A cryptic four-letter code showing up on bracelets, T-shirts and coffee mugs asks "What would Jesus do?"
Thursday, July 30, 1998
You can find Jesus pretty easily these days. He''s hanging from a giant accessory rack at Claire''s Jewelry Store on the edge of the Del Monte Shopping Center, between the hemp jewelry and cash register.
And yes, he does seem a bit out-of-place here in this trendy emporium of baubles and bangles. Even so, to the countless pre-teen and teenage girls who routinely spend their allowance in such places, Jesus is all right with them. Yes, one could accurately say that Jesus--that 2,000-year-old Gallilean rabble-rouser whose name we associate mainly with a certain religion, or as a substitute for a four-letter word when smashing our thumb in a door--is suddenly very much in fashion. Literally.
Thanks to a phenomenal nine-year-old marketing campaign that some claim is a full-on social movement, the name Jesus is now on the lips, shirts and shoelaces of millions--Christian and non-Christian alike, many of them under 21--all across the country. It''s still a four letter word, though.
The word is WWJD. An acronym for "What Would Jesus Do?," its cryptic appearance on everything from bracelets to blue jeans has been called a fundamentalist conspiracy to sneak religious values onto campuses. Some view it simply as a youthful, grass-roots movement underscoring an increased desire among young people to embrace some positive social values, or as a way for proselytizing Christians to provoke strangers to ask them about the mysterious initials. Others see it mainly as your basic crass, capitalistic commercialization of a harmlessly innocent philosophical ideal. It is no doubt a little of each.
But whatever else it may turn out to be, "What Would Jesus Do?" is a powerful and fascinating question.
"WWJD certainly was intended as a way to introduce Jesus to others," affirms Kenn Freestone, of Lesco Co., the Michigan-based manufacturer that first began distributing WWJD bracelets in 1989. "It was a Christian youth group at a local Presbyterian church that came up with the idea of WWJD, and they brought it to me," explains Freestone, who now heads Lesco'' multi-million dollar WWJD division. The youth group had been inspired by Charles Sheldon''s classic 1896 book, In His Steps.
The once-controversial book tells the story of a church congregation that turns its back on a homeless stranger, only to be chastised by the man for not living their lives according to the example of Jesus. When the stranger drops dead, they are deeply ashamed, and vow that for one full year, they will make no decision without first asking themselves, "What would Jesus do?"
Still, it wasn''t until two years ago that Lesco found itself in possession of a certified national trend, and sales began expanding. Last year alone, the company sold over 15 million WWJD items. Interactive Websites (whatwouldjesusdo.com and wwjd.com are just two) began popping up all over the Internet, and other companies began putting out their own versions, expanding the scope with T-shirts, baseball caps, watches, board games, and books. A recently released CD of Christian music-titled What Would Jesus Do? that comes complete with a WWJD bracelet quickly made it onto Billboard''s top 200 albums list.
Shortly after Wal-Mart began selling the products, WWJD entered the mainstream, and Claire''s Jewelry, a vast national chain of mall-based stores, began introducing a few items, only to expand their inventory when sales took off.
"They''re very popular with teens," says Angie Argueta, 20, a saleswoman at the Claire''s in Del Monte Center. Even with boys? "Oh, boys love the bracelets," she says. And indeed, there is a WWJD bracelet for every style--from delicate silver to colorful wovens, dainty to chunky. Even hemp makes an appearance on the overflowing WWJD rack.
"Our chairman is fond of saying, ''We don''t decide what to put in our stores. Our customers tell us what to put in our stores," explains Glenn Canary, an executive investment manager with Claire''s Jewelry, Inc. "If kids want to buy it, we''d be dumb not to have it."
Now Hallmark Cards stores is preparing to offer WWJD merchandise as well. And countless Christian organizations have taken advantage of the movement to put across their own agendas--thus the ''don''t do drugs, don''t have sex'' angle that many of the items are marketed with. Though sales have slowed slightly, most retailers claim that it''s unlikely the fad will fade anytime soon.
"It''s amazing," glows Freestone. "I''ve talked to store owners. I''ve talked to pastors of churches and youth groups, and everyone else. Everybody says that WWJD looks like a trend that isn''t going to go away." But, is all this a good thing?
Is WWJD merely the Pet Rock or the mood ring of the late ''90s? Or is it more than a fad? What exactly would Jesus do? "Well, are we talking about the historical Jesus or the religious Jesus?" wonders philosopher Sam Keen. "Jesus could be a very good role model for young people. Who else have they got? Leonardo DiCaprio? I''d rather have people asking ''What would Jesus do?'' than ''What would Leonardo do?''" Keen is the author of Fire in the Belly, Hymns to an Unknown God and To Love and Be Loved.
"What you have to remember in looking at someone like Jesus, or the Buddha, and questioning what they would have done in a particular situation, is that they themselves were separate from the religion that came to be based on them. Buddha wasn''t a Buddhist. And Jesus," Keen laughs, "was certainly not a Christian. At least not in the way we think of Christianity today." So what do Christians say Jesus would do?
A quick scan of all the related Websites and the various books devoted to the matter reveals an unflinchingly fundamentalist consensus: that Jesus would do what he was told to do.
One anonymous contributor, identified only as a non-denominational minister, writes on one WWJD message board, "Jesus always did his Father''s will. Instead of asking, ''What would Jesus do?'' we should ask, ''What is God''s will for me?'' It''s always the same answer."
It is this religious Jesus, "the Jesus of the Bible, my Lord and Savior" that Mike Armstrong, who manages the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, thinks about when he catches a glimpse of the bracelet he''s been wearing for over a year now. For him, there is no separation. "Jesus is the son of God, and he has two major commandments: Honor God as God, and Honor one another." He sees his bracelet as both a witnessing tool and a personal reminder. "It''s amazing to me," he says, "how much this silly little bracelet makes me more accountable. In this kind of hectic society, where everyone''s trying to make a buck, or close a deal, it''s a great reminder."
But what about Jesus the historical figure? "In all of ancient literature, there doesn''t seem to be any other human being, that I''m aware of, who had the degree of openness that Jesus had," muses author Reynolds Price. Price is the award-winning author of The Three Gospels (Scribner, 1996), his careful translation of the Gospels of Mark and John, along with his own version, titled An Honest Account of a Memorable Life. Fond of calling himself, "an outlaw Christian," Price observes, "Asking ''What would Jesus do?'' is a very loaded question. If Jesus wasn''t an outlaw, what the hell else was he?
"The fact that all the Gospels affirm that Jesus was very available to all sorts of outsiders within his own culture," Price further observes, "strongly seems to suggest that he was not a big condemner of anybody." As far as being a role model of abstinence and sobriety, which the WWJD movement seems to take as a given, Price points to the tale of the wedding feast in Canaan, when he turned water into wine in order to keep the party going. As for sex . . .
"Jesus says almost nothing about sex," Price says. "Christianity''s obsession with sex comes almost entirely from Paul, not Jesus. "I think the more we go into the question of, ''Who actually was this guy from Nazareth--as opposed to the guy up on the dome of St. Peter''s,'' then I think the WWJD question becomes even more mysterious."
That mystery is being overlooked by the sound-bite nature of WWJD, according to Peninsula resident Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade (Harper, 1987), and Sacred Pleasure (Harper, 1995), both of which examine the dichotomies of religion. "What kids really need is a second and third and fourth sentence," she says, "emphasizing the empathy, caring and non-violence Jesus practiced."
Eisler sees WWJD as a cross between a market-driven sales device and a way for the church to get kids to "blindly accept their version of what Christianity is all about. There is a striking dissimilarity between organized religion and what we can glean from what Jesus taught," she says. "So much of fundamentalist Christian leaders'' message is violence in the name of God--bombing clinics and killing physicians, inciting hate towards feminists, gays, immigrants--all the socially disempowered groups."
She also notes that Jesus didn''t follow the laws of the day, when he perceived them to be unjust. "He was remarkably able to ask what was right," she says. And what was right wasn''t always lawful. Jesus hung around with and stood up for women, which was illegal in that sexually segregated time.
So Jesus was an open-minded guy? He pushed the envelope a little on the social morays of his time?
"Very much so," says Dr. Robert Funk. "Jesus was the ultimate barrier breaker. The kingdom of God, as he envisioned it, had no social barriers. He said, ''Love your enemies!'' He deliberately associated with the riffraff of society." Jesus, of course, would have given to the poor, right? "Well, he was one of them," laughs Funk. "He was homeless. He never had much, but he shared what he had and trusted God to provide for the next day."
Funk is the founder of the Westar Institute in Santa Rosa, which each year hosts a controversial international "think tank" known as The Jesus Seminar. Devoted to separating the historical Jesus from the iconic Jesus, the seminar examines the Gospels in order to determine which acts and sayings Jesus may have actually been responsible for, and which were added or revised years later by the early fathers of the church. Funk is the author of Honest to Jesus and the just-released Acts of Jesus (Harper Collins).
"A good role model," he adds, "is somebody who can look up and see the larger issues of life, and be willing to sacrifice oneself to those larger issues. That kind of selflessness is worthy of emulation. Along with Jesus I''d place Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and Socrates--but it''s interesting to notice how many of these people were martyred. People of this sort, people who are so utterly good and so utterly self-transcendent, seem to be a threat to the rest of us."
Katherine Neville, of West Virginia, is the best-selling author of the metaphysical adventure novels The Eight (Ballantine, 1986) and the recently published, The Magic Circle (Ballantine), which begins in Jerusalem during Jesus last week on Earth.
"If we''re being absolutely faithful to Jesus'' example," she muses, "we''d have to give up all our possessions and put on sackcloth and sandals. That''s what Jesus did...but that seems to have nothing to do with this lengthy list of possessions you can now buy to remind you to ask what Jesus would do. Bracelets, watches, coffee mugs, CDs--Jesus would say, give all that away!"
This story originally appeared in the Sonoma Independent. Additional local reporting by Tracy Hamilton .