Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Evangelism and Evangelicals

Discussions about evangelism go hand in hand with talking about evangelicals, a group within Christianity characterized by a deep need to be “born again” and to share the gospel in missionary work of one form or another, hoping to convert others to the good news. The idea of good news is the very expression evangelical and evangelism derive their modern usage from, euangelion/evangelion, Greek for good news or message. Of course, one can evangelize about anything you feel is good news, but Christianity popularized the notion that Jesus’ death and subsequent alleged resurrection are good news for the whole world. But even if it is true, the way many evangelicals and Christians in general of that stripe go about it might be said to be missing the point of Jesus’ message in part.

The first general quality of missionaries and evangelists is their fervor for conversion. The most obvious example that comes to mind, ironically, is from Mormonism, where young men, and women at times, are sent to various places across the world or even within the U.S. to spread the particular Mormon flavor of Christianity. Evangelicals might have a few choice words for Mormons as to whether they’re in conformity with orthodox and/or Biblical teachings, but we’ll leave that for them to squabble over. The notion of conversion comes with a category of what genuine conversion consists in, or at least what it appears to be. 
Someone can convert for various reasons besides a spiritual experience of any form. The influence of peer pressure motivated me, as well as some genuine curiosity, which was sated in part. Although even today after around a year’s worth of study in Christianity through my four year university education concentrated on religious studies, I still don’t think I’ll ever understand what is more a phenomenological or existential aspect of Christianity. It might be my psychology doesn’t dispose me to believe I need salvation from outside of myself and so theistic religions in general are not terribly compelling in any spiritual matters, so to speak. In that sense, Christian missionaries have to be that much more creative to try to pull people into their particular proclamations of faith. That much I can credit them for, not to mention they were the first historically to start translating many Eastern texts from Buddhism, etc.

Evangelism also has an ironic effect of education in one form or another. Even if it could potentially confuse one with the varied doctrines that might be presented from one Christian group to the next (Mormons and evangelicals for the pertinent example), or even one non-Christian evangelical group to the next (they do exist), there is at least the spread of some form of information in what is referred to by many as the free market of ideas, most notably, Penn Jillette, noted atheist and magician. In the same way that with freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment of the U.S. constitution, even if the ideas being presented and shared are controversial in nature, as Christians would say strongly that the Gospel is (foolishness to the wise and offensive in general to nonbelievers), people should still have a right to present those ideas without fear of being persecuted. In this way, people can learn and be more discerning in the future. Christians could be said to have a bit of a persecution complex, ironically, thinking that they’re somehow the only group that gets ostracized and threatened in any way by other people for doing missionary work (like in China), but Muslims and Mormons are still both isolated and treated harshly by their neighbors in the U.S.

With this in mind, there is a bad side to evangelism that was implied and that’s the fixation upon religious identity that comes from conversion. Christians seem to think only those who believe specific creeds or tenets can be said to follow Jesus. But many Muslims, Jews and others agree with Jesus’ ethical teachings and even many ideas about how the Abrahamic covenant works in one sense or another, particularly things about interpreting religious law, which Jesus brought up many times in engaging with the Pharisees. Jesus also broke down many boundaries that exist today and if Paul is any indication of Jesus’ teachings, in heaven, there will be no Gentile or Jew, no rich or poor, and no male or female among other distinctions we make on a day-to-day basis about people’s identities. Distinctions such as specifically what you believed about Jesus would be less important to Jesus as opposed to whether you follow his teachings sincerely. Even if you don’t believe in God, you can behave as Jesus did, not discriminating based on one’s livelihood or your bad traits (adultery, perjury, etc), but taking you as you are. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to help them in becoming a better person, but you should first and foremost accept them as a fellow flawed human being, which Jesus 
was, in part, even if he was also God in the same breath.

I hope I haven’t given any impression that all evangelicals behave like this, or even all Christians. The idea behind evangelism, from what I’ve seen and understand, is less about trying to convince someone about Jesus through words or debate, and more about showing God and Jesus’ effect on your life through actions and deeds, your behavior as a whole. In that sense, people could conceivably do this sort of thing and not even realize they’re making someone think about Jesus, though people can think of similar figures depending on culture, such as Siddhartha Gautama in the East. All in all, though, evangelism is a fairly good way to spread information and engage with people, but evangelicals, to an extent, have made it more about division than the unity that Jesus tried to advocate in his teachings, including everyone in the kingdom of heaven who would follow him. Let Jesus run his kingdom; the disciples of Christ are supposed to walk the world and proclaim the kingdom to others, am I right? Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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