To Be Absolutely Frank

Jesus at the Wheel

Make way for the Evangelical Environmental Network and its advertising drive against SUVs and other gas guzzlers.

By 11.14.02

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"We take seriously the question What Would Jesus Do?" the Rev. Jim Ball told Britain's Guardian newspaper. "What Would Jesus Drive? is just a more specific version. What would he want me to do as a Christian? Would he want me to use public transportation?"

The Rev. Ball's provocative question will be the slogan for a multi-state TV advertising campaign that his group, the Evangelical Environmental Network, is about to launch against SUVs and other gas guzzlers.

Such anachronisms are always preposterous at first, but think for a moment and it's easy to imagine that if Jesus were alive today, he would use public transportation, if only to be among the poor. He might also rephrase his words in Matthew 19: "It is easier to park a Range Rover on a European street, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

The environmentalist part is dicier, though. Jesus certainly encouraged an appreciation of nature ("Behold the fowls of the air … Consider the lilies of the field …"), but can we really believe that out of all the manifest consequences of 21st-century human wickedness, he would choose to stress air pollution? The Rev. Ball has a point; he's just bearing down a little too hard on it.

When I was 14, I asked the chain-smoking chaplain of my school if it was a sin to smoke, given that the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" was supposed to prohibit suicide. The question was not sincere, since I suffered no sense of guilt for lighting up with my friends after classes. I just wanted to hear what he would say.

I'm afraid (and, okay, still a bit proud) that the priest failed my little pharasaical test. He said that there was "no proof" that smoking even a pack a day would do any harm to one's health. Which raised the obvious question of why students weren't allowed to do it (though if I managed to ask him that, I can't recall the answer).

So what might he have said, had he chosen to be honest? That it was an adult's privilege to make himself sick? In that case he would have denied his duty to set an example. How about admitting that he was a sinner, with a willing spirit but flesh as weak as the next man's? I would have been disarmed, but in that case too he would have undercut himself as a role model.

The chaplain was no doubt lying to himself as well as to me, which certainly mitigates his guilt. In any case, one instance of hypocrisy doesn't damn one as a mere hypocrite. At least, for my own sake, I hope it doesn't.

By the way, I gave up cigarettes 15 years ago, and now drive a compact Citroën that would meet the Rev. Ball's most stringent standards. But I did the first to court a girl who couldn't stand smoking, and I do the second because I couldn't otherwise survive the traffic in the city where I live. So where's the virtue in that?

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.