Among the various side-effects and consequences arising from the ‘anti-capitalist protest’ outside St Paul’s Cathedral, two unexpected ones struck me with particular force. The first – in the early days – was the apparent redefinition of ‘senior cleric’, as in ‘Senior cleric resigns’, though this side of things took an unexpected turn when senior clerics did actually start resigning. The second was the reappearance of a once popular phrase, utilized by the protestors on at least one banner and widely used in media coverage of the unfolding saga: ‘What would Jesus do?’
This short, simple question has the appearance of profundity and great spiritual wisdom. But it is misguided for two reasons. The first is that none of us is Jesus Christ. The second is that this is not the Holy Land of the first century. These two incontrovertible facts mean that none of us can ever know with certainty what Jesus – who in his Incarnation was an historical figure set in a particular time and place in history – would do when faced with a twenty-first-century scenario. The Gospels give us a good understanding of his beliefs and principles (and it is our duty to shape our own lives in accordance with them so far as we can), but they cannot be stretched into a detailed question-and-answer resource for every tricky situation thrown up by modern Western society.
This means that we may say with a degree of certainty that Jesus had a radical understanding of equality, based on the understanding that all human beings are beloved sons and daughters of God. But we are not justified in extrapolating from that the idea that ‘Jesus was a socialist.’ To make such a claim is anachronistic in the extreme. Yet one protestor, interviewed by the BBC, and no doubt inspired by the question WWJD? piously said just that.
What we do know about Jesus is that he had a habit of giving short shrift to religious and quasi-religious figures who asked him smug, self-satisfied questions in the hope of catching him out or pushing him into a corner. WWJD? is a useful question for us to consider inwardly when making personal decisions. It is not, on its own, a valid method of forming policy or making judgements for or by Church or state.