jesus do?

Sep 8th, 2011 | By | Category: Church of Ireland Comment

The letters ‘WWJD’ used to appear on wristbands worn by younger members of evangelical churches, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Whether the question was being posed to the wearer or to those whom the wearer met was never quite clear, but the question was reasonable; confronted with a particular situation, what would Jesus do?

Would Jesus have supported slavery? Many of his followers in the 18th and 19th Centuries thought he might have done.  George Whitefield, the 18th Century cleric who is a major figure in evangelical history actually campaigned for the legalization of slavery in the state of Georgia because he believed it necessary for the economic success of the state.  The 19th Century abolitionist movement met strong opposition from Christians.  Richard Furman, a Baptist leader in South Carolina in 1822 published an ‘Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States’; it was a defence of slavery that would be used up until the end of the American Civil War

What about democracy? Would Jesus have supported democracy? Not according to the 19th Century Methodist leader Jabez Bunting. When the question of adopting democratic procedures in church governance, Bunting was unequivocal in stating, ‘Methodism is as much opposed to democracy as to sin’. Bunting would have found kindred spirits among those of the 21st Century African dictators who profess an evangelical faith whilst presiding over the most corrupt regimes on Earth.

What about racial discrimination? Would Jesus have thought racism as something his followers should accept? Many evangelical Christians in the United States actively embraced racist attitudes, seeing no incompatibility between discrimination and their faith.  Bob Jones University refused to allow admission to African Americans until 1971. The Religious Right emerged through government interventions to remove charitable status from institutions that practiced segregation.

What about equality for women? Didn’t Jesus treat women as equals? Didn’t he step outside the norms of society in his interactions with women? Conservative evangelicals insist that whatever Jesus might have done, the whole Bible must be taken into consideration; verses from Genesis are adduced to argue woman is subordinate to man.  Even Bible translations are vetted to ensure they comply with the theme of male dominance; the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States passed a resolution in June condemning a gender neutral New International Version of the Bible.

Every step forward in human rights, every struggle for equality and dignity, has been opposed by conservative Christians.  Scripture has been quoted in defence of oppression and degradation.  It can come, then, as no surprise that a tradition that has had within its mainstream supporters of slavery, autocracy, racism and sexism should be opposed to gay and lesbian people.  The religious Right in Ireland have launched a personal attack on my colleague Dean Tom Gordon for registering his civil partnership. In a world where millions are starving in east Africa, where environmental devastation threatens our future, where the international financial markets could plunge us all into bankruptcy, where HIV/AIDS threatens whole nations, they have not a comment to make on any of the issues, yet they can organize a meeting to attack an individual.

What would Jesus do?

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  1. Hi …. have been wondering what to write on the subject, how to preach on it …. and you’ve said more or less what I was saying to someone this afternoon.
    The other comment that keeps coming to my mind is to reflect on what Jesus said about the question ….
    Thanks for your blog …. I’ll add a link to it from therevandadog later ….

  2. At the very time when Christendom is drawing to a close and the church must engage with postmodern society, we get caught up with issues that are long settled in the minds of secular society and ignore issues fundamental to the Kingdom.

  3. Once again you have it just right, Ian. This personal attack on both Tom and our bishop is utterly appalling.

  4. Ian,

    I think your point would have been all the stronger had you also mentioned those Christians who fought against slavery, for democracy, against racial discrimination, for equality for women. They also used the Bible for their arguments. Melvyn Bragg documented these in his study of the social impact of the King James Bible, Book of Books.

  5. Conor, I agree completely. The point was to outline a series of positions now abandoned that were once regarded as matters of Scriptural principle

  6. Interracial dating was forbidden at Bob Jones University until the year 2000. Bush the Lesser kicked off his Presidential campaign there. They decided it was best to scrap the policy just before he showed up.

  7. Thanks for the information. There seem to have been a number of expedient retreats over the years.

  8. As an American catholic conservative I’ve often felt squeemish siding with right wing evangilicas on social and fiscal issues. I now know why. Thanks.

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