Two months ago I wrote a bit about Evangelism, touching on the tenets of reality in so much that Evangelism is what you make of it. Well, today I want to touch on the slim facet of reality called Proselytism. John Morehead of Religious Diplomacy shared an article from Sacred Tribes Journal (Vol 8, No 1, Fall 2013) of which Elmer Thiessen was interviewed on his book, The Ethics of Evangelism published by InterVarsity Press, wondering if it might serve as some kind of topic generator. After skimming Thiessen’s interview, I realized that it did generate a need to share a personal story from my past.
Thiessen responded to the interviewer’s reference to his position from his book “that [not] every instance of proselytizing is necessarily out of bounds ethically,” saying that
“after arguing that wholesale condemnations of proselytizing are mistaken, I provide a positive defense of proselytizing, arguing that it may even be morally obligatory. I owe it to others to try to persuade them about what I consider to be the truth.” (Page 7)
Hunh. Proselytizing may be “morally obligatory” and Thiessen owes it to others to try and persuade them about what he considers to be “the truth.” (Mind you, his truth he was stating here was to point out that not all proselytizing is unethical or immoral).
First, I ask you to think about the term, proselytize. What does this word bring up for you? Does it raise memories of your younger days of being approached by Mormons? What about being at a party, having a good time, and all of a sudden the sober, heretofore secret Evangelical in the group decided it was time to tell all the drunkards that they were going to hell because they were ‘having too much of a good time’? What do you do when you observe unethical proselytizing occurring?
I lived in a basement apartment once, and just above me lived an older woman. I never heard too much from her except that every Friday night, at 8pm, she would vacuum her entire apartment. I could set my watch by her activity. Other than that, my interactions with this woman were of the sweet old lady variety, she seemed as though she were just trying to get on with this world, in as easy a fashion as she could. The one thing that disturbed me was when her daughter would come over to ‘visit’. About twice a week, this sweet old lady’s daughter would come to check on her, making sure she was getting along well enough with food, utilities, and to remind her mother that she was going to go to hell if she didn’t do right with the church. The daughter was not nice in reminding her mother of her status with God, according to her interpretation of the King James Version.
Keep in mind that I was in the middle of a semester at Salem College studying the New Testament, so was full of fresh knowledge, and wandering ideas about all the Bible holds regarding “Truth.” ( As a blooming interfaith scholar, I had decided it was high time I learned about this book, albeit from an academic perspective. I definitely got more than I bargained for).
This went on for about three months, with me trying to not eavesdrop from my basement apartment. But as the weather was warm enough to keep the sliding screen door open, to allow a breeze to come through the screen, so too was the daughter’s voice just loud enough to carry out and down to my ears on the breeze.
(Here’s where I plug in the fact that fifteen years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to the Tao Te Ching, and to this day will remind me that it is NOT my place to tell someone else that how he or she is witnessing their faith is right or wrong. I have come to own this belief as my own standard protocol for interacting with the world at large. Yet, I still struggle with is the concept of someone else telling me that the way I witness my style of.. faith in the ALL THAT IS, might be the wrong way to do it).
Needless to say, I struggled those three months; angry at the daughter for being so mean to her momma, sad for the old lady, because I could hear her voice getting smaller and weaker during each visit. I became distressed about what to do. Do I stand up for the old lady? (Who am I to determine that the old lady needed my help?) Do I go and tear down the daughter’s self-esteem, laying on a thick pile of plain old Southern Guilt about “respecting your elders”? (Who am I to determine that the way another child treats his or her parent is or is not respectful, -according to my standards of respect-?) Do I go to the daughter with my newly acquired knowledge of the New Testament, reminding her of John 13:34?
It wasn’t until one balmy Friday afternoon, while I was sitting out on my deck, studying Mark, Luke, and John (I had an upcoming test that I had to ace!) that the answer to my distress hit me like a flash of lightning. Mind you, I’m studying with a beer in hand, Bible in my lap, sitting outside enjoying the sounds of Nature. It was a very peaceful, quiet, calming experience that I was thoroughly soaking up.
Until my upstairs neighbor’s daughter came over.
The daughter wasn’t there ten minutes before she began her tirade, berating her mother’s existence for the lack of her church interaction. I did my best to ignore the tirade, to no avail. I finally put beer and Bible down, and began to meditate, asking the powers that be, what it was that I could do to help the old woman not have to endure her daughter’s berating.
My answer came to me as though one of the great self-help gurus of modern time was sitting in front of me, and asked me, “What is it that I need?” It hit me, that it wasn’t about saving the old lady from future belittling, nor was it about lowering myself to the daughter’s level of meanness. It came down to Descartes antiquated statement, “Know Thyself.” The one thing that I do know about myself is that I want to experience peace in my life. I crave feeling the calm of life in all of my interactions, whether at home, at work, at the store, even while visiting another land.
So, with that in mind, I finally felt vindication in what it was I could do. Since I couldn’t belittle the daughter for proselytizing to her mother, I could ask for the daughter to shut the sliding door. I likened the daughter’s action to that of a neighbor playing their radio too loud. A neighbor that did that would be considered disturbing the peace, yes? So, I yelled up to the balcony above me, interrupting the daughter’s tangent with, “Excuse me!” The daughter paused from talking, and I could imagine her wondering if my request was meant for her. She proceeded to continue scolding her mother, so I yelled again, louder this time, “EXCUSE ME!” The daughter came to the screen door, and said “Yes?” To which I replied, “Would you mind shutting the door while you bitch your mother out?”
I share this story with you as an example of extreme proselytizing, trying to find a balance of equanimity of societal concepts of moralistic values. I wish I had Thiessen’s audacity to declare that I owe it to others to persuade them about what I consider to be “the truth.” Who knows. Perhaps that is what I’m doing right now, sharing my story with you to prove the point that the daughter’s style of how she witnesses her faith wasn’t for me to determine to be right or wrong. Perhaps my request for her to shut her door was a version of proselytizing coming from the angle of our societal concept to respect one’s elders.
While my story lends to the extreme variety of proselytizing, that hopefully Thiessen would declare to be unethical proselytizing, I hope to leave you with the notion that I do agree with Thiessen’s position “that [not] every instance of proselytizing is necessarily out of bounds ethically.” It all depends on your perspective, and how you choose to respond to such.