Story by Joan Clair
“The single criterion for judgment offered by Jesus in his account of the world’s final judgment is our behavior towards the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick.”
— John Garvey
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he book club meeting took place in the library of a senior center in a small, American city. Five people were in attendance. Sarah Hart, the moderator, the only self-professed Christian in the group, was a woman in her 60s who jogged each morning for several miles. Sally Lumington, who looked like a piece of Victorian china from the frills in her clothing, was in her mid-80s, but looked 20 years younger.
Joey Kruse, an unemployed construction worker in his late 50s not ready to retire, always came dressed like he was ready to go to work. Mary Pipe, a retired teacher who was always talking about how she couldn’t make ends meet or find any work, was small but ferocious. Marsha Able, a woman in her early 90s, was admired for the way she was able to get around by herself in her wheelchair.
It was Sarah Hart who had proposed to the group that they read and discuss the novel In His Steps, written by Charles Monroe Sheldon and first published in 1896. It had taken a bit of persuasion, but Sarah had convinced the group that even though most of them did not consider themselves Christians, the book addressed many of the economic and social issues the Great Recession was raising for Americans, especially for the newly poor, unemployed and homeless.
After some discussion, the group finally agreed and met to discuss the book a few weeks later. Sarah Hart opened the meeting with a summary of the book’s contents.
She said, “Reverend Henry Maxwell, the minister of a prosperous mainstream church in an American city, is interrupted by a knock on his door one morning while he is preparing his sermon. Looking out a window, he sees a man who, in his own words, looks like a ‘tramp’ — shabby and ill-dressed. On opening the door, the man tells him he is homeless and needs a job. He asks if the minister can help him. Reverend Maxwell responds that he does all his own chores and doesn’t know of any jobs for the man, apologizing to him as he says this and wishing him good luck.”
“What happens next?” Sarah asks, looking at the others.
Joey Kruse responds. “What happens next is the shabbily dressed man shows up in the church the following Sunday and, after the minister’s sermon, addresses the congregation. The minister, Reverend Maxwell, reflects that the church is ‘tolerably familiar with this sort of humanity out on the street’ but not inside the church sanctuary. No one tries to stop him from speaking, however.
“The shabbily dressed man tells his story. Ten months ago, he lost his job as a printer. A new linotype machine had been invented which eliminated his job. Six other men who lost their jobs as a result of this killed themselves in the course of a year, he says. His wife had died in the tenement where they lived, and his daughter was staying with a family until he could find work. He’d tried to find work in the city, and no one had said one kind word to him, except the minister.
“The man said he wondered what the words of one of the hymns the church members sang meant to them in light of the way they lived their lives — buying expensive clothes, spending money for luxuries and vacations, while people were homeless and walking the streets trying to find jobs. The hymn went:
‘All for Jesus, all for Jesus,
All my being’s ransomed powers,
All my thoughts, and all my doings,
All my days, and all my hours.’
“The man collapses on the floor of the church and dies two days later after the minister gets him medical attention and takes him into his home.”
“ I wonder,” said Mary Pipe, “if any of the top one percent of the wealthiest people in this country call themselves Christians or go to church? Remember what one of the characters says in the book about churches? ‘They are not with the people. They are with the aristocrats, with the men of money. The trusts and monopolies have their greatest men in the churches. The ministers as a class are their slaves!’
“I’ll bet that’s still true of many of the wealthiest churches today and the people who attend them. They just want to look good in public.”
“Today I don’t think as many people in public positions care if they’re called Christians or not,” said Joey. “At least not people in business. Probably more politicians think the label will get them somewhere.”
“Well, it’s pretty hard to understand,” replied Mary Pipe, “if the wealthiest people in this country do call themselves Christians, why they aren’t willing to make more sacrifices and give more of their money to help the poor and those in need.”
“Good question,” said Sarah Hart. “Why don’t we go on with the story and find out more.”
“I’ll continue,” said Sally Lumington, who looked like she belonged in a church pew herself from around the time the book was written at the end of the last century.
“With the man’s death, a great change takes place in Reverend Maxwell,” Sally said. “The following Sunday, he tells his congregation that he has decided to take a pledge. The pledge is, for one year he won’t do anything before asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ He pledges to carry out whatever he discerns as the response to this question to the best of his ability, regardless of positive or negative results to himself. He urges other members of his congregation to take this pledge with him and offers to meet with them after the service is over. To his surprise, many of the most prominent and affluent members of his church meet with him after the service.”
“OK,” said Sarah Hart. “Unless anyone objects, now let’s discuss what happens to the people who take the pledge. What changes, if any, take place in their lives?”
“A lot of changes,” Mary Pipe said. “I’ll begin with Alexander Powers. He’s a church member who’s a superintendent of railroad shops. After he takes the pledge, he resigns from his position because of his discovery of favoritism towards certain shippers and a violation of the Interstate Commerce Law. He reports these violations and offers to testify against the guilty parties.”
“All right,” said Marsha Able. “Then there’s Edward Norman, another pledge taker, who is the editor of a major newspaper in the city. After he takes the pledge, he loses a large number of subscribers after deciding to no longer print ‘accounts of crime with detailed descriptions, or scandals in private life.’
“He also states that ‘henceforth the paper’s support or lack of support of any political measure will be based on the question, ‘Is this measure in accordance with the spirit and teachings of Jesus as the author of the greatest standard of life?’ He also says, ‘The moral side of every political question will be considered its most important side’ in the newspaper’s reporting.”
“Good for him,” said Sally Lumington. “But the one I like best is Rachel Winslow, a great singer in Reverend Maxwell’s church. It’s generally believed that her ‘great natural ability would have made her one of the foremost opera singers of the age,’ but she decides to consecrate her voice to ‘the Master’s service’ and works with her music in the poorest and most crime-ridden section of the city.
“A Bishop, who himself leaves an affluent post to work with the poor after taking the pledge, comments that poor people otherwise would never hear her because of the huge amount of money that would have been charged to go to one of her performances.”
“I like the change that takes place with Rachel Winslow,” Joey Kruse said, “and also with Milton Wright, a prosperous merchant, who after taking the pledge, revises his business code to include the following precepts with the title: What Jesus Would Probably Do in Milton Wright’s Place as a Business Man.
‘1. He would engage in the business first of all for the purpose of glorifying God, and not for the primary purpose of making money.
‘2. All money that might be made he would never regard as his own, but as trust funds to be used for the good of humanity.’”
“Does any of this seem relevant to what’s going on today?” Sarah Hart asked.
“I can answer that question,” Mary Pipe replied. “I try to read the newspapers about what’s going on, not only in our city, but all over the country. I can tell you there was a lot of commentary about the recent California governor’s race in which a billionaire business candidate lost after putting $142 million of her own money into the campaign!”
“Tell us about it,” Sarah Hart said.
“Well, one commentator said that $142 million represented about 14 percent ‘of the $963 million that Governor Schwarznegger cut… in a final round of bloodletting’ [Tammerlin Drummond, West County Times, 11/6/2010].
“One so-called average citizen was reported as saying, ‘If she had spent her millions trying to help the poor, we’d be a lot better off today.’ Another newspaper commentator called the amount of money spent on winning the recent elections ‘staggeringly obscene and downright immoral considering the lingering economic woes of much of the electorate’ [Dan K. Thomasson, The Examiner, 10/29/2010].”
“So Milton Wright’s business code seems relevant to people today?” Sarah Hart asked.
“Yes it does,” responded Joey Kruse, “but unfortunately, worldly success has a lot to do with selfishness. As Sheldon says in his book, ‘No one ever lived who… succeeded in overcoming selfishness like Jesus. If [people] followed Him regardless of results the world would at once begin to enjoy a new life.’”
“Reverend Maxwell helped others to enjoy life a bit more,” said Sally Lumington. “Once he takes the pledge, he decides to give up his yearly vacation. ‘He took the money he had been saving for the trip and quietly arranged for a summer vacation for a whole family living down in the Rectangle, who had never gone outside of the foul district of tenements.’”
“Imagine if any of our politicians did that!” said Mary Pipe. “Imagine if they stopped taking expensive vacations, stopped buying expensive clothes and gave the greater percentage of their money to the poor and those in need instead!”
“Whether or not they call themselves Christians,” Sarah Hart said. “Do you remember the passage in the book where we meet a man who had known the printer who spoke at Reverend Maxwell’s church? When he hears about the pledge, he says, ‘I never expect to see any such sacrifices on the part of the church people…. I never found much difference between men of the world… and church members when it came to business and money making. One class is just as bad as another there.’
“Reverend Maxwell on hearing this reflects sadly, ‘Was the church then so far from the Master that the people no longer found Him in the church?!’”
“Well,” said Joey, “the church isn’t relevant to as many people anymore as at the time the book was written. Supposedly we’ve moved from the Piscean Age [the age of religion] into the Aquarian Age [the age of technology]. Although the Aquarian Age is supposed to have a humanitarian component, what we seem to be seeing more of is “technology for all,” or for all who can afford it, rather than liberty, justice, a decent livelihood for all and good will towards all creatures. Not too many seem to take following in the footsteps of Jesus as a call to help others economically as well as spiritually, or as a call to self-sacrifice and sharing.”
Sarah Hart responded, “Reverend Maxwell’s words still seem relevant, though, to those who call themselves Christians today, as well as to those who live by some other moral compass.
He says, ‘Are the Christians of America ready to have their discipleship tested? How about [those] who possess large wealth? Are they ready to take that wealth and use it as Jesus would? How about the men and women of great talent? Are they ready to consecrate that talent to humanity as Jesus undoubtedly would do?
‘Is it not a matter of personal suffering in some form for you that thousands of able-bodied, willing [people] tramp the streets of this city and all others, crying for work and drifting into crime and suicide because they cannot find it? Can you say that this is none of your business? Let each [one] look after his or her self?….
‘What would Jesus do in the matter of wealth?…. Would He be likely to live in great luxury and spend ten times as much on personal adornment and entertainment as He spent to relieve the needs of suffering humanity?…. What would Jesus do about the great army of unemployed and desperate?…. Would He go his way in comparative ease and comfort? Would he say that it was none of His business? Would He excuse Himself from all responsibility to remove the causes of such a condition?’ “
“These are some of the same issues that face us today,” Mary Pipe said, “which is why I can’t understand the people who are turning against the poor and middle class and the social services our government allows for them, rather than demanding that the very rich do their part in sharing with others and in being accountable for their wealth.”
The book club was almost out of time. Sarah Hart concluded the meeting with a final glimpse of Reverend Maxwell’s vision. “He sees Human Homesickness coming to an end through those who are willing to sacrifice social distinction and wealth, ease and self-satisfaction and a Christian identity which involves no expense to themselves, thereby avoiding ‘the world’s great stress of sin and trouble because it is too much pain to bear it.’”
“Any identity, Christian or otherwise, that leads to that kind of selfishness is better given up,” Marsha Able said.
“With or without Jesus,” Joey Kruse said. “But then I’ve never been much of a believer. I just want it to happen.”
“Good book,” Sally Lumington concluded.