How Not to Be a Compelling Witness

How Not to Be a Compelling Witness April 14, 2014

It’s almost a pity that most of modern Christianity has this major hard-on for evangelism and “spreading the gospel,” considering how bad most of their adherents are at actually doing it.

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...
Sermon on the Mount. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) And then he posted a sarcastic advice animal on Imgur and everybody got butthurt.

It is just mind-blowing to me that this religion’s most vocal members, fundagelicals, consider converting and persuading people to be their entire reason for existence, but are so singularly disinterested in actually doing an effective job of it. It’s like they get stuffed full of ideas about how witnessing and evangelism are supposed to work, and there are only two outcomes they understand: either their target will be overwhelmed with the light of Jesus and fall to his or her knees babbling in tongues, or else their target will arrogantly refuse to accept the overwhelming light of Jesus and then the fight is on.

But in the real world, that’s not how it works. I see Christians putting themselves out there, either indignantly defending their idol or else earnestly wheedling and manipulating non-believers, because they think they’re supposed to do it, even though they’re doing it really badly. They don’t even want to learn how to do it well. They don’t want to learn how people really think. They don’t want to learn what really is persuasive. They don’t want to open themselves up to treating others ethically and lovingly. That would totally go against their Evangelism Script that they’ve got in their heads.

Jesus or a Gun
Jesus or a Gun (Photo credit: Wikipedia). WWJD?

I’m dead convinced that there are Christians who’d be way better off as witnesses by just never talking about their religious convictions or opinions among outsiders, like ever. They’re are that bad at it, and that poor of an example of their faith. I ran into one this week online and it was just so comical to see how bad she was at sharing her faith and persuading others of its validity. I’d think she was a troll except that I’ve known people IRL who were like that, so once again Poe’s Law pecker-slaps us in the face.

It reminds me a little of the American Republican Party, these Christians. Republicans talk a big game about wanting women and minorities to vote for their otherwise hopelessly-unelectable candidates, but they don’t want to get those blocs by actually talking about stuff women and minorities care about, nor about accomplishing tasks those groups care about. They want to keep acting like totally bugfuck-insane misogynists and racists, but they still want those votes–they just want them on Republicans’ own terms. They want to have their cake and force it to gestate, too: they want to keep the party exactly as it is now, as the slobbering knob-polishing tool of rich white male-centered Christianist interests, but they want to attract blocs of voters who traditionally want nothing to do with those interests. It can’t be easy for them, the poor dears.

So confronted with this very obvious dilemma, Republicans’ answer is to keep saying that they care about the things that women and minorities care about, to keep insisting that they’re not really totally out to destroy the rights of women and minorities, and hope that their constant gaffes and foot-in-mouth-and-set-on-fire missteps aren’t remembered at the polls. But their strategy does not, at this point, seem to include actually behaving like candidates who’ll attract women and minorities. That’d require work and a lot of essential changes to their mindset as well as some major re-tooling of their entire platform (which consists of pandering to angry, terrified white mid- to lower-class Christians who think feminists are evil and minorities aren’t quite human), and we know how well authoritarian-minded fundagelicals love them some change, right?

In the same exact way, toxic Christians who want to convert people say they want to win souls, but they want to win them on their own terms exclusively. They don’t want to actually learn how to win souls in a way that is not creepily manipulative or intellectually dishonest. They want to do it on their own terms. At least I can kind of understand why Christians are so bad at witnessing. Republicans baffle me completely–they’ve got bazillions of dollars to throw at finding real solutions to their problems, but throw all that money at think tanks and surveys and still want nothing to do with the reality that gets unearthed. Fundagelical Christians at least tend to be amateur orators and piss-poor philosophers filled with spiritual zeal and way too few critical thinking skills.

But I’m not sure even that excuses them. They’re still people, and as such, as people, they get confronted every single day with situations that require them to either persuade others or face attempts at persuasion themselves. From the moment they wake up to their clock radios and hear the ads on the morning show, from the moment they arrive at their workplaces and start going to their early-morning meetings, Christians are persuading and being persuaded. An ad comes on for a new sandwich shop that’s not too far off the path to work: the Christian hears it, and weighs the information it presents to decide if maybe it’s worth going to eat there once. The Christian stages a meeting where she must convince a new client to spend more money than the client had originally intended. An insurance salesperson tries to convince our Christian to do something different the homeowner’s policy. A cell phone ad in the paper is advising that a new contract will get you a special deal on a new phone, and maybe the Christian calls in to ask about it and negotiate a deal worth signing a new contract*. That night our Christian tries to convince the rest of the family that they can, indeed, afford a vacation to Disneyland. A relative tries to persuade our Christian to go in on an MLM scam involving water filters or herbal supplements or whatever. A friend is talking about a new diet she’s trying, the Christian’s partner would love to try something new and kinda freaky in bed… it goes on and on.

We’re humans, and part of the human condition is learning to work cooperatively. Working cooperatively means we have to sometimes persuade the rest of the group to do something they weren’t going to do otherwise. And it’s not like we’re terrible at doing it. Even as little children, we learn negotiation skills. Anybody who’s ever done hard time around toddlers knows that even before they can talk, they’re testing boundaries, asking for stuff and attention, and making counter-offers of their own to get their way. It’s a fascinating thing to see, how even the smallest of children intuit and learn how to manipulate the various adults around them, changing approaches to suit particular targets and adjusting their “sales pitch” according to the reception they’re getting.

Why do fundagelical Christians seem to totally forget what they’ve learned by the time they’re old enough to “spread the gospel”? For people who say they’re desperate to save the lost, these folks are the most hilariously inept at presenting a compelling reason to “get saved” that I’ve ever seen. And I wonder when my old worldview of Christianity changed into this Keystone Kops level of clownish, strong-arming, dishonest, arrogant, smug idiocy.

When I was a Christian, that was my focus, you see–to save people. I wept copious tears over the souls of my loved ones and family members. It bothered me hugely to think about them going to Hell (and no, I didn’t really stop to think about how ghastly it was that I still worshiped and “loved” the grotesque being who’d be responsible, if even indirectly, for their gruesome torture!). I wanted to save them from their fate. And yes, I wanted them to love this revoltingly wicked god the same way I thought I did. With those goals in mind, I studied how best to approach them. I tried to find angles of approach I thought they would understand. I studied how to build some kind of persuasive case for the people I wanted to reach. I tried my best to be as wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove, as the Bible verse goes. Because I recognized that a bad witness was worse than no witness at all, I didn’t witness to people I didn’t think I could at least make some kind of positive impact on, or wade into waters that were just too far out of my swimming ability. I figured that Jesus surely would have some other way of reaching them, if he really wanted to reach them, and if he gave me the sudden gift of insight, I’d use it, but otherwise, I wouldn’t damage the future soul-harvest of some other Christian better suited to talk to this person. To that person, I would only be as good an example of Christianity as I could, so at least I wouldn’t be the “bad Christian” such a person would remember later and stumble over.

Above all, I did not ever talk to non-believers the way that Christians routinely talk to me. I didn’t even know anybody who’d ever talk to non-believers the way I see Christians talking to people these days. Nobody, not even my crazy preacher husband at the time, Biff, would be so horrible to people as I see Christians acting all the time in real life and online.

Today, on Facebook, a Christian gal who doesn’t even know me tried to tell me that I’m unhappy (which is wrong) and that it wasn’t “nice” to ask her to actually present a compelling case for her religious claims, then repeatedly told detractors that we were all simply wrong without giving anybody any further information or elaboration; I could not even guess why she thought any of this act was compelling. I’ve been following elsewhere a long comment thread on a Patheos post asking for non-believers to please tell Christians what we wish they’d hear; its comments long ago devolved into Christians wading in to preach and proselytize at non-believers–and insult them in every way imaginable for not being believers, and of course threaten us with Hell for not believing (thankfully, their mods are quick to weed those folks out, but it’s like trying to control an ant invasion in a caramel factory). In the news, Christians constantly whine and mewl about being “persecuted” for having to treat LGBTQ people like real humans with real human rights; in one state, Christian-pandering legislators want to enshrine the Bible into law as their state’s official book–but of course they’re not trying to offend non-believers, heaven forbid!

“It’s not meant to be offensive,” Mr. Carmody said. “There’s no requirement that [residents] would have to follow this particular text.”

And I’m sure that this mealy-mouthed, callow, obviously dishonest evasion has fooled all the fundagelicals in that state, but it has not fooled anybody else. But if non-believers and non-toxic Christians are offended by their blatant violation of the law, then obviously that is our problem and if we speak out against their overreach, why, then we’ll be persecuting them. What’s really shocking is that these Christians actually think any of this is making their religion look like an option to anybody outside the faith. When we stop and think that no, they don’t actually care about converting people but rather just want to put their boots on the throats of those they view as inferior, these constant offenses and blatant power grabs start making a lot more sense. And that’s how I realized what the real core of the problem is.

Over and over again, Christians mistreat non-believers and completely mis-handle “sharing the good news” with us. I submit that their mistreatment goes well beyond simple ignorance and into what I truly believe is willful and self-serving ignorance. It’s not hard to find a non-believer these days to ask questions of. People even write entire blog posts about how to talk to non-believers (like this great one from Dan Fincke. It’s not hard to learn how to talk to people and engage them, if someone really wants to learn to do that. We’re not shy at all.

Given how easy it would be to learn to do better, I’ve got to wonder why Christians would ever treat people so outrageously abusively and ineptly, when they say their primary focus is on “saving” people from this horrible-but-unverified fate they are convinced exists.

Could it be that these Christians aren’t actually interested in doing the thing they say they’re trying to do?

Let’s consider this question for just a moment.

We’ve got a group of people who say that their goal is one thing, but their tactics go a different direction entirely. Taking them at their word, their tactics–treating people like shit, being hateful and controlling, acting smug and condescending, being brutally cruel and insulting, and shamelessly forcing their religion on outsiders at every opportunity–don’t make a bit of sense considering their stated goals of converting people to their way of thinking. We’ve talked before about how anti-abortion groups do the same thing, about how their stated goals of lowering abortion rates do not even in the slightest mesh with their tactics, which are either completely irrelevant to their goal (like demonstrating at clinics) or work actively against their goal (like their increasingly hostile stance toward contraceptive access). And this might be the same situation.

Could it be that these Christians don’t actually give a damn if they “save” anybody?

Could it be there’s some other reason they’re “sharing the good news” in such an incredibly hateful and controlling way?

Let’s look at their actual behaviors and tactics. Without knowing what their goal was, if you were some space alien who’d never been to Earth and you were seeing fundagelicals as a group for the first time, what would you say they were trying to accomplish after observing them in action?

Would you think for a single heartbeat that converting outsiders to their way of life was the goal?

I don’t think it would be. I think you, as a space alien, would think instead that they were trying to reinforce their privilege and reassert their dominance over outsiders. I think you’d know that nobody sane would ever want to convert to a religion whose believers mistreated people the way that toxic Christians routinely do.

Taking that first lady I mentioned a minute ago, how do you think she imagined her encounter was going to go? If she’d gotten any kind of positive reception, it would have blown her mind. She wasn’t interested in being taken well. She didn’t have the slightest idea how to engage with any kind of skepticism or criticism besides condemning it, hand-waving it aside, and then ultimately ignoring it. Had I suddenly said I wanted to convert to her kind of Christianity, a) she’d have probably fainted, but b) at that point I’d be converting to a religion that values someone like how she has presented herself in the context of her religion: a smug, controlling, intellectually dishonest, emotionally manipulative, gaslighting, tone- and gender-policing, arrogant, condescending, meddling, small-minded, close-minded, myopic, doublespeaking abuser. Do I have any reason to suspect that her little group of believers at her church are any different at all from her? Do I have any reason to suspect that her behavior is frowned upon by her church or denomination? No, I don’t. So why in the world would I ever want to join a group that is very likely made up of people like her? Does she seriously imagine anybody’d ever do that?

But by reacting negatively to her repeated baseless claims, by simply refusing to buy into her blandishments, by quite literally laughing at her blatant attempts to manipulate and coerce us, we gave her something that she couldn’t get anywhere else: we gave her the thrill of feeling persecuted and the delicious joy of feeling smug and right in the midst of so many people she thinks are wrong. Controllers don’t like not having someone to control. They get genuinely antsy when nobody’s opposing them. And they really hate being ignored. There isn’t much that gives as great a thrill to such people than trying to strong-arm someone spiritually, is there?

So I don’t think that fundagelicals really care about converting anybody as much as they might say they do. If they really cared about converting people, they’d push aside their dogma and parroted apologetics and learn what really works. If they really cared about persuading folks who by now are well-used to dodging their fallacies and debunked miracle claims, they’d learn how to engage us and how to structure and tailor their approaches; they’d learn what we really consider loving, and they’d learn what offends us and what to say and not say to make us receptive to at least discussing things with them.

Tellingly, they are doing none of this. Just like the Jesus Republican Party is doing on the national scale, they are doing on the personal scale. If being abusive and controlling isn’t working, then the problem is obviously that they are not being abusive and controlling enough. If treating people like shit isn’t persuading them, then the problem is obviously they are not marginalizing us enough yet. If fallacies and debunked miracle claims don’t work to get our attention, then obviously they need more fallacies and wilder miracle claims. I’ve never seen a group so wholeheartedly dedicated to the idea of doing everything possible to fix a problem except learn why that problem really exists or how that problem can actually be addressed.

And if we outsiders get completely turned off by their constant gaffes and blatantly offensive words and deeds, then obviously that just means that Jesus is convicting us and they need to keep doing it harder. If we non-believers refuse to comply and conform, then we must be hammered at over and over and over again to force us to comply and conform. If we non-believers stop trusting them to be honest about even the color of the very sky, then clearly they just need to learn to lie better.

This isn’t about conversion. It’s not even about love. Love listens and seeks to build bridges. What fundagelicals are doing here is ignoring outsiders’ very real complaints about their behavior and bludgeoning us with rocks to make us shut up and go along with at least one of the scripts they love so much.

I think what they want is the fight. I think what they want is the superiority and the feeling of being underdogs waging war on an unspeakably-powerful enemy. Not much else in fundagelicals’ lives makes them feel superior, I’m guessing; most of the country despises and distrusts them at this point, their truth claims are being debunked left and right; they’re losing social dominance at every turn. People in fundagelical churches tend to be lower-educated, lower-earning, poorer, more gullible, more unhealthy, more dysfunctional, and more likely to be living in a hellhole of crime and poverty than folks who aren’t in those churches. But dangit, at least they have the good fortune to believe just the right sort of nonsense! That, at least, they can use to look down on folks who are better-educated, healthier, and less gullible than they are.

Fundagelicals want converts, yes, but they want those encounters to go along according to the apologetics script they’ve got in their heads. Very few non-believers will fit into that script. There are very specific things these Christians know how to address in witnessing, and non-believers who are willing to dance according to the outlined feet on the floor are a lovely surprise for them.

Once they’ve figured out that their target ain’t converting and ain’t following the Conversion Script, though, then they pull out the Fight Script. That’s the one they use most, since the vast majority of their attempts at witnessing do not go a single bit like the Conversion Script says they should go.

I know that I’ve outlined a really nasty idea here. I recoil just thinking about it. But I don’t see much other alternative to it. I cannot see fundagelicals’ hamfisted attempts to strong-arm others into conforming and converting without seeing an attempt, at its core, to oppress others and get a renewed reason to feel smug and superior to those being oppressed. Fundagelicals’ attempts to convert people are little more than a coat of whitewash hiding a core of true hatred and fear.

My predictions seem to be borne out when I protest my poor treatment at the hands of these Christians and get, in return, that I just don’t know better. I need to totally re-define my ideas about morality and love to encompass what these abusers are doing to me. I need to let them abuse me. I need to allow my own victimization and I need to understand that their religion tells them they simply must do things this way, and they’re just followin’ orders like good little soldiers.

I call bullshit.

BULLSHIT!

I know that toxic Christians are not very likely to read this post, much less heed it if they do read it, but I’d say to them, if I thought it’d do any good: If you want to at least open a real dialogue with me about your faith, then you need to make sure that you are presenting yourself as a true servant of Jesus.

You need to be humble, loving, gentle-hearted, generous, kind, and fair. You need to treat me with kindness, humbleness, graciousness, respect, courtesy, and good humor. If you don’t like how someone acts toward you, then you need to either swallow back your pride and irritation and forgive that person seventy times seven, or you need to not fucking open your gaping pie-hole to witness in the first place if you can’t finish the job.

True servants of Jesus–people who really know and understand that Love Chapter of their own Bible–don’t try to cold-read victims. They don’t manipulate people’s fears and prey upon the vulnerable and weak, condemn them, force their faith upon them, treat them hatefully, demand they conform to the Christian’s erroneous ideas about what behaviors are loving and which aren’t, mischaracterize them, or when all else fails simply lie to them.

I don’t ask Christians to be experts in biology, history, archaeology, or any of the many other subjects they only dimly comprehend but think they’re experts in. It’s embarrassing to see them get buried whenever they trot out their David Barton revisionism or Ken Ham lunacy, but these fake experts aren’t the biggest problem their worldview has. Christians themselves are.

So I do at least ask them to be able to demonstrate the very most essential and basic tenets of their faith–you know, that love your neighbor stuff they long ago discarded as boring and hard. If the Christian can’t do that, then not much else is going to seem compelling.

See, I know the big secret about religions: none of them make valid truth claims. None of them! I know that what makes a religion valid isn’t how historically or scientifically accurate its sourcebooks are or if it gets real miracles. The smart religions don’t even go there. What makes a religion valid is how well its people love each other and outsiders, how they help society progress forward, how they improve and unite the human race, and how they grow spiritually. But fundagelicals don’t do a single bit of any of that. They do the dead opposite of all of those things–in addition to insisting that their sourcebook is a valid history and science book when it just isn’t and their miracles are real when they just aren’t. That’s how I know their religion isn’t valid.

And I think that’s a big part of why fundagelical Christianity is dragging the whole religion down the toilet with itself as it fades into irrelevance. Christians like these are simply not compelling witnesses for their faith. In fact, their entire witnessing paradigm is not one designed to gain converts (though if some come in that way, that’s fine) but rather to enforce cultural dominance and their own privilege and feelings of unwarranted superiority over other people. Until fundagelicals wake up to this huge mismatch between their tactics and goals, they are going to continue alienating the very people they say they want most to reach–and they are going to continue fading in power as their own people get disgusted by their overreach and cruelties and walk away along with those of us who long ago rejected their grab for our (possibly non-existent) souls.

This was going to be a short post, but holy COW it got long. Thanks for reading all this. And do please join me next time as we talk about imperialism, since we’re heading into that time of year when young Christians start begging for money to go on expensive vacations mission trips to bring the “good news” to the pagan wilds of Hawaii and Jamaica, and the topic’s kind of related to this one. See you soon.

* Note to those who don’t know a lot about the inner workings of cell-phone companies: there is no deal that should be worth you signing a contract with a cell-phone company. Ever. Don’t do it. Contracts are for people who don’t know how to math.

 

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