June 6, 2005
-- Martin E. Marty
WWJD -- "What would Jesus do?" -- remember that faddish acronym? WWJD recently returned with an appearance in commentator Bill O'Reilly's syndicated column. He used it a) to show that he "knew" what Jesus would do to fight off illegal immigrants, and b) to counter Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, defender of immigrants. Since the Cardinal cited the "compassion" of Jesus, it was fair game for Mr. O'Reilly to counter-cite him, using his "legal-imperial" interpretation of the gospels ("Drawing the Line on the Border," May 26, 2005).
O'Reilly feared he'd be branded a "mean guy," an "insensitive, selfish, racist, ghastly and downright anti-Christian" sort because he wanted "to stop poor people from illegally coming to the land of milk and honey, the USA." I won't brand him thus, but he brands and blames "the corrupt Mexican government, which cannot build an effective economic infrastructure, and a cowardly U.S. government, which will not enforce immigration laws." He forgot to brand middle-class, rich, and corporate American citizens who depend upon cheap Mexican labor to keep our non-corrupt and effective economic infrastructure going.
The Cardinal's suggestion that "true Christians must treat illegal immigrants with compassion, because that's what Jesus would do" prompted O'Reilly's citation of Jesus. Now I don't have a solution to the immigration problem, but I don't think O'Reilly does either. He urges that the U.S. secure its borders and have good immigration policies, and all will be well. Securing the borders means that we should simply deploy 36,000 military personnel to stop the flow of immigrants. Until then, poor Mexicans will come, knowing that they "can dance across the border and have dinner in Tucson that very evening." You've seen pictures of Mexican illegals, on vehicles and in postures that don't evoke dancing. But I'll let that lie.
Our interest is in how Jesus got drawn in, subtly by Cardinal McCarrick, and blunderingly by Mr. O'Reilly, both of whom knew what Jesus would do. It's hard to argue with the Cardinal, who seems to be ahead on points in the WWJD contest. The Jesus portrayed in the gospels is always "being" the stranger or welcoming the stranger, always siding with the suffering, the hungry, those on the margins, the illegals. Does that translate easily into policies of "stopping the flow"? What prompts this Sightings is the sight of the gospel passage that satisfies O'Reilly and, he thinks, provides the perfect squelch.
To quote O'Reilly: "Jesus did direct us to 'Render to Caesar, the things that are Caesar's.' And the law comes under the Caesar heading." It's a shaky prop in the first place. Some commentators think the gospel word is against Jews who posed a tax question to Jesus, Jews who carried an "image" (read: idol) of divine Caesar ("Thou shalt have no other gods ...." ). In any case, it was hardly a public relations tip of the hat to government itself. Carried to the extreme or even using the idea as a starting point, letting "law," as imposed by Caesar or legislated into existence and adjudicated by courts today, serve as Jesus' way of trumping "compassion" is risky business.
Maybe retiring WWJD a few years ago was not a bad idea. Instead of reiterating bannered slogans and messages on T-shirts, we are better off studying the gospels and those commentators who approach them with finesse and care -- something that does not happen when WWJD is invoked.
Last week we mistakenly gave Diane Heath's e-mail address as firstname.lastname@example.org. Her correct e-mail address is slightly, but crucially, different: email@example.com.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.