Fifteen Views of Christians by Non-Christians

So John Shore at Patheo’s Progressive Christian channel asked non-Christians all over the country what they would like to tell Christians. In particular, he asked:

I’d like to hear how you feel about being on the receiving end of the efforts of Christian evangelicals to convert you.

He got over three-hundred e-mails from non-Christians, and he presents a sample of them on his blog. It seems to me that the kind of Christianity Shore’s correspondents have seen reflects exactly the kind of mistaken approach that Pope Francis terms “proselytization” rather than evangelization. After some thought, I decided that I’d like to respond to them from a Catholic point of view, especially in light of Pope Francis’ new exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel.

Here, then, are fifteen views of Christians from non-Christians.

Bad, and wrong, and evil

The main thing that baffles and angers me about Christians is how they can understand so little about human nature that when, in their fervor to convert another person, they tell that person (as they inevitably do, in one way or another), ‘You’re bad, and wrong, and evil,’ they actually expect that person to agree with them. It pretty much guarantees that virtually the only people Christians can ever realistically hope to convert are those with tragically low self-esteem.

– E.S., Denver

In ancient times, so I am given to understand, the pagans who were first converted to Christianity were used to a religion of placation: you made offerings to the gods so that they don’t get angry with you and smite you. And the gods were easy to offend. To such a culture, the Gospel is truly good news: it says that sure, you don’t measure up to God’s standards (you knew that), but so far from smiting you, He wants to help you get out from under. In short, they had a sense of sin.

Today’s post-modern Americans lack a sense of personal sin almost completely. And as E.S. notes, attempts to waken such a sense of sin are frequently counter-productive. As Saint Francis de Sales said,

Always be as gentle as you can and remember that one catches more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar.

Instead, we need to show people God’s love and gentleness and glory. We are still sinners, of course; repentance and conversion of life are necessary for us to receive all that God has for us. But we need to show the love of God first, and we need to remember that our sin is not natural to us: we fall short, but we are not naturally evil.

Separatism

I feel that Christians have got it all wrong; it seems to me that they’ve created the very thing Jesus was against: Separatism.

– T. O., Denver

Here I have to say, “Well, yes and no.” Pope Francis has said multiple times that the shepherd needs to smell like the sheep, or in other words that we cannot stand apart from those who do not know God’s love. Christ told us the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and that the two will grow up side by side until the end of the age. But wheat and weeds are different, and we do people a disservice if we claim that they are the same.

Christians have no monopoly on goodness

I am often distressed at the way some Christians take as a given that Christians and Christianity define goodness. Many of we non-Christians make a practice of doing good; we, too, have a well-developed ethical system, and are devoted to making the world a better place. Christians hardly have a monopoly on what’s right, or good, or just.

– C.R., Seattle

And this is true. As Christians we believe that the Natural Law flows ultimately from the Creator; it is part of our God-given human nature. But as such, it is available to all people because all people have that God-given nature. The Natural Law was known in ancient times, and it’s generally known now (though in what remains of Christendom, our popular culture is doing a good job of confusing us about it). See C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man for a good description of both the Natural Law and what we’re doing to it.

Love Your Neighbor

Christians seem to have lost their focus on Jesus’ core message: ‘Love the Lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.’

– R.M., Tacoma

Well, yeah. We do. Daily. It’s just what Church says would happen. That’s why the Church calls us to repentance and conversion of life, and offers us the sacraments as a help in the process. It’s trite to say (but trite because it’s true) that the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. Mea culpa; it’s my fault. I’m sorry. I’m trying to do better, with God’s help. Next question?

OK, that sounded flippant and dismissive. Mea culpa again. But seriously: the Catholic Church doesn’t claim to be made up of saints. It claims to contain saints, and asks all of us to become saints, but most of us aren’t there yet.

Belligerent, Disdainful, and Pushy

I have no problem whatsoever with God or Jesus – only Christians. It’s been my experience that most Christians are belligerent, disdainful and pushy.

— D.B., Atlanta

Yup. Sometimes we are. Though, judging from what I see on-line on a daily basis, it’s not a condition confined to Christians alone. And, of course, if you’re a non-Christian and don’t seek out Christians, the ones you’re most likely to notice, alas, are the belligerent and pushy. (These are observations, not excuses.) Repentance. Conversion of life. The sacraments. See above. We’ve got the tools.

Obsessed and Narrowly Focused

Whenever I’m approached by an evangelist – by a Christian missionary – I know I’m up against someone so obsessed and narrowly focused that it will do me absolutely no good to try and explain or share my own value system. I never want to be rude to them, of course, but never have any idea how to respond to their attempts to convert me; in short order, I inevitably find myself simply feeling embarrassed–first for them, and then for us both. I’m always grateful when such encounters conclude.

– K.C., Fresno

I’m planning a separate post on this, as I have some experience with it from the other side. The thing to remember, when you run into someone proselytizing in this way, is that he is trying to do what he was told to do, which is to present a sales pitch and make a sale. He’s doing the best he knows; he’s trying to please his pastor; he’s trying to please God; and he might even be motivated by some genuine love for you. He probably has a script that he’s working from, and if you leave it he doesn’t know what to do. (Not all are like this, but I was, and I suspect that many of the door-to-door folks are, too.) You don’t have to listen to him, but try to be compassionate.

Me, I just explain that I’m a devout Catholic, wish them well, and send them on their way.

For real evangelization, listening is key. If you’re not listening, you’re not loving; and if you’re not loving, you’re doing it wrong. Pope Francis has been quite clear about this, and so was Pope Benedict.

Take a closer look at Jesus

I don’t know whether or not most of the Christians I come across think they’re acting and being like Jesus was – but if they do, they need to go back to their Bibles, and take a closer look at Jesus.

— L.B., Phoenix

I have no idea what L.B.’s notion of Jesus is, or how L.B. thinks Jesus would act, or what L.B. thinks Christians would find if they go back to their Bibles. Chances are it’s laughably wrong. But no matter: every Christian can stand to go back to his Bible and take a closer look at Jesus, preferably on a daily basis. (I’m working on that.) Again: repentance; conversion of life; the sacraments.

Extremely Egotistical

I grew up Jewish in a Southern Baptist town, where I was constantly being told that I killed Christ, ate Christian babies, and was going to hell. So I learned early that many Christians have – or sure seem to have – no love in their hearts at all. It also seems so odd to me that Christians think that if I don’t accept their message my ears and heart are closed, because it seems to me like they have excessively closed ears and hearts to anyone else’s spiritual message and experience. They seem to have no sense of the many ways in which God reaches out to everyone. As far as I’ve ever known, Christians are narrow in their sense of God, fairly fascistic in their thinking, and extremely egotistical in thinking God only approves of them.

– B.P., Houston

First off, the Catholic Church explicitly condemns this kind of anti-Semitism. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. It’s wrong. (That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist in some Catholic circles. But it is condemned by the teachings of the Church.) And certainly there are Christians who talk as though there’s no truth in any religion but their flavor of Christianity. Again, this is simply wrong. Truth is truth. God reveals himself in various ways to all, most especially through Creation itself, and as result every culture in every time and place has had a sense of the divine. We Christians believe that God then chose to reveal himself more fully to the Jews, and then most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, God and Man, the Incarnate Word. But God’s revelation of Himself in Creation is accessible to all.

But, alas, it’s fallen human nature to form groups, circle the wagons, and shut-out the great unwashed. Pope Francis is calling us to stop doing that.

Oh, and as for “thinking God only approves of them”: some feel that way, I guess. For my part, Jesus knows how little I’ve done to merit approval. But He loves me, loves me enough to die for me; and He loves B.P. too. I don’t need to earn His approval, I need to open myself up to receiving His love, with His help.

Salespeople Working on Commission

I’m frequently approached by Christians of many denominations who ask whether I’ve accepted Christ as my savior. When I have the patience, I politely tell them that I’m Jewish. This only makes them more aggressive; they then treat me like some poor lost waif in need of their particular brand of salvation. They almost act like salespeople working on commission: If they can save my soul, then they’re one rung closer to heaven. It’s demeaning. I always remain polite, but encounters like these only show disrespect and sometimes outright intolerance for my beliefs and my culture. In Judaism, we do not seek to convert people. That is because we accept that there are many paths to God, and believe that no one religion can lay sole claim to the truth or to God’s favor. Each person is free to find his or her own way. To Christians I would say: Practice your religion as you wish. There is no need to try and influence others. If your religion is a true one, people will come to it on their own.

– M.S., Honolulu

Done there, been that, but I’ve sold the T-shirt. Evangelization is not sales, and other people are not prospects. We cannot love them while treating them as objects, even as objects of God’s love. We must treat them as people; we must love them as though they were Christ.

But while there are many paths to God (at least one for each person), some are more direct than others, and more apt to be successful. As Catholics, we do believe that we have in Jesus Christ the fullest expression of the truth of God; that God is allowed to decree how He wants people to come to Him; and that Jesus commanded us to share our faith with others. Being silent is not an option. But we must not try to override another person’s free choice. We need to love, and to listen, and leave room for the Holy Spirit to work.

Intolerant Hateful Bigots

When did it become that being a Christian meant being an intolerant, hateful bigot? I grew up learning the positive message of Christ: Do well and treat others with respect, and your reward will be in heaven. Somehow, for a seemingly large group of Christians, that notion has gone lost: It has turned into the thunders and lights of the wrath of God, and into condemning everyone who disagrees with them to burning in the flames of hell. Somehow, present-day Christians forgot about turning the other cheek, abandoned the notion of treating others like they would like to be treated themselves; they’ve become bent on preaching, judging, and selfishly attempting to save the souls of others by condemning them. What happen to love? To tolerance? To respect?

— S.P., Nashville

As I note above, it’s just what would happen. We are flawed, all of us. All I can say is that I’m sorry for any part I might have played in it for anyone, and that this attitude is not what the Church teaches. And then, as I’ve noted above, we do need to speak the truth. Sin is harmful to the human person, and we cannot affirm it.

Leave Me Alone

There are about a million things I’d like to say to Christians, but here’s the first few that come to mind: Please respect my right to be the person I’ve chosen to become. Worship, pray and praise your God all you want–but please leave me, and my laws, and my city, and my school alone. Stop trying to make me, or my children, worship your god. Why do we all have to be Christians? Respect my beliefs; I guarantee they’re every bit as strong as yours. Mostly, please respect my free will. Let me choose if I want to marry someone of my own sex. Let me choose if I want to have an abortion or not. Let me choose to go to hell if that’s where you believe I’m going. I can honestly say that I’d rather go to hell than live the hypocritical life I see so many Christians living.

– D.B., Seattle

At the risk of being repetitive: if we aren’t respecting the person you’ve become, if we aren’t listening in love, we’re doing it wrong. Love seeks to understand, not blot out. But with regard to hypocrisy, D.B., what about respecting the baby in your womb if you should choose to have an abortion? If we are to respect you, you must respect your child. There are evils that I must stand against; and as a citizen of your city, as one whose kids attend your schools, I have a voice too. I do not want to force anyone to be a Christian, and I grant you the dignity of your choices. But just as it isn’t all about me, it isn’t all about you, either.

To put it another way, I must respect you as a person. I cannot respect your beliefs if they are foolish or evil; I must give my respect to the good, the true, and the beautiful (which includes you, as a human being).

Sigh

I had a friend who was, as they say, reborn. During my breaks from college she invited me to her church, and I did go a couple of times. In a matter of a month, at least ten people at her church told me that I was going to hell. The ironic thing is that I do believe in God; I’ve just never found a church where I felt at ease. However, in their eyes, I was nothing but a sinner who needed to be saved. I stopped going to that church (which in the past four years has grown from a small to a mega-church), but in time, through my friend, have seen some of these people again. None of them ever fails to treat me exactly as they did four years ago. All I can say is this: Constantly telling someone they’re going to hell is not a good way to convert them.

– A.S., Chicago

Honey. Vinegar. Sigh.

Wealthy, Judgemental, and Preachy

I am a former ‘born again’ Christian. It’s been my personal experience that Christians treat the poor poorly–much like the Pharisees did in the parable of the old woman with the two coins. I found the church to be political to a fault, and its individual members all too happy to judge and look down on others. As a Christian, my own fervor to witness was beyond healthy. My friends would come to me to vent and express emotions, and all I would do is preach to them. I was of no real comfort to them. I never tried to see anything from their perspective.

– J.S.W, Philadelphia

We have to listen in love, or we are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. (This is getting repetitive.) As for the poor: the Catholic Church teaches a “preferential option for the poor,” and encourages all of her members to serve them as Jesus commanded. Pope Francis has hit this point especially hard.

I admit, this command is hard for me; as a member of the body of Christ, I’m more interested in building up other members of the body of Christ than in helping the poor. But while that might be my area of interest (and grace does indeed perfect nature, as St. Thomas Aquinas said) I still must help the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. Christ said so.

Not Worth the Hassle

Once Christians know I’m gay, the conversion talk usually stops. Instead, I become this sympathetic character who apparently isn’t worthy of the gift of Christ. From my childhood in a Baptist church, I recall the ‘loathe the sin, love the sinner’ talk, but as an adult I can’t say I’ve often found Christians practicing that attitude. Deep down, I’m always relieved to avoid disturbing “conversion” conversations with Christians; discussing one’s most intimate thoughts and personal beliefs isn’t something I enjoy doing with random strangers. But at the same time, I feel as though Christians make a value judgment about my soul on the spot, simply because I am gay. I don’t pretend to know the worth of a soul, nor the coming gifts to those who convert the masses, but I would guess converting the sinful homosexuals would merit a few brownie points. But I get the feeling that most Christians don’t think we’re worth the hassle.

– R.M., Houston

This one is tough. I admit, I quite frankly admit, that gay people make me uncomfortable. I’m an old fogey, I guess; when I was a kid, homosexuals were like fabulous beasts that no one every saw. (Later, I discovered that I had several in my own extended family; but at that time they were quiet about it.) I suspect a lot Christians feel the same way: we don’t want to be hateful, but when the topic comes up we don’t know where to look. And then, there’s the common human tendency to act like the Pharisee in the parable: “Oh Lord, thank you that I’m not like that tax collector over there.” We tend to congratulate ourselves on not committing sins that we are not, in fact, tempted to commit, and put those who do out of bounds.

For now, I would want to say this to gay men and women: God loves you. You are worth it. To truly follow Christ, there are things in your life you would need to leave behind; this is true of all of us, and it’s hard for all of us. Some of them may well involve your sexual behavior; that’s true of most of us as well. Fortunately, He helps us to dispose of them over time; we don’t have to do it all at once.

I will not presume to guess what there is in your life that Christ would ask you leave behind, or the order in which He’d ask you to do it. Beyond that, if I stutter or seem ill-at-ease with you, I’m sorry.

Too Personal

Religion always seemed too personal for me to take advice about it from people I don’t know.

– D.P., Denver

And why should he?

St. Paul directs us to test everything and retain what is good. Don’t just take my word for anything; I’m just this guy with a blog, you know? If you want to know what the Catholic Church really teaches, take a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In Conclusion

Catholics are not perfect. (I am certainly not perfect.) And no matter how much we try, and how well we live, Christ said that there will be those who reject us. But if we are living as the Church teaches us we should, we should taste far more like honey than the vinegar to which these letters are a witness. And that’s what Pope Francis has been talking about: being honey, so as to attract something far more valuable than flies: our fellow men and women.

Living on a Prayer Trigger
We Are Promises of Goodness
Conversion, or Rearranging Your Inner Furniture
Prayer and the Big Game: Can You Pray Before You Play?
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