Catholics that I know admire but feel uncomfortable about Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are the ones who go from door to door, Bible or leaflets in hand, trying to make converts. Not many Catholics can see themselves doing that. With the Feast of Epiphany approaching, I’ve been thinking about the Three Kings and what recent popes call the new evangelization.
Of course, they weren’t kings. In a story in Matthew’s Gospel, magi come from the East following a star. They find and worship the baby Jesus. Then they go back home, avoiding the murderous Herod by taking a different route. Here’s the thought that struck me: The story says nothing about the magi becoming converts. Neither the Mary or Joseph characters in the story nor Mark, the story teller, has any concern to turn them into Christians or Jews. They are Pagans when they come and still Pagans when they go. Making converts doesn’t factor in this story.
Pope Francis insists evangelization is not proselitizing, making converts, at least not first off. So what is it?
The early Church begins making converts
Jesus had some dealings with non-Jews. He even worked miracles for some. But he never tried to convert any of them to his religion. He did ask for conversion–of heart, attitude, vision, but not from one religion to another.
Jesus acquired followers, and he intended to start a movement. The movement blossomed after Jesus’ death and quickly attracted followers from non-Jews. It seems that’s what Jesus intended, judging by the end of Matthew’s Gospel — “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
The apostles didn’t obey that injunction right away. That suggests that these words ending Matthew’s Gospel may not be Jesus’ own. Jesus’ followers spoke, often and enthusiastically, about Jesus to Jews and managed to pull some decent numbers into their circle. (I don’t know about the 3000 baptisms in Luke’s account of the day of Pentecost.) It was not a matter of making converts. The apostles were still Jews themselves.
Conversions happened later when the majority of Jews turned away from, or hadn’t turned toward, the Jesus movement. Then the mission to the Gentiles began in earnest. By the time Matthew wrote, the Jesus movement was having more success with “the nations” than with the apostles’ own people.
Early evangelization as an atheist sees itKurt Vonnegut (an atheist and subject of an earlier post) has an interesting take on how Christians attracted Greeks and other non-Jews. It wasn’t by presenting a superior philosophy. Paul tried that approach in Athens and failed. It wasn’t by offering hope of a place in heaven. Most other religions already had that. Vonnegut says Christians offered a new lifestyle, a new way of belonging:
Vonnegut believed that providing people with extended families explained “the fantastic growth of Christianity in a Roman Empire which was so cruelly opposed to it. The state religion formed crowds of strangers to propitiate gods in enormous buildings or plazas. Christians prayed with cozy little bunches of friends who met regularly in cozy little places, which felt much better….”
In a Playboy interview, Vonnegut said, “I admire Christianity more than anything—Christianity as symbolized by gentle people sharing a common bowl.”
Christian gentleness would have attracted many who were tired of the Greek pursuit of honor and superiority over others or the Roman system of knowing the right people to get ahead or get anything done.
I don’t know if I’ve said very much about what evangelization should be in today’s world. Pope Francis values working for peace and justice in the world together with people of different beliefs, and I think that would count as part of evangelization. I don’t try to convert my Protestant friends. They are converted to Jesus already. I pray for Christian unity, a long-term goal of ecumenism. Jews have always been God’s special people, and the Church’s Good Friday service no longer prays for their conversion to Catholicism.
That leaves many people with traditions and beliefs and a feeling for ultimate reality far from the God of Abraham and Jesus. We live in a world very far from the Kingdom of God. A large field for the new evangelization, but what exactly is it? Getting back to the magi of Mark’s story, might they have been evangelized without changing religions? Is that enough, for now?
Image credit: Days of the Year via Google Images