The non-religious have long been discussing the toxic environment that evangelizing and proselytizing can create. Common complaints are attitudes of hostility, harassment, implicit threats of eternal torture, and a refusal to desist when asked. All of these are important problems, but I want to draw attention to the less-examined side of the issue: the culture of proselytizing hurts its own members.
Surprisingly, it only recently dawned on me how unhealthy the mindset of evangelizing culture is. Growing up, it was impressed on me that the world was lost and dying; each person was wallowing in a temporary hell, just waiting until the afterlife to suffer eternally again in a permanent hell. The picture painted was pretty dire, and it broke this child’s heart. I wanted so badly for these poor, suffering people to be happy and avoid this dark fate.
But the true danger comes from the expectations that the church places on its congregation. We were given the “great commission” to witness to all nations and people of the good news of Christ. If this had been taken more in the spirit of John 13:35 (“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” NKJV) it would not be much of a problem. Christians could be a shining example of love and kindness, joy and a devotion to justice and the defense of the underprivileged. Witnessing could be accomplished by our attitudes and actions towards our fellow man, without a word being said about hellfire or demands being made for them to follow your particular creed.
But that wasn’t how it was billed to me. Witnessing was the act of pressuring a person to convert to your religion. “I’m a Christian” was supposed to always be on my lips. I wasn’t supposed to stand out from the crowd just by my kindness and selflessness, but also by pushing my faith onto others at all times, regardless of whether my advances were welcome or not. After all, in the evangelical culture, I was personally responsible for the lives of all of the lost people I encountered. If I failed to “share the gospel” with atheists, sinners, or liberal “Christians” then their blood was on my hands.
This is a horrifying amount of pressure to put on any man, woman or child. Needless to say, it can have a lot of dangerous results. Some of my peers responded by becoming militant proselytizers. I still see them crowing on Facebook about each person that they harangued with the “good news” of hellfire and damnation. Every time they bring up religion in a conversation they become offensive and disrespectful. They seem incapable of self-reflection, and truly believe that they are presenting a godly image to the world, even as people flee from them and curse the judgmental asshole of a god that they purport to serve.
Then, there was me. I quickly recognized, once I entered the real world, that any attempt at conversions would not be well-received by my non-Christian friends. In fact, most of them were fully aware of the Christian doctrine and had simply made the conscious choice to reject it. I felt like it would be disrespectful and hurtful for me to argue this decision without even being invited or asked for an opinion. But this flew in the face of everything I had been taught. I wallowed in guilt as I imagined all of the friends that I was failing by “hiding my light under a basket.” I knew that, if I became the virulent evangelist that I had been taught to be, I would likely have no secular friends (and, by extension, have less opportunity to witness to them.) But I was still taught that refraining from actively converting my friends was being selfish: trading their immortal souls for my momentary comfort. I would have moments of shaky, sweaty panic as I would tell myself over and over again to just force the issue on them before it was too late! But my voice wouldn’t come and I would beat myself up in my head for weeks after, lamenting the blood that was slowly soaking my hands, clothes, and entire body. I was responsible for so many souls and I was failing them all. It was nightmarish to imagine.
It still makes me a little sick just remembering the amount of cognitive dissonance I felt. I had been set up with an impossible choice, and neither option seemed to be serving the Kingdom of God. On one hand, I could congratulate myself on my aggressive proselytizing, even if it left me isolated and utterly ineffective at being a good witness. On the other hand, I could maintain relationships and shine as a good friend, but be guilty of the souls of my friends that I wasn’t actively recruiting to my religion.
Eventually, the Guilt became such a constant companion that I grew numb to it. I went through a period of years where I no longer evaluated the moral rightness or wrongness of anything, because I was too spiritually exhausted to try. I will write more on that in another post. After those years, however, it finally occurred to me that my entire view of “witnessing” was disturbingly flawed. I was not responsible for anyone’s soul. We were all our own people, with our own decisions and our own experiences, and it is not my job to force others into heaven. I do not need to hide my decisions and beliefs, but I also don’t need to feel guilty for respecting other peoples’ decisions and beliefs. Indeed, I think that is something to be proud of. After all, who is a better witness of rightness: one who offends or one who heals?