When I was young in the late 1990’s among my rather conservative christian friends WWJD, what would Jesus do, became a popular motto. There were books and bracelets all with the purpose of helping young christians make good life choices, act in a way that demonstrated the depth of their faith and remain “pure”. The question, "what would Jesus do?", was to be asked when you were faced with a tough decision, though in practice I found the question my peers actually asked was, "what would my pastor say that Jesus would approve of?". WWJD was a sneaky way of reminding youth that Jesus was always watching, which meant that you had to make good choices, particularly when it came to sexuality.
In full disclosure, I must admit, that I too was on the WWJD bandwagon for a while. I had the book, though I found it less than helpful and I wore the iconic woven bracelets, several at a time in fact, there may have even been some beads… Though for me, because of my rather alternative Christian upbringing and given the examples we have of Jesus’s more radical acts of over turning tables, talking with unaccompanied women from the “wrong” social class who may or may not be prostitutes or adulterers, sharing a meal with the outcasts of society, starting riots and ensuing social movements, the question of “what would Jesus do” seemed like a powerful question that if used properly could change the course of history not just our budding sex lives. For me the question of “what would Jesus do”, become “who would Jesus love"”, everyone even gay people, “Who would Jesus wear?”, clearly not an animal or clothing made by slave children in India, and “What would Jesus protest?”, war, landmines and nuclear weapons, obviously.
At the ripe age of 15 I attend a national youth even in the Colorado. One of the events we could participate in was a protest at a missile silo, a nuclear missile storage facility. We arrived by school bus on a straight dirt road, lined by a high wire fence that encompassing a small unimpressive building. The missile, we were told, was stored underground. Armed with drums, candles and peace protest songs from the 1960’s I and about other 100 teenagers marched up and down the hot and dusty road. It was one of the more sacred and holy experiences of my teenage faith journey. Of course, 100 harmless teenagers marching in a circle don’t go unnoticed. A few police cars showed up and calmly and politely they had us sit down and used zip-ties to bind our wrists, in front of us. Looking back, I think it was mostly for show and possible to scare us out of any future more radical protest inclinations. At the time I felt brave and have long worn it as a badge of honor. But my experience of “doing what Jesus would do” reeks of my privilege. I was never in danger, my life and body were never threatened.
This week I watched live Facebook video from a straight road lined with wire fence in rural North Dakota, I saw lives and bodies of color brutalized by militarized police forces. I was reminded of my youthful experience as I watched equally young Indigenous girls and boys standing up against machine guns and tear-gas, their lives and bodies truly threatened and in danger by the North Dakota state police force.
Native People from over 300 tribal nations have gathered in Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota to protect sacred land, water and lives. Since Europeans first arrived in North America the Native nations have been systematically decimated. Over and over again treaties that blatantly took advantage of Native Nations, under the guise of providing them protected land, have been broken and ignored. In an article for Yes Magazine, Indigenous woman, Kelly Hayes writes;
“It is crucial that people recognize that Standing Rock is part of an ongoing struggle against colonial violence. #NoDAPL is a front of struggle in a long-erased war against Native peoples — a war that has been active since first contact, and waged without interruption. Our efforts to survive the conditions of this anti-Native society have gone largely unnoticed because white supremacy is the law of the land, and because we, as Native people, have been pushed beyond the limits of public consciousness.”
She goes on;
“In discussing #NoDAPL, too few people have started from a place of naming that we have a right to defend our water and our lives, simply because we have a natural right to defend ourselves and our communities. When “climate justice”, in a very broad sense, becomes the center of conversation, our fronts of struggle are often reduced to a staging ground for the messaging of NGOs. … Yes, everyone should be talking about climate change, but you should also be talking about the fact that Native communities deserve to survive, because our lives are worth defending in their own right — not simply because “this affects us all.””1
What would Jesus do? Who would Jesus protest? Were would Jesus show up? I firmly believe that Jesus would show up in Standing Rock. He would stand alongside the Native people and defend their sacred land not because he wanted to save or convert them but because he has a long history of standing up for the people on the margins, he has a long history of showing up with the people pushed aside and taken advantage of by the people in power.
Marcus Borg, a modern theologian and writer, talks extensively about Jesus speaking out agains a culture of purity. In his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, he writes;
“It is in the context of a purity system that created a world with sharp social boundaries between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, that we can see the sociopolitical significance of compassion. In the message and activity of Jesus, we see an alternative social vision: a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion. ... We see the challenge to the purity system not only is Jesus’ teaching but in many of his activities. The stories of his healing shatter the purity boundaries of his social world. He touches lepers and hemorrhaging women. He entered a graveyard inhabited by a man with a “legion” of unclean spirt and. … He frequently ate with outcasts. ... Whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes. For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning…The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.”2
My WWJD bracelets were intended to be a reminder to maintain purity, a reminder to make good choices because Jesus was always watching. Instead, I took that message of purity in a different direction. I will no longer tout my youthful protest experience as a badge of faithful courage. It was a lesson, a decade long lesson, of learning and trusting that Jesus is leading us towards the margins, Jesus is calling us to breakdown societal purity standards and calling us toward inclusive compassion that values and protects all people, especially those who society has deemed expendable, unclean, unworthy, and deemed un-valuable.
Standing Rock is part of the ongoing struggle against colonization. It is also about protecting sacred ground, places where generations of ancestors are buried. It is also about protecting one of the Counties largest water sources. During WildWood Gathering, I read these words by Linda Hogan, about the value and importance of water. I invited everyone to dip your hands in a bowl of water with glass stones in it, and take one of the small glass stones in the bottom as a tactile reminder and invitation to stand with the Nations at Standing Rock.
“Photographs from space reveal that Earth is a water planet. No living thing survives without water. It is for that reason space explorers search for planets that may contain this element; it is a sign of life.
Most First People have chants or songs about the sacred nature of water. Water is even used for baptism in Christian religions. I hear that even the waters have their distinct songs as they journey toward the oceans.
We live on a single globe of water, all of it one entity. It is alive, this elemental force, this yearning sacred creation, longing to reach an ocean. This is our body, and perhaps we are a part of its soul. It is always moving away, traveling and then returning, in its glorious circle. And we know that when we sing for water, we sing for ourselves.”3
1. Kelly Hayes, “Remember This When You Talk About Standing Rock,” Yes! Magazine, October 28, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/how-to-talk-about-standing-rock-20161028.
2. Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: the Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (HarperOne, 1995).
3. Linda Hogan, “Why We Are Singing for Water—in Front of Men with Guns and Surveillance Helicopters,” Yes! Magazine, October 4, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/to-the-standing-rock-sioux-who-are-singing-for-water-20161004.