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On proselytism

28 February 2010

One of the most annoying characters I have ever met is also one of the more fascinating. His name is Gary Birdsong, more affectionately (?) known as “the Pit preacher”. He stands in the Pit for a few days in a row every month and yells at students as they pass through on their way to get lunch or scurrying off to class. His favorite words seem to be “hell”, “sin”, “whore”, “whoremonger”, and “homosexual”–they are all he ever talks about. Women who wear pants are going to hell; people who listen to rock ‘n roll are going to hell; people who smoke pot are gay and going to hell. His message seems to be that God hates you and if you want him not to, you need to join me in my crazy babbling. People stand around and argue with him for hours on end, forgetting that you cannot reason with craziness.

As a rational human being, I find Gary absurd. His arguments make no sense and there is no way he can back them up with anything, not even the Bible. He carries a Bible, but thumps it rather than reading it. As a Christian, I find his message deeply painful. The starting point for Christian theology is “God is love”, so to say that God hates anyone or anything is a complete departure from Christianity, on the most fundamental level. Everything in Christian doctrine and history stems from the notion that God loves you. Period. No caveats.

The problem with Christians is that they are too timid to say this. It’s a radical message and two millennia of Christian history has tried to gloss over it–and with some considerable success. When the average non-believing American thinks about the Christian understanding of God, it’s usually as a judgmental figure associated with the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and (God forbid) Fred Phelps. But, as it turns out, we believe that God loves you more than you can fathom, for who you are as you are and not for anything you could do. That is what Martin Luther was trying to get at.

Liberal Christianity, in an age of religious pluralism, is scared to assert this truth that we believe. We do not want to step on anyone’s toes, even those crazy conservative evangelicals who stand on street corners and preach the exact opposite of what Jesus of Nazareth preached and what we hold to be true. But in this ambivalence, we have largely lost our message. We have hid our little light under a bushel and it is struggling not to go out. However, this message of love is ultimately the basis by which we see ourselves and our role in the word; we are called to show love to those who are far off and to those who are near.

We shudder at the thought of “proselytizing” or of “evangelizing”, and perhaps rightly so being that our mission is not to “take God” to people, but help them recognize God’s loving presence in their own lives. Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. Bidden or not bidden, God is present. But must we wince at even talking about our faith? Must we dodge questions about what we do at church? Must we avoid welcoming people whole-heartedly who darken our doors?

We have inscribed in our collective psyche “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” It’s about time that we live up to that promise and show forth love. Otherwise, we are no better than Gary Birdsong, standing in the Pit, telling people of their final destination amongst fire and brimstone. If they do not hear our story, they will assume his is the only version.

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