I’ve been a Christian for 35 years and have worked in churches for the past 20 years. I’m a Christian, and as a Christian, I think there is one more topic we should be more honest about.
There is not “Christian” without Christ aka Jesus. Following Jesus is what every Christian signed up for. We spend time in church, prayer, worship and Bible reading trying to become more like Jesus. We want to be conformed into the image of Jesus which is admirable and virtuous. I was a teenager when the WWJD movement began. Remember the bracelets? I thought anyone who wore one HAD to be a Christian. The bracelets and the movement itself were a tool to remind us before doing or saying anything to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?”. Great question. The answer is probably more complicated than we think, however, and here’s why.
The default image of Jesus has been white, cisgendered, heterosexual, married, patriotic and male. That’s the image we’ve been lead to believe is the standard for a follower of Christ. It’s no wonder the overwhelming majority of Evangelical Churches in America are lead by pastors and boards that reflect that image. Think about how Evangelicals traditionally vote. What makes Evangelicals take to social media to share their outrage?
Can you imagine what we would think of a faith leader like Jesus in our context today that wasn’t married? We Christians tend to assume that a person, especially a man, who isn’t married by a certain age has something wrong with them or they’re hiding something about themselves. That forces an extra layer of social expectation for being like Jesus.
Most of what is taught about this historically Jewish rabbi is filtered through a lens that is white, American and male. Which means, that if you’re an American citizen of color, an immigrant or a woman, you have work to do to find yourself conforming to Christ’s image. If your transgender or gay, you’re out of luck.
Based on what we know from the birth narratives in the Bible, Jesus was born to Jewish parents who spent a few years as immigrants in Africa. According to historical accounts of his adult life from the Bible, he never dated, married or had a romantic relationship with another human being. He healed sick people, walked on water, miraculously multiplied small meals to feed thousands, gave his life as a ransom for all and then resurrected from the dead according to scriptures. He never pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands. His language on marriage was pretty clearly in support of heterosexual marriage as normative, and he was mum on slavery.
If we’re being honest, having Jesus as a role model isn’t simple. It’s complicated. It’s not as cut and dry as we might like to believe. Based on just what I describe above (which left out chunks of his life) I couldn’t name a person I’ve ever met who is truly like Jesus. So, what does it mean to imitate or be conformed to his image? How can we answer the question WWJD? How can we live in our culture and act like he would if he were born in our time? How can we be like Jesus if we don’t do and say all the things he did?
Jesus told those closest to him that the way people would know that they were indeed like him was by love. Any expression of Christian faith that isn’t loving isn’t Christian at all. A faith in Jesus that is exclusive, self-centered, homogeneous, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic is not faith in the Jesus of history or scripture, but faith in America’s default Jesus birthed from patriotism and supremacy. The story of Jesus from birth to resurrection is one of liberation, love, and inclusion. And, if we are going to be conformed to an image or imitate his legendary exploits and ideas, we should consider what THAT Jesus would do when we ask ourselves WWJD.
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