What Did Jesus Do?

John Loftus points out even some Christian thinkers know what Jesus did is not always anything we should do:

Charles Sheldon’s 1896 book, In His Steps asked, “what would Jesus do?” in order to spur Christians on to imitate his behavior. This book has been widely criticized by Christian thinkers because Christians cannot do what Jesus did, since they are not Jesus. Can we perform miracles? Should we overturn the money changers’ tables and thrash them with a whip? Jesus also shunned a Canaanite woman and called her and her people “dogs,” because he said his mission was limited to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:21-28). There are a host of things these Christians wouldn’t try to imitate, like telling women to be silent in the churches as Paul did (I Cor. 14:34), selling all and giving it all to the poor (Luke 18:22; Yes, Jesus really meant this because his ethic was an “interim ethic” until the Kingdom of God came, which the NT writers believed was imminent in their lifetimes), or sending a slave back to his master (Philemon), or even be an itinerant preacher like Jesus with no place to rest his head (Matthew 8:20). These Christians merely pick and choose what they want to imitate based upon what they want to do.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://atheists-and-christians.blogspot.com/ Mike aka MonolithTMA

    I’ve noticed that Christians from liberal to fundy cherry pick the verses they want, sometimes these are verses that I like too. They pray and wrestle with the verses they find difficult until a rationalization comes to them. Sometimes their interpretation makes you think their Bible has blank lines like in a mad lib book. I have a friend who swears that Paul told women to be silent in church because he was radically pro women’s lib, allowing them to learn, and they couldn’t keep their questions to themselves so they were to ask the questions at home. When I ask why Paul didn’t just say that I received silence.

  • Mary C. Young

    I will attempt to give my thoughts on your post, as always, from the point of view of a believer. There is always a problem when attempting to determine proper ethics by saying something like “What Would Jesus Do?” First, if you are a believer (which I know you’re not), it turns Christ into an “example” and, in a way, demeans the mystery/gift/whatever you want to call it of the true purpose of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the earliest Christian literature, the Church fathers were not speaking about the incarnation of Christ as a model on which to base our behavior, but as a the means by which we are saved and even deified. As Athanasius points out, not only did God become man to destroy death’s power over man, but God became man so man could become God. If you are a believer, it is perfectly acceptable to look at Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero etc. and see examples in their behavior that inform your ethical choices. To limit the life of Christ, however, to a set of examples for ethical choices is not to see the true value of the mystery of the incarnation (this is something Martin Luther criticizes in “On the Instruction of the Gospels.”) So from the outset, saying “what would Jesus do” is belittling the true purpose of the faith of over a billion people and it strangely comes, most frequently, from believers. (I have extensive thoughts on why that is, but they aren’t exactly relevant here). While the Gospels can surely teach about “love” and “kindness” and charity, that is not their primary purpose and too many modern Christians take them to be that way. Their primary purpose is the gift of the revelation of God.

    The other problem with a statement like that is that the life of Christ and all the subsequent development of Christianity were historical events and one cannot remove those things from their context. Like you said, would it be Christian to send a slave back to his master? Is it really responsible, or even Christian, to give away everything we have and leave behind our families? Any rationally minded Christian would say, “no.” Of course it is unacceptable to promote slavery, or to tell women to be obedient to their husbands (although I’m sure this has far fewer believers than the first point) or to leave one’s family behind. In this middle-America, television/self-help book Christian culture that arises in America today, too often the events and texts of Christianity are completely removed from historical context. Rather than search the text for universal truth, revelation, etc., they look to the text to find things about how much happier we will be with God and how to solve the issue of whether or not to be nice to our nosey neighbor with a phrase like “WWJD?”. So, I actually agree with your argument. By failing to evaluate the text historically, one is forced to “pick and choose” the actions of Christ by which he wants to model himself. Furthermore, the texts of Christianity, when removed from historical context, can be used to promote ideas and practices that are unethical and immoral today. Examples would be evaluating the Old Testament and finding in it the damnation of all gays, or seeing the male incarnation of Christ or the male roster of apostles and seeing it as a definitive argument for the “tradition” of the all-male clergy. Christianity was an historical event and modern Christianity is also happening in an historical context. While most mainstream Christian religions are steeped in tradition, they must (and in many ways, do) adapt to the times. “WWJD?” is a great principle to teach young children if you want to give them Christian ethical instruction, but really misses the point of Christian texts and Christian history when used in rational adults. What Would Jesus Do? Well, he would be eternally begotten from the father, and somewhere between 4 B.C. and 1 A.D. join his nature to a human nature in the person of the Virgin Mary and grow up as the Jewish son of a carpenter. Then, he would start his ministry at 30 years old at a wedding in Cana by performing a miracle and spend the next three years preaching on many things (including ethics) but also revealing his divine nature to his apostles. Then, he would be brought before the Sanhedrin, then the Roman Council, and crucified. Surely, none of these things are things that anyone in today’s context could imitate. If Jesus were to become incarnate today, rather than 2000 years ago, surely he would not have died the same way. More likely than not, he would be locked up in a terrorist prison, tortured, and killed for trying to promote the fair treatment of Palestinians in Israel or something along those lines. The Gospels, for Christians (although I would argue for all of mankind, living and dead) hold universal, moral truths and mysteries of God’s divine revelation. These revelations and mysteries can be discerned through prayer, discussion, Church councils, etc. Still, these moral truths are not necessarily present in the specific day-to-day activities of Christ. The throwing of the tables in the Temple, for example, explains the truth that we must be vigilant for our faith and, more important, not adulterate our faith into a business practice. When Onesimus was sent back to Philemon, it was not to show us that we should agree with the status quo of society (in fact, the overturn of the status quo was Jesus’ entire point) but to show that there is “neither slave nor free” in Christ. Paul calls Onesimus Philemon’s “brother in Christ.” He also says he is sending Onesiumus back as “better than a slave” and that any debt Onesimus owes can be “charged” to Paul. Paul’s point is to show Philemon that he must forgive and love Onesimus because Onesimus is also a child of God and to show that Paul believes Onesimus should be accepted back as a Christian, not a slave. In a subtle way, Paul really is condemning the practice of slavery here because he wants to return Onesiumus to his livelihood, but wants him to be afforded the respect of a brother of Christ. Failure to examine this text properly may just show that Paul is for slavery, but indeed he is not and it is exactly this sort of misreading that can often result from casual readings of Scripture. Furthermore, as you pointed out, the idea of the impending end made many Christians apathetic to the idea of literally overturning evil social institutions. Paul, therefore, does not crusade to abolish the profession of slavery, but rather crusades to have masters love slaves. Early Christians, instead, tended to flock together and prepare for the coming kingdom and, if necessary, resist the evil institutions that tried to keep them from getting there. It wasn’t until the second century with the introduction of the apologists that a true attempt to transform the influential elements of society were made.

    After that long, drawn out digression, I guess I’m saying that I agree. Television/self-help book Christianity that fails to see the deeper meaning and historical understanding of the Gospels is one that forces Christians to pick and choose which actions of Christ are appropriate to imitate. Christianity, however, is not just a set of ethical choices. Ethics are an important part of Christianity, but nothing is more important than celebrating the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and the subsequent salvation of our souls that comes as a result. Furthermore, the truths and morals of Christian texts and traditions are applicable today, but not in the same way that they were applicable in the first century and it is the job of the Christian to discern from the texts where the truth lies and to view the texts critically to see if they truly do hold water 2 millennia later. If, however, one says “WWJD?” and they do not mean something like, “you taught my daughter to curse, now I will tie a millstone around your neck and throw you in the river,” but rather means something like, “love all others” or “defend your faith” or “do not attach yourselves to the things of this world” these are truths that are timeless and always applicable. Imitating Christ is perfectly acceptable but only if you are truly imitating Christ and not simply taking from the Gospel a set of actions performed at a specific point in history and attempting to copy them.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks for your perspective, Mary, I hope to base a post around your remarks soon!