How many of you remember the WWJD fad back in the 1990s? I certainly remember meeting a young American visitor and asking her what those letters on her bracelet meant.
It stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” The slogan was coined by some adherents of Christianity “as a reminder of their belief in a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the love of Jesus through their actions.”
This idea of the “Imitation of Christ” goes back even earlier. It seems to have been topical even in Portuguese Goa, judging from the reams of literature on the subject I found in our family library, dating back to 1955. “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380- 1471) is thought to be the most widely read Christian devotional work after the Bible.
“What Would Jesus Do?” was the title of a 2010 American film whose plotline readers might find interesting: A pastor of a small town in rural America that is going through hard times galvanizes the people into action to prevent a ruthless politician and his wealthy real-estate tycoon cronies from setting up a casino there. By asking a simple question at every step and of every town resident “What Would Jesus Do?” they valiantly “fight off the temptation of money and the easy path.” I am sure any resemblance to any situation familiar to us is (cough, cough) is purely coincidental. But it does provide food for thought.
WWJD has been a rallying cry all over again in Donald Trump’s America, especially following the heart-rending separation of immigrant children from their parents. It has largely arisen as a riposte to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoting chapter and verse from the Bible, and admonishing believers to “obey and follow the law.” He had said in a speech to law enforcement officials: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
This abuse of the Scriptures was roundly condemned by several prominent leaders of the black clergy in the US, notably Rev. Jesse Jackson among many others.
Rev. William Barber II reacted, “Twisting the word of God in defense of immoral practices was a tactic used to justify keeping Black people in chattel slavery, committing genocide against Native Americans and segregating people under Jim Crow.”
Jackson agreed: “The government tolerated lynching just like they tolerated slavery.”
But WWJD question has been on my mind for a long time before this, with particular reference to the Holy Land. Perhaps understandably, my fascination with that part of the world began very early, given my Catholic upbringing. Ever since Bible stories were read to me as a child, I’ve dreamed of visiting the Holy Land. I’ve imagined going to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and Jerusalem. I’ve listened breathlessly to accounts of relatives and friends who’ve been there.
But the more I’ve learnt about the brutal oppression of Palestinians in their own land, the more I’ve been asking myself this: What would Jesus have done, had He walked the earth in 21st-century Palestine, instead of 2000 years ago?
Many of you will have heard of Daniel Barenboim, whom Wikipedia rather laconically sums up as “a pianist and conductor who is a citizen of Argentina, Israel, Palestine and Spain.”
But that description, while factual, hardly does him justice. He is a humanitarian with a firm belief in music as a vehicle for social change, and perhaps even more crucially and directly, for bringing peace to a troubled land and its people. Together with the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, he founded the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, made up of young Arab and Israeli musicians. Their very presence on the same stage makes a powerful point, and their high musical standard proves that great things can be achieved even when people whose histories are inimically opposed to each other are able to look past that and work together.
Barenboim is a resolute critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and he wrote a strong op-ed in The Guardian on 23 July, titled “This racist new law makes me ashamed to be Israeli.”
He was referring to the most recent “nationality law” passed by the Knesset in Israel, which states that “only the Jewish people have the right to national self-determination in Israel.”
Reacting to the same legislation, expatriate Israeli historian and activist Ilan Pappé wrote a piece in The Hindu, “Israel’s new law is a form of apartheid.”
He reminds the reader that “For those of us who struggle for justice and equality in Palestine, India symbolised the way forward in its anti-colonialist liberation campaign and its resistance in being drawn into Cold War imperialist politics.” And he warns: “The nationality law should remind Indian politicians who their new bedfellows are.”
Barenboim uses the same word “apartheid” in his condemnation of this new law: “We have a law that confirms the Arab population as second-class citizens. It follows that this is a very clear form of apartheid. I don’t think the Jewish people lived for 20 centuries, mostly through persecution and enduring endless cruelties, in order to become the oppressors, inflicting cruelty on others. This new law does exactly that. Therefore, I am ashamed of being an Israeli today.”
It leads one again to ask: What would Jesus have done in today’s Holy Land? How would He react to so many of us, from Goa, from the rest of India, continuing to turn a blind eye to injustice, while visiting the landmark sites on pilgrimages that urge us to tread His path and recall His life on Earth? But can we in the bargain turn a deaf ear to His message?
What about Matthew 25:40 “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
For that matter, What Would Jesus Do here in India, where lynchings have become so commonplace that they’re not even front-page news anymore? Where they can be dismissed by politicians under the most ridiculous pretexts, even legitimized, with perpetrators garlanded by politicians, far from any punitive action taken against them?
What Would Jesus Do? It’s a hypothetical question, of course. But I think the answer can be found in the quiet corners of our hearts, minds, souls and conscience.
(An edited version of this article was published on 05 August 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)