Am I Righteous or What? I Drive a Honda Civic That Gets 40 MPG!

[1] After filling up on a recent trip from Ohio, I had my wife calculate the gasoline consumption of our spiffy new Honda Civic. “You’re going to like this,” she said, “It comes out to 45 miles per gallon.” Though aided by a strong tailwind, I was still enthused. But not enthused as I was when I found out that driving such a car was exactly what Jesus would do. Wow, I was not only frugal and fascinated by the efficiency of small engines, I was righteous. My righteousness was inflated further by the facts that we only own that one car and I ride to work on a bicycle. My goodness knows no bounds.

[2] This is in stark contrast to the sinful ways of my children, who trundle their families around in SUVs or vans, who own more than one car, and who definitely do not ride bicycles to work. Unperceptive as usual, I thought their transportation choices had to do with a desire for room and safety for their families. But in actuality, those practical choices concealed wickedness. They were disobedient to what Jesus would drive.

[3] The Evangelical Environmental Network is waging a campaign organized around the question “What Would Jesus Drive?” It is trying to get Christians to buy fuel-efficient cars and to put pressure on manufacturers to make more of them and fewer SUVs. Their pledge contains this statement: “Obeying Jesus in our transportation choices is one of the great Christian obligations and opportunities for the twenty-first century.” It goes on to suggest practical steps that leave little doubt that I am doing what Jesus wants and my children definitely are not.

[4] Why is this campaign so silly? Not in the goal it is commending-diminishing air pollution. Almost everyone can affirm that. And many of the people who have signed the pledge-some of whom I know and admire-are fine Christians. But it is silly, if not outrageous, to enlist Jesus in both that goal and the particular means to that goal. The silliness is borne out by the many tongue-in-cheek quips that have been offered to contest the campaign’s confident claim that Jesus would drive a Civic. For instance, it is clear from the biblical record that Jesus preferred donkeys for ground transportation and boats for other occasions. He also was not averse to air travel (the Ascension) on his own power. Further, it seems that Jesus would drive a Honda but several steps up from my Civic, for he said “For I did not speak of my own Accord.” (John 12:49) These jokes indicate that we don’t have much of an idea about what Jesus would commend when it comes to transportation. He never really had to face that question.

[5] But there are more serious theological and ethical issues here. The Evangelical Environmental Network is too easily co-opting Jesus for one of its admirable social projects. In this facile co-optation evangelicals are now following their liberal compatriots in the faith, who have claimed Jesus’ authority for almost every social or political cause imaginable. Liberal Protestants have claimed that Jesus would support an ever-expanding welfare state, a higher minimum wage, abortion rights, re-cycling, the nuclear freeze of the 1980s, and a nonviolent approach to Saddam Hussein. In fact, when I first heard of this campaign I was sure it was the effort of the National Council of Churches or the Methodist Board of Church and Society. As Richard Neuhaus once quipped: Liberal Protestants refuse to utter any religious statement that is not socially redemptive.

[6] Jesus taught a radical religious and moral vision. He taught an unwavering love for God and a sacrificial love for the neighbor. He sharpened and deepened the commandments so that they became what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the impossible possible.” They are impossible for us to fulfill and therefore condemn us before God, yet Jesus fulfilled them. (Before this radical ethic, claiming righteousness for driving a Honda Civic not only seems far too easy but even blasphemous.)

[7] It is a dubious practice to reduce and domesticate Jesus’ teaching to one’s favorite social cause. Jesus’ teaching is related to complex social and political matters, but only indirectly. It has to pass through a number of phases of deliberation before one comes to a judgment, and then that judgment is often ambiguous. For example, Jesus taught an ethic of non-violence but most Christian traditions have developed through the centuries a theory of justified use of violence. That theory is applied to modern international relations, as it is now with regard to going to war against Iraq. Christians come down on different sides of that particular issue, but all sides wisely refrain from saying that Jesus commands their course of action.

[8] Such it is with questions of consumption-like what kind of vehicle to purchase. So many competing values and trade-offs enter into a decision that it is ridiculous to claim that we know the mind of Jesus on this matter. My children weigh the convenience and safety of owning a van against the fuel-efficiency of my Civic and come down for a larger vehicle. The claim that Jesus would frown on this is quite a stretch.

[9] Another problem with the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign as well as with the earlier “What Would Jesus Do?” approach is that they wrongly assume that Jesus had the same vocation as we do. Jesus’ vocation was to be the Savior of the world, who “died for us while we were yet sinners.” Because of that unique calling, he did not marry and have a family, did not work for pay, and did not exercise a political role. However, the great Reformation traditions teach that each Christian has worldly callings that entail distinct worldly responsibilities. One of those callings for many Christians is marriage and family life. They have to make practical decisions about where to live, what schools their children attend, what to buy, and what to drive. Jesus gives no simple directives about those matters.

[10] Rather than claim to know the mind of Jesus on these matters, it would be far better for the Evangelical Ecological Network to call Christians to express the virtues of humility, modesty, and compassion in their practical decisions. That might lead to abstemious patterns of consumption, but it may not. The overall pattern of generosity with one’s time and money is far more important in the Christian life than the choice of a vehicle.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.