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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 20–22 

What Would Jesus Do?

Response to “Case Study” by Louis B. Weeks 18/1 (1989): 13–16.

Stephen Penner

Jeanne and Dalton Weiss have two problems. How do they explain to their nearly sixteen year old daughter that it is important to make a statement about their society’s exploitive use of natural resources? What responsibilities have they for their daughter?

Asking what Jesus might do . . . is not a bad place . . . to begin.

Jeanne and Dalton Weiss could easily resolve their problem. As Christians they have only to revamp their theology. They need to remember, with many brothers and sisters around them, that faith should primarily produce a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Christianity is a matter of right belief and all they need to do is give intellectual assent to the key things God has done for them. Then they could be comfortable. Of importance is belief in a God whose grace has come to them through Jesus Christ. Then they can revel the rest of their days in the strong arms of their loving Savior.

Instead Jeanne and Dalton Weiss have determined that their Christian faith must apply to the mundane things of life. They feel their faith relates to practical necessities like cars, home appliances, food, recreation, clothes, money, air, and jobs. Furthermore, they believe these are matters worth talking about with their Christian friends. Their faith brings them to sober reflection about mundane things. {21}

One of the earlier ethical teachings I received was simply to ask the question: “What would Jesus do if he were in your shoes?” The advice was pertinent for dealing with a bully on the playground, or in knowing what to say to one’s parents about last night, or in buying a new house. Jeanne and Dalton Weiss are basically asking this simple question in deciding about a car.

Asking what Jesus might do in a particular late 20th century situation is not a bad place for a Christian to begin. It forces you to jump across a myriad of cultural and social chasms. Do the dietary habits of Jesus have anything to say to modern North Americans? How does one relate Jesus’ relaxed attitude towards money with our clear penchant to save for our retirement and our children’s education? This kind of biblical thinking is not easy. But Jeanne and Dalton Weiss have decided that their faith calls them to make the effort.

There are other questions a person can ask. First, “Can you afford it?” or “Who might be harmed if the purchase is made?” Does spending the money on a second car mean someone else will not eat? Besides economic factors, the decision could be made based on social factors. What is fair and just for daughter Susan? In her formative years, isn’t it important that she fit in with her friends?

Several years ago my wife and I started thinking about getting a new car. For eleven years we had been a one car family. We thought about trading in our aging vehicle for a good used one. Then, after some careful calculation, we discovered we could actually afford buying a good used car, in addition to keeping our old one. We first recognized that purchasing a second car was feasible economically.

Next, we considered convenience. I need not always ride my bike to work. If one of us were off to a meeting, the other would not be car-less. When one car was in the shop, the other one would be available. Convenience became an important argument in building our case.

We compared ourselves with our friends. Nearly all of them had two cars, not just one. We wouldn’t be out of step or be considered too materialistic in comparison. Besides, we reasoned, we would be buying a good used car, not a new one.

Then we wondered, at least for a short while, about what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes. Would Jesus buy a second car? We thought about friends in far away Africa who {22} will never own one car in their entire lives. Would our second car rob others, in effect, of the basic necessities of life? We talked about how faithful we had been in tithing.

In the end we decided to join the great host of North Americans who own two cars. We bought the good used car. We could afford it. It has been convenient. Our friends didn’t give us a bad time for our decision. What I don’t know, however, is if Jesus would buy a good used second car.

How should we approach ethical problems such as Jeanne and Dalton Weiss face? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Always say “No” at least a couple of times before seriously contemplating a “Yes” answer.
  2. As adults we should not use our children to teach the world a lesson.
  3. It is important to discuss ethical issues in Christian community. It is valuable to hear the feedback of a small group or Sunday school class.
  4. We should purposely place ourselves on the trailing edge of technology. There is no need to be the first in line for every new device advertised to improve our lives.
  5. Check if a “Yes” answer (such as buying the second car) relates to a corresponding drop-off in your concern for worldwide needs. Is your focus still outward, and characterized by gifts, letters, membership in causes, and other visible symbols of support for people in need?
  6. Ask what Jesus would do if he were in your shoes.
Stephen Penner is Director of West Coast Mennonite Central Committee.

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