What Would Jesus Do?

A friend of mine, explaining her political stance during the election of 2008, said, “I just ask myself ‘What would Jesus do?’ and then I vote for the candidate who will do that.” It sounds pretty simple.

  • Unfortunately, the simplicity of her viewpoint masks two important problems:
     political candidates are masters of the words and phrases that simultaneously mean everything and nothing, and 
  • even when a candidate says something meaningful during the campaign, it is extremely rare that the candidate turned elected official actually considers a campaign promise to be a personal commitment.

However, the ultimate problem with my friend’s approach is to discover what Jesus would do about any particular campaign issue. Christians remember that the apostle Paul admonished us to have the mind of Christ, but it isn’t all that easy to know Christ’s mind on political issues.

For one thing, the words used in political campaigns are not exactly the same words used in the Bible to record what Jesus said and did and thought about issues. Take the word tolerance for example. This lovely word has blossomed in politicalspeak over the past few years, but it is not found in the Bible, even though at first glance it almost sounds biblical. The idea of tolerance sounds very attractive when juxtaposed against ugly words like discrimination, racism and homophobia. The word tolerance is contrasted to these harsh words as it is paired with words meant to be kinder, such as inclusive

Tolerance as used in in political speeches is defined at the Merriam-Webster online dictionary site :
a : sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own
b : the act of allowing something

When people use the word in political conversations, tolerance is finely focused on specific behaviors. For example, someone who is tolerant of other races rejects the use of specific pejorative words to describe people of other races, takes actions to include people of other races in activities previously closed to them, and leads in aggressive remedial action including special considerations for people of other races where they have previously experienced discrimination. Tolerance creates the appearance of respectful acceptance of people previously excluded or abused on the basis of race. Tolerance makes the public image of a culture look better.

What tolerance does not do is to change people’s hearts. It does not transform hate into love, scorn into respect, disdain into appreciation. Tolerance does not build relationships.

In engineering problems, there really is no better way to improve some situations than to focus on tolerance. If part A must fit into part B, the engineer must specify a tolerance that keeps every dimension of part A inside part B. If the tolerance is not correctly specified, then the part will not fit and the machine will not work. The objective is not to make the two parts like each other. They simply must fit together and not rub or stick in such a way as to impede the operation of the machine. Inanimate parts have no emotions or attitudes. Smoothing a rough edge pretty much fixes the problem.

Not so with people. A group of people can say and do all the things an attitude of tolerance requires and still be in a state of relationship best described as a truce, or maybe even a powder keg just waiting to be exploded. The Korean War is historically recorded as having ended on July 27, 1953. Today, no official war is in progress on the Korean peninsula. However, between North Korea and South Korea, the relationship cannot be described as a state of peace except in the most euphemistic, determinedly optimistic view. Likewise, the countless “cease-fire” agreements between the Palestinian refugees and Israel during the 65 years of Israel’s existence have never for a minute established peace or any real desire for peace between the parties to the conflict. Every minute without gunfire that follows such a signing is only a minute in which all ears are tuned for the shot that signals yet another failure. The end of the Civil War in the USA was the end of slavery, too. The end of slavery was followed by a century of segregation, and more than half a century has passed since segregation was legally ended. Efforts to be more tolerant have led to semantic transitions from Negro to black to African-American, yet every political campaign reveals that something in the relationship between people of various skin colors is not quite healed by tolerant language and tolerant legislation and tolerant enforcement of the rules.

Why isn’t tolerance just what Jesus would do? My friend spoke at some length explaining her thought processes, and tolerance was part of her personal equation for determining what Jesus would do, but as you can see, tolerance is not very Christlike. Jesus did not teach, for example, “Refuse to call people ugly names. Except, apply ugly names to all the people who refuse to agree with you about the right name for the people you formerly scorned but now tolerate.” Look at the current gay marriage conflict. Jesus did not say. “Refuse to call homosexuals ugly names like *****” Except, call people who refuse to support gay marriage homophobic baboons.”

What exactly would Jesus do? When Jesus talked about the way to live together in a society, he said, “Love your enemy. Pray for those who treat you like dirt and call you names.” Jesus also said, “If somebody slaps you on one cheek, then turn the other and let him have at it again.” Jesus did not advocate tolerance. Jesus advocated love. Jesus was not about appearance; Jesus was about reality.

He demonstrated in his own life what he meant by love. Jesus touched lepers. It wasn’t enough simply to be seen in their company. He touched them. That was the ultimate uncleanliness. He touched the blind, the lame, the bleeding and the speechless. He touched the maniacs. He touched prostitutes. He invited a tax collector into his inner circle of followers. He never preached about the right words to use when speaking of someone he could not love, because he loved everyone.

Jesus gave absolutely no examples of tolerance. He did not tolerate people. He loved people. Jesus showed us what it means to love anyone and everyone. Jesus showed us what it means to build relationships with people who were formerly either enemies or at best neutral bystanders.

Jesus does not teach us to tolerate one another and put on a show of right language and behaviors. Jesus calls us to love people and care about what becomes of them. He showed us that love for other people shapes both speech and action. If we love people, we don’t need a glossary of tolerant language. Instead, if we love people, our love shapes our words and deeds. We simply give and give and give until we have nothing left to give.

Tolerance may work for those whose only objective is to be politically correct, but tolerance does not change anything. Love changes everything. Love heals wounds and builds relationships. Love builds up rather than tearing down. Jesus died to show us what love can do, and when we learn that lesson, the whole world changes. We probably cannot expect that any politician will do what Jesus would do, but if that is what we are looking for, evidence of tolerance will not meet the standard.

The things you might observe about tolerance can fairly easily be observed in most politicalspeak. The finest individuals can get caught up in the language and strategies of politics and lose their way. As Christians, if we are looking for a path that leads to the redemption of our culture and our nation, we would be well advised to actually do what Jesus did rather than to look for a political leader who promises that he or she will do what Jesus did if we vote the right way.

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