Reflection: What Would Jesus Do?
Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor
When I was younger, the cool Christians wore bracelets with the letters WWJD, for “What Would Jesus Do?” The simple directness of the question has always been a helpful challenge to me, and to this day the question comes to my head on a regular basis. I confess that I don’t always follow the answer, and for a time I used to snap back with “I’m not Jesus!” But of course, the apostle Paul wrote several times that we followers of Jesus are the body of Christ on earth.
I have made some admittedly cynical suggestions about why this question doesn’t get asked anymore. I believe the best guide for what Jesus would do in our context is the biblical text, which reports on Jesus’ pattern of behavior, much of which flies in the face of Christian politics of today.
So what did Jesus do? Reflecting on the biblical account, Jesus . . .
- was born in a cow’s stall, because a government edict made his parents temporarily displaced and homeless.
- was a refugee child, taken by his parents to the nearby superpower Egypt, where he was given asylum until it was safe for his family to return to Israel.
- challenged the norms of the time regarding family life by never marrying or having children.
- defied the social conventions and laws of his community, challenging church law and questioning church leaders.
- related to women, foreigners, and social outcasts, showing them respect and attention that offended even his closest followers.
- spoke to people with privilege about responsibility and sacrifice, and condemned those in privilege who abused the poor.
- obeyed God’s will even to the point of suffering violence, yet resisted doing violence himself.
- told his disciples to follow his example, and taught that whatever we do (or fail to do) for the least of us, we do (or fail to do) for him.
I considered this as I prepared to speak on a panel at my family church. Like many Japanese-American churches, First Presbyterian Altadena has an annual festival (our version of matsuri). For decades it was simply called the Annual Bazaar, and had food, games, and shopping. In more recent years, the church leadership questioned the event because there was no overt Christian evangelistic content. The leaders of that time also decided that “Fall Festival” was a better name than “Bazaar.” When Mark Buchanan became pastor, he showed appreciation for the Japanese roots of the church, even as the membership became multiracial, so most years there is an additional event in the sanctuary that highlights life in the Japanese-American community.
And so I was thrilled to see a young yonsei (fourth-generation) woman, Veronica Ota, who has become a committed, creative leader at the church. She is already known for her music and art and now running the annual “Peace Camp” for neighborhood youth. But this weekend she stepped forward in faith to speak of her family’s experience and her call for justice, not only for Japanese and Japanese-Americans but for those who are being marginalized and endangered in today’s world: asylum seekers, people of color, LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer/Questioning) people, and those who live in the looming shadow of nuclear weapons proliferation and increasing dependence on nuclear power in some nations such as Japan. From her family’s legacy of persecution, Veronica stands in solidarity with those whose struggles have parallels with our own, and is forming an ecumenical group to act in defense of all life. I have heard other Asian-American young adults in our churches who speak quietly about the need to stretch our boundaries and show respect for the marginalized, but they fear offending the older generations or standing out from the community. So it’s impressive when even a few young Asian-American Christians are speaking outside the lines of comfortable conformity.
So often our churches worry about aging membership, and we wonder how to reach out to the young people. If this weekend gave any hints, I see great potential if we old folks are willing to say yes, to be so obedient to God’s will that we challenge the norms of our time, to speak and care for and listen to those who make us uncomfortable, and to defend the rights of children and the powerless. This is the legacy of my family church at its best. And among other things, this is what Jesus would do.