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What WOULD Jesus Do?

The Evolution and Challenges of #WWJD on International Sex Workers Day

On June 2nd 1975, approximately 100 women and mothers who traded sex for resources occupied Saint-Nizier Church in Lyon, France, to express their anger about their criminalized and exploitative living conditions. They hung a banner from the steeple which read ‘Our children do not want their mothers to go to jail’, and launched a media campaign to broadcast their grievances to the world. Their action made national and international news headlines, started a strike that involved sex workers from all over France, and created a legacy of activism that is celebrated each year on International Sex Workers’ Day, originally International Whores Day (IWD), though changed in recent years to a more universally palatable cultural vernacular.


The sex workers occupying Saint-Nizier Church demanded an end to police harassment, the re-opening of the hotels where they worked, and a proper investigation into a series of sex worker murders. Sex workers in other French towns heard of the occupation in Lyon and, in solidarity, took sanctuary in churches in Marseille, Grenoble, Montpellier and Paris. Across the country, French sex workers joined the action by taking part in an eight-day long strike.


Worth highlighting is that sex workers “went to church” for this purpose and the occupation made national headlines and was reported internationally sparking the sex workers rights movement. Local people supported the woman and brought clothes and food. The parish priest, the Rev. Antonin Bdal, refused to call the police to remove the women. However, acting on Government orders, the police forcibly cleared the church after eight days on 10 June. In fact, despite the national impact of the protest, the police refused to engage with the protestors’ grievances and threatened increasingly harsh punishments and it is widely believed that the police were actually complicit in the disappearances of the women that spared the origins grievance. Eventually, the police cleared the church after eight days and, though the occupation and strike did not result in law reform, sex worker activists credit it as the spark that ignited the contemporary sex workers’ rights movement in Europe and the UK.


The church in Lyon played a significant supportive role in the 1975 occupation by these modern organizers. Specifically by refusing to call the police to remove the occupying workers, this act of solidarity allowed the protest to continue for eight days, giving the sex workers a safe haven and a platform to voice their grievances. The church's willingness to provide sanctuary and the supportive actions of Rev. Bdal and the local community were pivotal in amplifying the demands of the mothers who were dearly loved, and drawing national and international attention to their plight.

This begs the question, “What WOULD Jesus Do” if faced with hundreds of hard working mothers and their children begging to not be taken to jail, to be free from being targeted by police for harassment and arrest and to receive compassion and assistance in fighting against stigma and discrimination.

Jesus was well known to  interact with and show kindness to those whom society often shunned, such as lepers, tax collectors, and “sinners” (Matthew 9:10-13; Luke 5:27-32). Jesus was an advocate for justice, often speaking out against hypocrisy and societal injustices (Matthew 23; Luke 4:18-19). His teachings on justice might lead him to support efforts to protect human rights, not yet “a thing”, and he was particularly careful to treat people with dignity and respect, even in the face of significant social stigma, exploitation, and violence.

But Gospel or no, Jesus could be a little hot headed and impulsive when he saw “behaviors” he did not care for. An excellent example of this would be his famous “Cleansing of the Temple” described in all four Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Jesus' anger is specifically directed towards the commercialization and exploitation happening in the temple, a place meant for worship. He is upset that the sacred space is being used for profit, especially at the expense of those coming to worship. He drove out those who were buying and selling animals for sacrifices, as well as overturning the tables of the money changers. He declared that the temple should be a house of prayer, not a den of robbers, emphasizing the importance of keeping the temple a sacred place dedicated to worship and spiritual reflection (Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46). The presence of money changers and merchants in the temple courtyards represented the exploitation of pilgrims and worshippers. These traders often took advantage of the people coming to the temple for worship by charging exorbitant prices for sacrificial animals and unfair exchange rates for currency. Jesus condemned these practices as corrupt and exploitative. It doesn’t take a theologian to determine that Jesus might have had some “feedback” on the treatment of people who traded sex for resources. 


Jesus’ teachings emphasize the inherent worth and dignity of every person, regardless of their social status or past actions. This had to be as challenging in Jesus life and times, as it is now. Intolerance and the human desire for assignation of blame has always been a human instinct. Modern societies often seek scapegoats for economic, social, or political issues, whether immigrants, religious minorities, or other marginalized groups. Jesus’ approach challenges this instinct, advocating for understanding, compassion, and justice instead of blame. 


The phrase "What Would Jesus Do?"—now searchable by the hashtags #WWJD and #WhatWouldJesusDo—originated from the late 19th century. This concept was popularized by Charles Sheldon, a minister in Topeka, Kansas, through his 1896 book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? The novel tells the story of a minister who challenges his congregation to ask themselves "What would Jesus do?" before making any decision or taking any action. This concept became a central theme of the social gospel movement of that era, emphasizing Christian ethics and social justice.


The Modern Revival

The modern resurgence and popularization of WWJD as a slogan occurred in the 1990s. It was revived by Janie Tinklenberg, a youth leader at Calvary Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. Seeking a way to help her youth group remember the phrase and encourage them to live their lives in a manner consistent with Jesus' teachings,  Tinklenberg created bracelets bearing the initials WWJD, which quickly became a widespread trend among Christian youth and beyond. As with any pop cultural movement, the intention and interpretation of previously well-intended colloquialisms can shift dramatically. Today, intolerance manifests in various forms such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Jesus' teachings on the inherent dignity of every person call modern society to confront and overcome these prejudices. His example encourages active efforts to promote inclusion and equality.


Today's Interpretation

Today, many Christians, interpret #WWJD as a guiding principle for making ethical and moral decisions in their daily lives. The phrase serves as a reminder to consider Jesus' teachings and example when facing various situations and dilemmas. It encourages them to act in ways that align with the values Jesus exemplified, such as love, forgiveness, and humility. Unfortunately, this has gone dreadfully wrong for a great many members of our sex working community and the result has been catastrophic. Not only do many of our intersecting community members sometimes completely abandon their faith, they often lose faith in mankind to even come close to recognizing their diverse and nuanced needs because faith based initiatives spend too much time moralizing over the rightness or wrongness of their activities and too little time is spent working to assist sex workers in accessing justice and resources that they need.


What Could Go Wrong?

The primary issue with #WWJD is its inherent subjectivity. Different people and denominations can interpret Jesus' teachings and actions differently, leading to varied and sometimes conflicting understandings of what Jesus would actually do in a given situation. Complex moral and ethical issues can be oversimplified by asking "What would Jesus do?" This approach might ignore the nuanced and multifaceted nature of many real-world problems, leading to simplistic or inadequate solutions, such as the criminalization of sex work, politically mandated clearing out of encampments of underhoused people or denying the most basic services to those who need it most.


Jesus lived in a specific historical and cultural context that differs greatly from today. Applying his actions and decisions directly to modern situations can be problematic because it does not account for changes in social, cultural, and technological contexts. People project their own biases and desires onto their interpretation of Jesus' actions.Sometimes, the question "What would Jesus do?" leads to inaction or passivity. Jesus' teachings emphasize patience, forgiveness, and non-violence interpreted as encouraging a passive stance in situations that might require decisive action. Using #WWJD leads to a judgmental attitude towards others. If individuals believe they know exactly what Jesus would do, they might judge others who act differently, fostering division rather than understanding and compassion. 


For some, #WWJD might become a superficial slogan rather than a deep, reflective practice. Wearing a bracelet or using the hashtag can be seen as a substitute for genuine engagement with Jesus' teachings and living a Christ-like life. The widespread commercialization of #WWJD through products like bracelets, T-shirts, and other merchandise can lead to its trivialization. When a profound spiritual question becomes a trendy slogan, it risks losing its deeper meaning and becoming just another fashion statement. This commercialization undermines the serious reflection and personal transformation that the phrase is meant to inspire, reducing it to a mere consumer product. It fosters exclusivity rather than inclusivity, contrary to Jesus' teachings of love and acceptance. Such an attitude alienates non-Christians or even fellow Christians who interpret or apply the teachings of Jesus differently, leading to division and a lack of unity within the broader community.


While #WWJD can be a powerful tool for guidance, it is important for individuals to be aware of its limitations and potential pitfalls. Critical thinking, context awareness, and a deep, personal engagement with the teachings of Jesus should use this principle effectively and meaningfully. The goal should always be to not only ask what Jesus would do but also to strive to live in a way that truly reflects his love, compassion, and integrity in all aspects of life. 


The insightful question of “What Would Jesus Do” is more than a slogan or a bracelet and while it may not be a “tenant of faith” among believers, it does beg for love and compassion over hate and exclusion of marginalized populations of his time. He interacted with and showed kindness to those whom society often shunned, such as lepers, tax collectors, and “sinners” (Matthew 9:10-13; Luke 5:27-32). This inclusive approach suggests that Jesus would likely show compassion and understanding toward sex workers rather than judgment or condemnation.


So on this International Day of recognition for the brave action that took place in Lyon, we offer the church an opportunity to be reminded that they are there to serve all who come to them for safe haven. We do not ask for their forgiveness, nor their sympathy or absolution. We come without shame or regret to tell them our stories and show them what grace and mercy are all about and to lead them back to the path of true compassion and justice. By sharing our experiences and the strength of our community, we invite the church to embrace its role as a sanctuary for the oppressed and marginalized, reaffirming its commitment to uphold the dignity and humanity of every individual. In doing so, we hope to inspire a renewed dedication to the core values of empathy, support, and unwavering solidarity in the face of adversity.


What Would Jesus Do?



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