“What Would Jesus Do?” was a popular Christian sound bite a few years ago. In the wake of our country’s ongoing mass shootings — most recently in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio — Christians need to ask that question again.
Faced with such violence, stoked by fear, bigotry and hatred, what would Jesus do?
• Would Jesus speak out against prejudice and poverty? Yes. He was born into poverty, as a part of an ethnic and religious community under the unjust rule of the Roman Empire.
• Would Jesus know about oppression? Yes. Even before his birth, his parents were displaced people. On order of the empire, Mary (nine months pregnant) and Joseph had to leave their hometown of Nazareth to take the long journey to Bethlehem.
• Would Jesus understand the need for families to leave their homeland to escape violence? Definitely. Due to the slaughter of young boys throughout the Bethlehem region, his parents didn’t return home to Nazareth after his birth. Instead, they fled to the border and sought asylum in Egypt. (Apparently it was granted, because they stayed there for three years until it was safe to return to their own country.)
• Would Jesus himself understand the risk of telling the truth about the empire and its leaders? Yes. His cousin John was imprisoned and executed by a quasi-religious king, put in place by the empire. John’s “crime”? He spoke out against state-sanctioned economic oppression and violence, and he told King Herod the truth about his own lascivious and unethical behavior.
Moreover, Jesus himself was executed by those same imperial powers. As professor Harold Attridge, former dean of Yale Divinity School, said in a recent lecture at the United Church of Santa Fe, Jesus’ crucifixion was a political execution, driven by Jesus’ challenge to the empire’s ways of death, fear and oppression.
• What would Jesus do in relationship to persons who were different from him? He would stay true to the basic commitment to “love God and love neighbor,” rooted deeply in both the Levitical and Deuteronomic codes of his Jewish faith. He would reach across ethnic, racial and religious divisions to respect and care for people of diverse backgrounds. In his ministry, he healed the daughter of a rabbi, the servant of a Roman centurion and the daughter of a Syrian-Phoenician (aka “mixed-race”) woman. He consistently reached out to those who were outcast (lepers, tax collectors and other “sinners”) and cared for the poor, widows (i.e., vulnerable women) and orphans (vulnerable children).
• What would Jesus do in his relationship with women? He would value their full humanity, honor their leadership and respect their intellect, as he did throughout his ministry despite the cultural norms of his time.
• What would Jesus do regarding homosexuality? We don’t know because he never mentioned it. We do know that he welcomed those who were outcast. We also know he never hesitated to speak his mind about the sin of economic oppression, but he didn’t say a word about homosexuality being a sin. So what does that tell us about Jesus’ understanding of real sin?
• What would Jesus do regarding people with mental illness? He would not scapegoat or blame them for the violence of the world around him. Instead, as he did throughout his ministry, he would reach out to those with mental illness and their families, offering care and compassion.
• Would Jesus own an AR-15-style pistol (used by the Dayton shooter), an AK-47-style rifle (used by the El Paso shooter), or the AR-15 assault rifle (used by the Tree of Life synagogue shooter)? No. The Prince of Peace told his disciples to put down their swords when the mob came to arrest him. “All who live by the sword die by the sword,” said the one who told his followers to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, even when faced with the empire’s violence.
What would Jesus do? Bottom line, he would challenge us to follow God’s way in this world — the way of love and justice that even our ways of death could not and cannot defeat. If we claim the name of Christian, then we need to do what he would do.
One last thing Jesus would do in our time. When he saw how his life and work have been used time and again by those who call themselves Christian to stoke fear and violence — from anti-Semitism to racial hatred to assaults on refugees — he would weep. And so should we.
Talitha Arnold is the senior minister at the United Church of Santa Fe.