But Really, WWJD?

I wrote this essay not long after November 24th, for a class I took last semester.

Memories of my adolescence are littered with the phrase “what would Jesus do?” Despite my family’s relative areligiosity I feel like that phrase was everywhere. On brightly colored bracelets and bookmarks my friends always had, on billboards near my home town, spoken over and over again whenever someone didn’t know what to do or when someone else had done something they disapproved of. I never knew how we were supposed to know what Jesus would do, I’d never read the Bible or really heard it preached. All I ever really heard in that phrase was “whatever you’re doing, stop that. Jesus was perfect and you are not.” Everything I heard about what Jesus would do was in the negative. In my world people talked much more about what Jesus wouldn’t do than about what he would do, and when they talked about what he would do it was still mostly judgement.

I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about what it would really be like to live your life in emulation of what Jesus would do. Thinking about what it would mean to take seriously Jesus’ life, work, and suffering as a human. As Jordan makes so clear, many Christians don’t ever really take Jesus seriously as a human. He’s difficult to handle if he is fully human, his life makes difficult demands on our comfortable lives if we take it seriously. Christ is so much easier to handle. We can build fountains to glorify a god, but we have to give a thirsty man water. We have to accept that we might be culpable in his thirst. What would Jesus do?

It was a Monday and I had plans. I was going to get out of my house and work on a project, be productive. It’s a little astonishing how often my plans of productivity are destroyed by the moral failings of my country. Early in the day I heard that the Grand Jury decision about Michael Brown’s murder would be released that day. I’ll admit that my first thought was that I had too much to do for everything to go to hell on that particular day, but, of course it did anyway. I spent the whole day sure of what would come, knowing there would be no indictment, collecting and sharing essays, and determining where I would meet up with people to head out to protest that evening. I didn’t stop to ask myself what exactly I was doing and if I was sure I wanted to do it until I was waiting for a bus to Oakland and writing the number to the National Lawyers Guild on each of my arms. My only actual response to myself was, “don’t just talk about it, be about it” and so I went. What would Jesus do?

From the 6PM announcement until my 1:30AM arrival back in my apartment things are mostly a blur. I can remember a timeline, and I could point out specific events if asked to, but the overall effect isn’t about those details. I made a choice to “be about it” and then I kept making that choice. I made that choice until my heels literally bled, and then I kept going. There is a clear memory of marching behind the crowd, carrying a banner with a couple of UU clergy members and trying to keep some distance between the crowd and the cops, and realizing how badly my feet hurt. Earlier in the day I had seen a picture of Michael Brown’s father crying to the heavens, and had heard that his mother’s cries could be heard above the protests in Ferguson. I hurt, but they and so many other Black families and individuals hurt worse. I couldn’t end their suffering, no amount of me out in the street yelling my lungs out would actually bring their son back or end their pain, but at least I could be with them. My soul hurt and my body hurt. The pain of the world was in me, and I was going to push through. I was dedicated to suffering with. What would Jesus do?

I didn’t realize until I looked at my shoes the next day that I had bled. I didn’t cry until I was in the shower that Tuesday morning. That Tuesday I kept getting hit with it. With what had happened, with what keeps happening, with what the world demands of me. My whole body ached, my heels hurt every time anything touched them and sometimes when nothing did. For the first time ever Jesus on the cross made sense to me. What would Jesus do? Suffer with the families of those most hurt by our racist “justice” system, flip over the money changers’ tables, shed his blood for his belief in justice and liberation.

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Influences: History

The second half of the question I posted about on Friday was this: Name two historical events, either in your lifetime or before you were born, that have been pivotal in your decision to pursue religious leadership – and describe their importance to you. While my issue with the first half of this question had been picking the right options, I think I ran in to more trouble here with refining my ideas. I pretty quickly selected the events I wanted to talk about and though they certainly felt right, the framework of how I was talking about them never managed to seem anything other than intensely trite. A conversation with my friend Kim, a writer who was doing development work at my place of work at the time, helped me clarify what about these experiences was special. I had been speaking of these events as, basically, when my Grandma passed away and 9/11, which while certainly big events are almost impossibly generic – pretty much every American above a certain age has a story about how their life changed after 9/11, and anyone who had a relationship at all with a loved one who passed has a story about how someone died and their life was changed – but the reality was that it was specific events that happened after these things, details about my particular experience, that had been most pivotal for me.

It would be very easy to pick my Grandmother’s death as a moment that changed the course of my life, and sent me on the path I am currently on, but that’s not entirely true. Her death in and of itself had less to do with the path I wound up on as my reaction to my family’s desires for her funeral did. Though she had not been a particularly religious woman, or at all the sort of passive, docile woman that more conservative Christianity values, some of the more conservative Christian men in my family chose verses from the Bible for her service that emphasized what a “good” woman she had been in having had and raised eight children. I was upset. Yes, my Grandma absolutely had raised eight children and that certainly was an accomplishment, but I did not (and still do not) believe that she would be comfortable with her stated legacy being that she had been passive and had many children. Besides that, anyone who had ever met her would know that any suggestion that she had been at all passive or demure was quite far from the truth. Instead of fighting with my family members about what to include, I simply asked to be able to say something myself. They obliged, and I wrote a short piece about what I had learned from my Grandma: the importance of loving and caring for one another while we had the opportunity to do so. It was important for me, and for some of my family members, to provide an honest look at the legacy she had left, and the wisdom she had imparted to eight children and some twenty one plus grandchildren. After the service, the minister who had done the actual eulogy approached me and asked if I had ever considered being a minister. New to even attending church I looked at him and said “I’m a Unitarian”, he smiled and said “I suppose they need ministers too” and left. It would be over a year after that before I began to seriously consider the ministry, but that experience from the beauty of getting to honor my Grandmother in a way that I thought was appropriate for the life she lived, to the planting of that seed was definitely instrumental to my being able to notice my call later on.

My childhood best friend and I stopped attending the same school when we were still in elementary school, but managed to continue to be active participants in each other’s lives despite living apart and attending different schools. This relationship was easily one of the most important ones in my development as a person, and also lead to my having experiences that strongly altered how I interacted with the world. Since our schools had different schedules, we never had spring break at the same time so it became tradition for me to attend school with her and her friends on the Friday of my spring break, and to hang out over the weekend as they began theirs. I first did this in the spring of 2002, during our Freshman year of high school. This particular Friday, my friend (who attended a small Catholic school) had religion class, and told me excitedly that they were discussing Islam. I was nervous. In my world of small-town public school and conservative parents, I had heard only very negative things about Islam, particularly in the aftermath of September 11th. What were they learning about Islam? And why? No one in my world wanted to talk about anything but how hateful they believed Islam was, and I could only imagine that this tiny Catholic school would do more of the same. During the class I remember the teacher, a nun, discussing the importance of learning about people who believe differently than we may, because if we don’t know it’s very easy to be convinced that the unfamiliar is evil. We learned about the history of Islam, that it and its belief system was far more complicated than I had been lead to believe. I remember sitting there, stunned by how little most people I knew actually knew about Islam. I remember being further stunned when my friend later pointed out a classmate wearing a hijab and told me that she was really involved in student government and very nice and very smart. Looking back, I feel embarrassed that those things were so revolutionary for me, but in the world I lived in the response to the other was always ridicule and hate. From there, I became very interested in learning as much as I could about the world’s religions, the beliefs of their practitioners, and the commonalities that many of these religions had. I became convinced that the way out of what I saw as wildly unnecessary hate was simply to learn about one another, writing a paper and doing a large project in my Sophomore year on the importance of religious tolerance. It was during the research for that project that I initially encountered and considered Unitarian Universalism, and it was the whole process, from that one class onward, that resulted in many of the beliefs I hold today.