WWJD: The Slogan That Was Once a Moral Compass
by Susan Leem, associate producer
"I want volunteers from the First Church who will pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he knows how, no matter what the result may be."
~Charles Sheldon, from In His Steps
In the halls of my high school, back in the 1990s, the initials W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do) appeared as a seemingly sudden trend, gracing armbands, lanyards, backpacks. I associated it with teens either trying to fit in or proclaiming their Evangelical Christian faith through (then) fashion-forward accessories. But, Charles Monroe Sheldon, a Kansas preacher, first coined the phrase in 1893 in his novel, In His Steps. In a sense, those woven armbands draw a loop back to the Social Gospel Movement and the Evangelical impulse it grew out of.
Sheldon was a high-profile Congregational minister and an early advocate of civil rights for African-Americans and women. He also supported prohibition to battle alcoholism, seeing it as a serious social disease. And though Sheldon had the spirit of social activism, he was in many ways out of step with his time. He intended the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” to guide moral behavior as well as be applied to all aspects of living, including one’s occupation.
The novel begins with a young man who was “evidently a tramp” in shabby clothes coming to town looking for work and for help. He approaches the fictional congregation, even the pastor of a small Kansas town (much like the one Reverend Sheldon served), and finds that no one will help him. He later walks into the middle of the Sunday service and shames those present for the hypocrisy of turning their backs on him asking, "But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following his steps?"
In the audio above, theologian John D. Caputo talks about the evolution of this powerful phrase. It’s a way to see what drives Christianity, he says, even the soul of it. But how it’s been appropriated today as mainly a slogan of the Christian Right is a degradation of a very good question, one that has a “magic to it.” According to Caputo it has most impact when applied to one’s own morality, but when used to with a prescriptive morality for others, “you take the teeth out of the question” and it becomes a kind of weapon with which to judge others.
However, Reverend Sheldon was not exclusively applying WWJD to public or private morality himself. He had a more nuanced approach. He felt that as much as one needed to be responsible for their own actions, “people were defenseless against these larger structural forces in this society,” hence his own contributions to social activism.
One intriguing interpretation issue is the challenge of actually determining what Jesus would have done. As Caputo puts it, “the question really is a question and it’s a difficult question because it involves making an interpretation, of taking Jesus who lived in a very different time a remote corner of the Roman Empire, in an occupied country, and who probably was not a very political person. So we’ve got to look at the New Testament narrative and figure out for ourselves what it’s telling us to do in our time.”