An Epidemic of the Ethical Woulda-Dones

sad_docThe doctor has paid a house call and left, shaking his head. The diagnosis? American Christians have come down with a bad case of the Woulda-Dones. The symptoms? We are irresolute about making tough, righteous decisions today, but we know exactly what we bravely and clearly and boldly “woulda-done” if we had faced the moral dilemmas facing Christians in days gone by.

It’s easy to Dare to Be a Daniel – so long as we limit it to “I woulda defied the king like Daniel did, back, y’know, in the 500s BC!” The truism is right – “We are always fighting the last battle.”

The Great Physician detected the same disease, some 2000 years ago!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” (Matt 23:29-30)

The original Aramaic, I amuse myself to think, used the equivalent verb “woulda-done” along with its flip side, “wouldna-done.”

The Pharisees knew, of course, that the prophets turned out to be on the right side of history – on God’s side – so they were taking zero risks when they acclaimed the prophets as great and admirable men of God. But when John and Baptist and Jesus and the apostles appeared, they had only their fears and lower instincts to guide them.

Why do people get the Ethical Woulda-Dones? Because history has already decided what was right and what was wrong, and it costs us nothing to stand on the side of the angels – so long as these were angels who were doing things long, long ago.

Example 1 – Don’t you love the movie “Amazing Grace,” which tells the story of how evangelical Christian William Wilberforce, undaunted by incredible opposition, invested 20 years in order to close down the British slave trade?[1] Well and good! And we may suppose that you woulda been one of the very few who stuck it out with him, and would not have argued that evangelicals should stick to preaching the gospel and not put government restrictions on the free market? Especially when his enemies had all the money? But the better question is, do you figure out What Would Wilberforce Do? and take concrete action to bring about an end to slavery today – and there are more slaves in the world now (29 million perhaps?)[2] than there were in the South in 1860 (about 4 million)?[3]

Some evangelicals are against getting involved in social justice but focus only on inner change: “When people’s hearts are changed by Christ, godly governments and institutions will follow.”[4] (This is not a given, by the way. The population of Guatemala is 35-40% evangelical, and has had one of the most corrupt governments in our hemisphere, and is rife with violent crime). But most Christians believe in effecting social change – they mainly disagree on what issues they should focus. Fewer abortions? Great! Easy, right? (And this is an issue that deserves its own blog post).  For or against the Affordable Care Act (which too is mainly a bygone issue)? For or against the death penalty – or mandatory sentencing, or trying minors as adults, or prison reform? For or against federal guidelines on CO2 emissions? Maybe not so easy to  put together an integrated, righteous Christian response!

Don’t worry: in a few decades, those issues too will be clearer – and it will be too late for you to take a stand.

We prefer to fight yesterday’s battles – after all, we already know the right answers!

Example 2 – Do you tip your cap to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in which the federal government forced – forced! – state governments to implement the 14th and 15th Amendments, allowing African-Americans full access to the ballot box? Many Christians were against it at the time! Of course, we know now that it was a great law; anyway, that’s what they taught me in Junior High. But the trickier proposition is, what active steps do you take today, right now, to ensure that no-one is disenfranchised through redistricting? How you vote today reveals your character, not how you woulda-done 60 years ago. Discernment is, after all, 20/20, but it takes more vision to see how to apply the Law of Love right here, right now. It’s a lot harder than just checking in on what our political opponent believes, and doing the opposite.

Example 3 – Would you have been one of the measly 4.9% of Americans in 1938 who said we should accept Jewish refugees in flight from the Nazis even if it meant raising immigration quotas, or the 95% who said No or Dunno?[5] Well, of course you would say Yes to Jewish refugees, we all would. But your woulda-done has little righteous value, history has already made up your mind for you, and you grew up knowing what the right answer is. Now, to look at one example, the Syrian refugee issue is a real problem, and Christians take different opinions. But the real trick is being able to make loving and righteous decisions about people who are refugees today – let me see – today, Friday, not back in the good old days.

During the final days of the Cold War, I got in the habit of reading the Philadelphia Inquirer; only I would pick up and read the previous day’s edition. When someone asked me why, I joked that, “Well, the world didn’t blow itself, so I’m pretty sure yesterday’s news was positive.”

It pays to study history; but during our current spiritual war, let’s make sure we make today’s decisions, since


For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body – in your lifetime! –, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5:10 NRSV)







“An Epidemic of the Ethical Woulda-Dones,” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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