(Caution: There may be some blasphemy in the following message, although it is certainly unintended.)
This past cold Christmas morning I took a traditional dogwalk through San Francisco’s fabled Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. It was pretty much empty of people on the streets, as almost all businesses are closed and so many San Franciscans leave town for the holidays. But left behind were a fair number of unfortunate souls lying in doorways, some with sleeping bags, some without, some with dogs and some without. I found an old Esquire magazine on a bench, and there was an article from 1969 detailing "The Last Bad Days of the Haight-Ashbury" (by John Luce, then a budding journalist but soon after and now an esteemed physician at SF General Hospital). It's quite a read, detailing how not long after the 1967 “Summer of Love,” the hippie dream had quickly devolved into a sordid dangerous speedfreak nightmare. But what struck me most were how city officials and neighborhood groups then tried to deal with "street people" by banning sleeping bags and loitering. Some things don't change, I guess (such measures failed then, too).
But I was also thinking of the figure for whom this Christmas is named, and could not help but recall the once-popular slogan "What Would Jesus Do?" Don't worry, I cannot pretend to know, and certainly don't want to indulge in sanctimony here. But here are some thoughts which arose on my walk anyway.
When I was an aspiring beach bum in Southern California, coastal Orange County was a locus of the Christian "born again" movement. In retrospect this was a somewhat predictable reaction to the crazed and chaotic sixties counterculture movement and all that entailed, but in any event, many people became new Christians, some temporarily and some permanently. The movement became widespread enough that "Pray for Surf" became a slogan even in the famously hedonistic beach culture - which even then seemed a fairly selfish thing to pray for. There were lots of young men around who looked a lot like our most common image of Jesus - in other words, hippies (of course, "peace and love" was the most dominant hippie slogan, and it would seem Jesus would agree with that - if not with some of the other hippie hallmarks). Some of them wandered the streets and beaches, handing out Christian literature and seeking new converts.
The handout I most recall was a deceptively small red pamphlet of twenty pages or so titled "The REAL Bible." It contained only the words of Jesus himself, with no other commentary or other content. Now, theologians argue endlessly about the actual words of Jesus, and there is much room for debate — as most were written down hundreds of years after he lived after being preserved only orally, just compare that with a game of ‘telephone” wherein a single slogan is whispered aroudn a table for the possibility of mistranslation.
But anyway, I did read “The Real Bible,” and then and now, was was surprised and impressed with some of the sentiments and admonishments attributed to the central figure of the Christian faith. Even as a teen, my world had already begun to strike me as overly materialistic, judgmental, even hypocritical. Long before, I had rebelled against going to church anymore with my devout mother and did not consider myself a true "Christian" (I'm pretty sure I still do not qualify - there is far too much pain and suffering in this world for me to believe in any kind of benevolent deity). "My church is the beach" I once proclaimed to my concerned mom, who refrained from slapping me for being such a pompous brat.
So, what did Jesus have to tell us — or at least people in his own time? Again, from a scholarly, historical perspective, it's hard to know exactly what he said, and there are many translations and even more interpretations. But some consistent words and themes have survived via the Bible. A select few quotes:
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
"What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?"
"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven"
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."
"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
"Judge not, that you be not judged."
"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
"But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
There are more, of course, but those are among my favorites. I don’t qualify as a Christian, as I just can’t seem to believe in a diety who would allow so much suffering among the innocent on our planet. But even beyond that, Jesus’ admonitions present a mighty tall order for human behavior and commitment, perhaps especially in modern times, but likely whenever and wherever people have striven to resist self-centeredness and the assaults of daily life. Some of Jesus' admonitions would seem to me to perhaps make some wealthy people nervous, and to give pause to many of the self-professed Christians who invoke their faith in judging others. But such people seem to find ways to justify their actions and words, and remain often faithfully untroubled. As somebody once remarked, the human conscience often seems to be able to subsist on very questionable food. But also, for all the harm done in the name of religion, there has also been much good work, and much solace given. My greatest respect is for those many religious people, professional or not, who work to help others while tending to keep their faith to themselves. That's a beautiful thing.
So, my overall perspective is found elsewhere in the Bible - "Ye shall know them by their fruits," or "By their deeds you shall know them." Or, as more commonly and modernly translated, "actions speak louder than words." I've been unable to do better than the great polymath intellectual and novelist Aldous Huxley, who, towards the end of his life said he was somewhat embarrassed to be able to sum up all his learning by saying that we all should "try to be a little kinder."
It's raining hard this afternoon and I am just grateful to have a roof over my head, unlike some of those poor people just down the hill. My local so-called “neighborhood associations”, aided by local politicians and journalists, are still seeking to make life a bit harder for such people, in the hopes that they might just go away. Which reminds me of one more quote from Jesus: “Whatever you do unto the least of my brethren, you do unto me." Chew on that one, yuppies and politicians who profess to be Christians. It seems to me our world, or at least our nation, would be a very different place if even a select few of the “Christians” in places of power really took to hear the now-hackneyed question, What Would Jesus Do? Many of us probably would prefer not to know.