I carried a lot of baggage into this book, but perhaps I'll defer that for later on. I ended up liking it fairly well.
The book arose from a series of sermons or "stories" Rev. Charles Sheldon told to his parishioners. He was pastor of a Congregational church in Topeka, Kansas, some 120 or so years ago. The weekly stories became quite popular and his church was bulging by the time he finished up.
The hook in the stories was about a preacher who decided that before he did anything, he should ask himself what Jesus would do in a given situation. He then invited those of his congregation, who were willing, to try a test. For one year they would try not do anything without first asking themselves what Jesus would do in a given situation, and then do that thing. One church member who signed up was a newspaper editor, so he set about changing his paper to a "Christian" paper. No more ads for liquor and tobacco, and no more idle society gossip or stories about prize fights. Another member was a beautiful young woman who sang rather stunningly. Rather than go on tour with a musical group and become rich and famous, she decided to sing at a local tent meeting, to draw in fallen souls for salvation, and to give lessons to poor people who wouldn't be able to afford lessons for themselves. A local merchant realized that he should, among other things, treat his staff as partners, not servants. And so it went with others. Some people suffered financially after their decisions, but they all felt more spiritually fulfilled, and also felt a greater sense of community and belonging with their fellow church members.
The movement spread to Chicago, where some local, well-off clergy resigned their fancy positions and set up a settlement house for less-well off people, a place where people could live decently and also become better educated so as to get jobs to support themselves. A young woman with a flair for cooking gave classes to the young women so that they'd be able to get jobs as domestics in local households. And so forth.
The movement also spawned political action. It seems that folks back in olden times believed that the major block to people's living a good life was the temptation put in front of them by the "liquor interests". Just get rid of the saloons, and people would no longer fall into sin and degradation. Something like that. When it came out, the book helped spawn a movement of Christian social action. It wasn't just about closing down the saloons, but also about feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. That stuff one reads about in Matthew 25
, unless one is a modern American White Evangelical, in which case Matt. 25
has been purged from the Good Book
, or at least re-interpreted out of all recognition.
So, this book really does have a good point. Those of us who aspire to live as Christians probably would be well advised to ask ourselves what Jesus would do in certain situations. Would Jesus take music lessons so as better to praise Him on Sundays and also attract new members by dint of having less dreary services, or would that money be better spent stocking the food pantry? Would Jesus work on defense-department projects so long as they were related to actual defense and not to creating ever more deadly offensive weapons, (although some would argue that the best defense is a good offense), or would one be better advised to take on more mundane work so as to avoid potential conflicts with one's conscience? Would Jesus invest his 401K in stocks in companies that invested in the Southeast Asian fishing industry where most of the workers are defacto slaves, or would he just not have a 401K and hope he died before he got too old to work? Would Jesus engage in social action and thereby try to better the lives of all, or would he be more likely not to draw people outside their comfort zones? And so forth.
But then we get to the baggage. First the more fun baggage. When I read "Topeka, Kansas", the first thing I thought about was Fred Phelps, a preacher who decided that the only thing Jesus would do is "hate fags", and hate them very publicly. That's not even remotely my idea of a Christian approach to living. I also remembered that my current Congregational church used to have a Rev. Sheldon, who was rather a polarizing figure. That was well before my time, but some 50 years after Rev. Sheldon left, some of the scars are still with us.
But then I also realized that my great grandmother was a stalwart member Women's Christian Temperance Union member in Augusta, Kansas, near Wichita. On the side, she managed to have 11 children, only one or two of whom didn't make it past 90, and all of whom seemed to have been successes in their lives. I also remembered that I'd been active in a Congregational church in Manhattan, Kansas for a time, and still think well of my experience there. So I felt somewhat better about Kansas and Congregationalists.
Unfortunately, I also began thinking about the more recent WWJD movement that rose in the 1990s. For some reason, I associate that movement with the election of George W. Bush, which is never a good association. But it's not poor Mr. Bush, it's the white Evangelical folks who took up the WWJD brand who elected them, and who have pretty much given up religion for politics, very toxic politics. They are, if nothing else, decidedly not
into social justice. It rather saddens me that a century after Sheldon's book, the people who ask the same question he asked, come up with completely different answers than Sheldon's flock, answers that have done and continue to do real harm to millions of people in our world. [further pungent remarks excised for civility]