WHEN EVANGELICAL Christian kids began broadcasting their behavioral
ethic on their sweatshirts - ''WWJD'' - they raised a question useful
to church people as they debate faith-based initiatives: ''What
Would Jesus Do?'' Would increased partnering in social programs
between government and churches merely facilitate the delivery of
social services, or would it make churches servile clients of a
government with diminishing passion for social justice?
Luke's Gospel in particular advances what theologians call ''the
preferential option for the poor.'' It begins with Mary's Song in
the first chapter: ''He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
and exalted them of low degree./He hath filled the hungry with good
things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.'' As one Latin American
theologian put it, God takes sides in the struggle of haves and
have-nots we call history. God sides with the least, the lowest,
and the left-out.
Later in Luke, Jesus uses the compassionate act of a Samaritan
- the racial outcast of his day - to illustrate what one must do
to fulfill God's great commandment of love. He then tells his hearers
to imitate the hated Samaritan, to ''go and do likewise.''
But for all that, the kingdom Jesus described was radically inclusive.
Jesus, as God's son who goes from the uttermost to the guttermost,
wants to expand the franchise to everyone, even those unlikely to
buy in. Some of Jesus's stories about the kingdom make precisely
this point: a net capturing different kinds of fish, fields with
different crop yields, laborers with different pay scales.
Moral: In the kingdom, it takes all kinds. Even the Pharisees.
Luke makes a point of showing that Jesus refused to write off those
arch-villains of Sunday School lore. Luke tells of several dinner
invitations Jesus received from the Pharisees. He accepts them all.
Each, however, ends in social disaster: Jesus never fails to offend
In the 11th chapter of Luke, a Pharisee invites Jesus to a power
lunch, which he attends without hesitation. As the guests sit down,
the Pharisee is outraged that Jesus has not washed his hands before
dinner. In that time and place hand washing was a matter of holiness,
not hygiene: It was a ritual that signified the sanctity of the
meal, and was observed scrupulously by religious folk. So Jesus
is caught in a faux pas.
Instead of offering an apology, Jesus launches a verbal attack.
He berates his host for being obsessed with clean exteriors while
being filthy inside with greed. He goes on to say that clean hands
come by the purifying act of feeding the poor, that the Pharisees
leave the hard work of justice undone. These insults were in earshot
of other guests whom the Bible calls ''scribes'' or ''doctors of
the law,'' ancient Israel's equivalents of today's policy wonks.
The scribes are put off by Jesus's rudeness and tell him so. But
he has a few choice words for them, too. He says that their policy
directives harm more than help, and that they polish the monuments
of great leaders of the past while betraying their principles. They
use their insider knowledge to keep people locked out, and they
use their expertise - the buzzwords, jargon, and doublespeak - not
to illumine but to confuse. By the time Jesus finished his harangue
the Pharisees and scribes were steaming and planning revenge.
So we know what Jesus would do sitting at the table of the decision-makers
in Washington. He would tell the truth about how their fiscal conservatism
and corporate welfare have further enriched the wealthy and impoverished
the wretched. He would tell them how the wealth of our nation makes
the poverty of children a greater obscenity than any four-letter
words they might learn from their desperate music. He would describe
how the worst offenses are committed through policy-regulating,
deregulating and otherwise legislating the bread right out of the
mouths of the victims by perpetrators who go to Congress, not to
prison. He would note how the power-brokers are now trying to persuade
faith-based organizations to become branch offices of a kingdom
that offers less and less, too little, too late.
That's what Jesus would do if he were invited to a power lunch
with Bush, his spin doctors, and his policy wonks. He'd go. He'd
talk. He'd probably be invited to leave unfed.
Let the churches go and do likewise.
Allen Callahan is a faculty member of the Harvard Divinity School.
He will soon become an associate professor of religion at Macalester
College in St. Paul, Minn
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company