Friday, August 27, 2010

WWJD: Revisited

A while ago I sat in my criminal procedure class in 206 of the law building. My professor posed the question: "If He had to choose, would Christ would be a prosecutor or a defense attorney?" He paused for while to let the question sink it. One class member answered the question. The professor agreed with the student: "That's right, He would be a defense attorney!" I balked. It reminded me of an experience I had about a decade ago on a bus trip back to Idaho.

We had finished our tournament and were on the way back home to Meridian, Idaho. As the only LDS member on the adolescent bible quiz team (we scrutinized the book of Luke that year), I was more curious than most because I was accustomed to LDS rather than mainstream Christian church groups. I remember this bus trip because of a single conversation I overheard between two adult leaders of the group. They were discussing capital punishment and concluded that Christ would not pull the trigger on an execution squad charged with killing a convicted murderer in a country than condoned capital punishment. I remember disagreeing with their conclusion. I still do- and I disagree with the conclusion of my criminal procedure professor as well.

What Would Jesus Do? I would like to address this question in three ways:

1) Argue that a better question is WWJHMD (What Would Jesus Have Me Do),
2) Argue that Christ is not as "soft" as He is often perceived to be, and
3) Argue that Christ should be emulated because of his admirable way of being. His way of being is as much or more admirable than his behavior.

1) A better question is WWJHMD, What Would Jesus Have Me Do,
The most recent time I can recall being asked this question is about three months ago. I was a coordinator for Especially For Youth and part of my job was to decide when to sent rule-breaking youth home. A number of rules will get you sent home for breaking them, such as using drugs, breaking the law of chastity, or committing violence on others. This particular kid swore, listened to hard music, refused to wear his program T-shirt, complained loudly when disciplined, and refused to obey his counselor (among other things). I pulled him aside on day 1 and told him straight up I'd send him home if he didn't follow the program, obey his counselor, and reform some of the identified behaviors. He committed to change, but continued his behaviors. Long story short, we decided to send him home. Mine was the task of telling the parents to come get him- well, this mother didn't want to come get him, she was on vacation, the kid caused trouble at home, etc.- and she tried to convince me to let him stay, using "he's in the hands of the church," and "he promises to be better," etc. When I continued to insist, she asked me the big WWJD. I was a bit dumbfounded, in my head asking, "Did she really just pull the "what would Jesus do" card?" Yes, yes she did.

I claim that the question WWJHMD is superior to the WWJD question because not one of us is Jesus. Each of us has a specific, individual mission in life. Generally, we have the same imperative that Jesus did to surrender to God's will, but God's will for Jesus is different than His will for Jessica or Johnny or Hafid. If I were to respond correctly to the WWJD question, I would have to fast 40 days and nights and point people to myself for their salvation and call apostles and ensure that I get crucified at about age 32. However, that is not my mission any more than John Wycliffe had the same mission in life as Noah. My life's path as well as my response in particular circumstances will be dependent on 1) my unique mission, 2) my unique character, and 3) my unique history- all three of which are different than the Savior's.

By the way, my answer to the mother in the story was - "Well, I don't know what Jesus would do, I'm not him, but I'll tell you what I'm going to do..." and sent the kid home.

2) Christ is not as "soft" as He is often perceived to be
In both the rebellious teen and bus ride conversation stories above, adults perceived that Jesus would unerringly choose the "softer" of two alternatives. I'm not sure from where people get this idea of Christ being so soft and merciful. He is the Jehovah of the Old Testament as well as the Savior of the new. It was He who, though He had the power to choose otherwise:
-Sent down fire and brimstone on Sodom
-Consumed Korah and His followers (Numbers 16)
-Commanded the wholesale slaughter of men, women, and innocent children when the Israelites entered Canaan and at other times (e.g. "utterly adestroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling..." 1 Sam. 15:3) (also after killing all the men Midianites, under the Lord's direction Moses commanded to kill all the rest except the virgins, leaving them for the conquerors: Num. 31: 17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.   18 But all the awomen children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.")
-Claimed credit for the burning, crushing, and drowning of countless thousands in the New World destruction around 33 AD (see 3 Nephi 9:3-12)
-Promised continued punishment by noting that his striking arm was "stretched out still" (see e.g. Isa. 9, 5:25, 10:4, and 2 Nephi analogs)
-Accused and judged hundreds during His mortal ministry as hypocrites and sinners
-Repeatedly threatened and tried to frighten people (I count about 162 instances of His wrath in the bible alone and about 252 of His anger - see Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible)
-Followed through on countless threats of violence (the scriptures are replete with examples of the Lord's anger and wrath, e.g. destruction of Ammonihah, destruction of Nephites, destruction of Philistines, scattering of Israel, the worldwide flood in Noah's day, etc.)
-Judged/accused sinners dozens of times (see e.g. Matthew 23, D & C 50:6-8, and Matthew 7:5 just on the one sin of hypocrisy)
- I hope there's no doubt that I could go on providing instances of Christ's choosing a "hard" alternative instead of a "soft" one.

I think this perception reflects a one-sided view of Christ. It perceives and hears the yin but is blind to the yang. How familiar are these scriptures:
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the aleft hand, bDepart from me, ye ccursed, into everlasting dfire, eprepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an ahungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the aleast of these, ye did it not to me. (Matt 25)
34 And whoso believeth not in me, and is not abaptized, shall be damned. (also repeated in D & C 68:9, Ether 4:18, and D & C 112: 29). 3 Ne. 11: 34
23 And he that adoubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of bfaith is csin. Romans 14:23 or
24 And if they will not repent and believe in his aname, and be baptized in his name, and bendure to the end, they must be cdamned; for the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has spoken it.
Therefore, though Christ is certainly merciful, it is erroneous to categorize Him as less "hard" or exacting than the Father. Neither can look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, and both are perfectly unified in agreement as to how to handle any circumstance. There's no permission shopping with the Godhead: "let's go ask Mom because Dad would say no." The Father and the Son are one. All the attributes of the Father are those of the Son, and vice versa. Speaking of the Father, Elder Maxwell taught: "Too many Christians believe in God as a “kindly Grandfather,” who indulges us, who is indifferent when we sin. The God of the gospel is a loving Father, who in loving us is willing for us to endure pain if that is necessary for us to grow. He is not a mere “Life Force”; he is the kind of Father who is committed to our growth and who loves us enough to trust us to each other, knowing the harsh consequences of that decision." Neal A. Maxwell, "Spiritual Ecology", New Era, Feb. 1975, 35.  Therefore, if it is morally upright to uphold the law in executing a criminal, Christ would not (and has not) refrain(ed) from bringing down the axe.
Similarly, in the scenario of whether Christ would prosecute or defend, I assert that He would not prefer one over the other. Presuming that both are vital to a just system (a valid presumption in my view- in our courts both sides require zealous advocacy to protect against a breach of justice from the unfairness which would otherwise result, and without prosecutors criminal laws properly instituted by the people would lose all semblance of efficacy), he would probably split his service half as a prosecutor and half as a defense attorney. I don't think Christ would shirk from "getting his hands dirty" if the job is an honest and necessary one.
3) Christ should be emulated because of his admirable way of being. His way of being is as much or more admirable than his behavior.
Third, I argue that Christ is much more than a paragon of proper behavior. It is His heart that we should seek to emulate in addition to his patterns of action. Any behavior can be done with at least two underlying orientations of the heart- two ways of being toward the action's object.
Put your shoulder to the wheel; push along, Do your duty with a heart full of song,
You can put your shoulder to the wheel in either of at least two ways: grudgingly or "with a heart full of song."

Another example. A father can send a misbehaving child to her room. The father could be oriented toward the child thus: "my daughter is an annoyance and her misbehavior embarrasses me. She should know better. I'm angry at her for causing me this inconvenience. It is only just that she should then go to her room - I'm the dad here." Or, his way of being, the direction of his heart toward her, might be: "this child is my daughter. She is a person with hopes and fears and weaknesses just like me. She is also a child and thus needs my help while she's young to learn about consequences so that she can eventually learn self-discipline, which will preserve her liberty." In the first instance, the father views her as an object (in this case, an obstacle to his peace); in the second, as a person.

Thus, in a particular situation Christ might act in a particular way (e.g. telling the woman caught in adultery to go her way [a "soft" example] or casting out the moneychangers [a "hard" example]); but regardless of the hardness or softness of his external behavior, His internal orientation toward the object of his action is unquestionably pure, truthful, and loving, and He sees that person as He or she is, a beloved daughter or son of God. "Jesus, Lover of my Soul" (hymn 102) shows us the way we can love our neighbor- not only by how we treat them but by how we choose to view them. Not quite the way we feel towards them, since our control over our emotions is only partial, but how we choose orient ourselves toward a person, independent of our interactions with them in the physical world.  Even during conflict with opponents, we can avoid the spirit of contention through this internal orientation that comes when we follow Christ's counsel: "44 But behold I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you; 45 That ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise an the evil and on the good."

For a more complete exploration of this concept, please see Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute (which rocked my paradigmical world) or Anatomy of Peace by the same author.

I imagine that I'll probably look back on some of my blogs later on with a bit of chagrin at my short-sightedness or failure to consider other relevant ideas. However, I still think the discussion is valuable, based on this cool quote:
"Ignorance is more likely to be overcome by self-exposure than concealment."

Okay, so I made that quote up. But the principle is true, and the alternative to thinking through one's world is to accept a worldview with a "God of the gaps" (see Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God). Plus, being quick to observe and having a sober mind are desirable qualities (see Mormon 1:2). The pattern to revelation and understanding God's mysteries hinges upon thinking and pondering (see 1 Nephi 11:1 and TG: ponder). As long as I know my positions are based on incomplete information and logical flaws, I avoid the greater deception of not only being wrong, but also thinking I'm right while so doing- non decipitur qui scit se decipi "he is not deceived who knows that he is deceived."


  1. Brad, are you entirely comfortable attributing to Jesus the sometimes horrible acts purported to be commanded by God in the scriptures? I'm sure you allow for human error in attribution of divine will? Do you allow for that in scripture authors?

  2. Not entirely. You sound like another friend of mine, a certain Judge Griffith, who is also hesitant to ascribe the slaughter of many innocents to Jesus. I would back off a little bit on some of the prophetic action (i.e. to allow for human error), but would maintain my position based on two LDS tenets.
    1) Prophetic infallibility- it is a central dogma of LDS divine command theorists that God will not permit the prophet to lead the church astray. Now perhaps this allows for a lot of leeway, as long as the prophet is not way off course in leading the church; however, in substantive movements such as commanding the Israelite army to sack the Midianites, this caveat seems less tenable as an explanation.
    2) Many of my other examples are more direct (no prophet intermediary) and bring about results we consider to be good and/or necessary. Additional ones: We have reason to think that God commanded Abraham to kill his innocent son; we have reason to believe a voice in Nephi's head (the Spirit) specifically told him to slay an unconscious, defenseless man. The law of Moses, which in many instances requires homicide, is considered very direct from Jehovah. Jesus takes direct credit for natural disasters resulting in genocide, such as Noah's flood. Taken together these pieces of evidence show that Jesus is not averse to killing individuals or masses in at least many instances. Other harsh examples could be proffered (such as the carrying off to Babylon of Israel), but death is sufficiently harsh to illustrate the thesis. Further, the other cited examples evince my point that Jesus is no different than God, and that both are appear in many instances to be quite stern.

  3. My understanding was that prophetic infallibility was not LDS doctrine. In fact, all sort so of caveats have been placed around this by other leaders who have explained that a prophet is only a prophet when speaking as such, etc etc. Regardless, I have other LDS quotes, arguably from weightier authorities like JS, that repudiate this notion, if you're interested in playing prophet poker. But for me, I feel comfortable in saying that I simply don't think it's right or true. I don't think that Wilford Woodruff was correct when he said that the prophet could not lead the Church astray. I think it's possible and it largely depends on what we desire as a people. That's my opinion.

    I equally think that it is not necessary for us to engage in apologetics for OT barbarism. While I believe God would theoretically approve of the use of physical force in many different circumstances, I don't think that all of the circumstances in the Bible were anywhere remotely close to his will. In fact, I don't even think that many of them happened. I think they consist of gloss upon gloss of oral history to the point where the reality is probably very far from the current myth.

  4. By the way, the two references I usually use to argue against prophetic infallibility are Mosiah 27:13 ( and D&C 124:32 ( Both of these scriptures point to transgression of commandments as a potential means of overthrowing God's church. I don't think this possibility ever completely goes away.

  5. I would agree that prophetic infallibility is not LDS doctrine. You may note my qualifying phrase, "LDS divine command theorists." It seems that many church members are divine command theorists that rely without much question on prophetic declarations, but that doesn't mean necessarily that they're in line with LDS doctrine. To the contrary, I think that such a position is largely incompatible with LDS doctrine (

    I don't agree with you yet that 1) Woodruff was incorrect or that 2) OT barbarism doesn't elicit apologetics or that 3) the Bible's historicity is tenuous- perhaps this reflects my as-yet tenacious grip on Newtonian Mormonism. However, you're certainly not alone in these three camps, and I may join them all sooner or later.

    As mentioned in my comment above, my second tenet survives to support my thesis even if prophetic infallibility fails.

  6. Brad, I think you have a major problem with your argument here, because your approach to the events in question needs to be defined first before you examine their impact.

    I don't think that it is obvious to anyone that Yahweh's actions in any of the cases you cite are indicative of "an admirable way of being." I understand that you come from a foundation of belief, but this claim is difficult to swallow. There is good reason to doubt that these events even happened historically, as Carl pointed out.

    I would like you to provide an apologetic to these cases before you use them to gain insights about God's nature. You seem to be jumping the gun, as it were.

    I also think that WWJD is used to represent "maximum altruistic behavior" instead of referencing Christ's life in particular.

  7. In addition, Brad, I don't think your second tenet survives the problem of prophetic infallibility. Who wrote the scriptures?

  8. Chris, I think perhaps you are right that my argument jumps the gun because 1) it fails to explicitly recognize the assumed foundation of belief and 2) I presume the historicity of the scriptures in a literalistic way which may not be merited. Even some of those working from a foundation of belief would part ways with me there. Also, as you note, my second tenet does rely on the prophetic recording; thus, the tenet is upset if prophetic infallibility fails.


    Thanks for pointing those out.


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