James E. McGuire
My purpose in the following article is to address some of the specific concerns that I hear Roman Catholic clergymen, parents, and young people express with respect to “Christian” evangelizers who seem more concerned with winning converts to their particular group than with witnessing to Christ.
It is not my intention at this time to focus on the more global and discursive point of guaranteed religious freedom in the United States today. The first amendment guarantees of religious belief and practices, so often discussed in general terms, are not usually at the heart of the matter when Christians and non-Christians discuss controversial evangelizing or proselytizing activities. People are usually more caught up in the impact that sudden conversions have on an individual’s inner peace and previous religious commitment, as well as the family’s reaction to a member’s sudden conversion to “Christianity.”
Four years ago, an eighteen-year-old friend of mine, a graduate of twelve years of traditional Roman Catholic education, went South to begin her college education. Having chosen a small Baptist school in South Carolina, Kim suddenly found herself rooming with a Baptist student who “witnessed” constantly, reading from the Bible and questioning Kim’s commitment to Christ almost daily.
Kim called me several times, deeply upset and agitated that her fundamental structure of personal faith and confessional experience were under constant attack. I advised her to make the statement, “Yes, I am saved. As a Roman Catholic, I have encountered Jesus as my personal Savior, and the Holy Spirit is in my life.”
My reasons for this counsel were twofold: first, I am genuinely convinced that Kim did then and still does believe in Jesus as her Lord, and second, her present vocation as a radiologist is a definite manifestation of the inner goodness and Christian concern that was observable in her life four years ago.
Unfortunately for Kim, my suggestion had little impact on her roommate, who then shifted her questioning to such Roman Catholic doctrines as devotion to Mary Mother of the Lord, the sacraments, the office of the Papacy, and the centrality of the Eucharist;
Why? “That’s what Kim and I both wanted to know at the time. I am sure that we will never answer that question as concerns this particular case, because Kim had to withdraw from the school after one semester – and one roommate later. We were both one hundred percent certain that the context of this particular campus was not conducive to her spiritual, mental and physical well-being.
This case, while not absolutely paradigmatic, is typical of such encounters as experienced by both Catholic and non-Christian young people, especially those of the Jewish faith.
The main reason that such persistent proselytizing occurs, in my view, is that the proselytizers or evangelists assume that Kim and others like her “need to be saved.” When a proselytizer’s opening question is a direct and penetrating “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Savior?” delivered without qualifications or regard for the other person’s readiness to answer, that is too heavy a burden for a stranger to place on a young person.
Shouldn’t the question be a little more protracted in order to include the necessary nuances? How about this instead. “Given your Roman Catholic background and my Baptist background, do you feel as I do that we have a common ground to discuss and share one another’s understanding of and commandment to the person of Jesus Christ?”
Such wording respects what I feel is the pivotal point in this entire context: the recognition that every Christian is the sum total of each person and experience that he or she has met along the way in his or her family, church, school, and community. In other words, a person’s individual, family, and religious history and church experience – his or her Christian anthropology – must be acknowledged and respected from the start.
The love, sweat, tears, and faith experiences of our home front – parents, friends, neighbors, parishioners, priest, minister, or rabbi – are sacred memories, constitutive of our being who we are, and should never be taken for granted or casually dismissed as no longer important, or, worse, as mistaken.
Herein lies my greatest worry, and the root of some degree of resentment of the young, zealous Christian proselytizers and/or evangelists who are taking off after the “unsaved” of this world. With little or no study of or interest in the theologies and practices of other Christian denominations or non-Christian religions, with a limited perspective on the psychological, emotional, and rational dimensions of how a person’s faith is formed and develops, and with very little sensitivity to where a person “has been” in his or her quest for God, their encounters with the “unsaved” most often take place in a religious, social, cultural and psychological vacuum.
The zealot doesn’t seem concerned with the family turmoil which may result from a young person’s rejection of former ways; the mandate to save must take precedent. My objection is not to this centrality of achieving salvation from the Lord, but the manner, the modus agendi, the over-enthusiastic and even fanatical tendencies of some proselytizers and evangelizers.
The dilemma that these overly enthusiastic and somewhat fanatical evangelizers presents to the evangelical church is truly ironic. The primacy given through the centuries to the Bible’s authority over all human authorities is now theologically troublesome to evangelical Protestantism. How can you temper over-enthused or fanatical disciples without some measure of church authority and a fundamental listing of gospel teachings? But whose authority and whose list of teachings? A tradition of private interpretation of biblical truth seems to clash with the contemporary need of the evangelical churches to respect other people’s God-given and constitutionally guaranteed freedom to think, to decide, and to act religiously and responsibly.
Whose evangelical voice is the “most” correct? Will authority rest with Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes? Therein lies the dilemma for this one Roman Catholic priest.
Who is to speak authoritatively and decisively for the Christian evangelical churches? Who will be recognized as the voice of fairness, equity, and genuine Christian truth in the larger dialogue of evangelical Christianity with “mainstream” Protestant churches, Roman and Orthodox churches, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a hundred other confessional bodies?
If the pluralism of American religious experience is to be respected, American Evangelical Christians face the serious challenge of evolving external church structures that embody authority, discipline, and doctrine. Evangelical Christians must also accept the central challenge presented by the advances in ecumenism and interdenominational dialogue. These absolutely necessary conditions must be met if mutual witnessing and evangelization are to occur without mistrust and misunderstanding.
My spirit and intent in this article has been polemical not in the manner of provocation and disunity, but intellectually polemical; more, I trust, in the manner of a Christian apologist.
The issue needing our immediate attention is the discomfort, unhappiness, and, at times, resentment felt by many Christians and non-Christians towards what they perceive as the unwholesome and troubling activities of Christian evangelicals who choose not to recognize and respect an individual’s previous religious history, but act from some self-proclaimed divine mandate to save us guys out here in the chaos.
Rev. James E. McGuire, S.T.D., is Principal of St. Pius X High School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.