A number of years ago it got to be very popular among some of the Christian faithful to sport the acronym “WWJD” on T-shirts, bracelets, bumper-stickers, and other areas of public display. Initially at a loss as to what this acronym meant, I later thought to myself: “What would Jesus do? He’d probably take the time to write it out. Religious texts aren’t exactly known for their brevity.”
My disdain, of course, didn’t end there. Not because I’m particularly anti-Jesus, but rather because no one – most of all Christians – seem to be able to agree on just what the devout should do.
Sure, Jesus told people to “Turn the other cheek,” (to paraphrase Luke 6:29). But I’ve known just as many to quote Exodus: 24-25, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” followed by the repetition of many more body parts and injuries. No, technically that’s not what Jesus would do, but tell that to people quoting Exodus while wearing the bracelet.
Life, it seems, isn’t as simple as letters on a bracelet – or on anything, for that matter.
This past January I was a recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award at the University of Oregon. An award that recognizes those “whose contributions uphold and exemplify qualities and ideals either espoused or supported by the late civil rights leader,” I was proud of it – and I’ve spent last few months being tortured by it.
I need to rewind here. The road to my award was paved by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, in what in terms of ratios is probably the thinnest silver lining in the history of dark clouds.
For on the morning after the election, the leaders of the School of Journalism and Communication, still reeling from the unbelievable, wanted something good to point to. I was that good. As the dean later put it about my transgender outreach: “(Bethany) wants to be that bridge between students and the … larger community.”
As I said, I was proud of that. Having been anointed the journalism school’s “transgender poster child” shortly after coming out, getting the name of the greatest civil rights leader of our time attached to my name wasn’t a bad addition. And so it was that I was invited to a nice luncheon, allowed to hug the president of the university, and given my award – just two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump.
What followed was seemingly very much not “what MLK would do.”
Like so many liberal Americans in the opening days of the Trump Administration, I fired off one angry screed after another on Facebook and other social media platforms. Where, I wanted to know, were all those people who said they would stand up against Trump? How could this nation be letting this happen? I launched angry missives at friends – and wondered if they even were.
Pure, unfettered anger was all that I could feel. Those bridges I’d been building with the larger community were now serving a more base purpose: kindling, as I longed to burn one after another. I can’t say that it felt good; it didn’t. But at least I felt something, which was more than the rest of the country seemed to be doing.
What I saw, however, was that nothing was changing. No one answered my demands for justice, transgender students weren’t suddenly being protected again, immigrants didn’t suddenly feel safer. The only thing that had changed was me – and not for the better. More, I found my conscience asking: What would Martin Luther King, Jr. actually do?
Truly, beyond the obvious stuff you learn in high school history, I didn’t know. So I went digging through the writings and speeches of the man I was supposed to represent.
In a 1957 sermon he said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” A decade later, however, speaking about his angry opposition to the war in Vietnam, he said, “I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken.”
No wonder no one really knows WWJD; he lived 2,000 years ago. King lived less than a half-century ago, and I barely understand that, either.
That’s not to say the recordings of Dr. King didn’t leave me with a somewhat clearer idea of how Dr. King dealt with anger: “You must not become bitter. No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm.” And I’ve tried. I’ve made myself try to to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award as much obligation as recognition, a charge from the past as to how I should live now.
I’ve still from time-to-time lashed out, both online and in person. There are people who call my very existence a mental illness, an infliction on the world, a whim. Does staying reasonable in the face of obstinate hate really solve anything? Is my self-imposed distance from what I truly want to say just intellectual rationalizing? Is my calmness simply cowardice dressed up in more noble robes?
In the end, whether in the writing of a millennia ago, or those of more recent times, it seems there are no answers in history.
Maybe I was looking too far back.
Two weeks ago, James Hodgkinson moved from political rants to shooting at people on a Virginia baseball field. His posts on social media included words like “traitor” and “destroy,” words very much like the ones I’d been using and still at times very much want to.(5)
Does that mean I worry about becoming a terrorist like him? Certainly not.
But I look at the words I write differently now. Am I now truly turning the other cheek, or embracing the light? Just as before, I don’t truly know what Jesus or Dr. King would do. But I know what James Hodgkinson did – and I know who I would rather be.