In its July 2010 issue, Christianity Today, the masthead publication of Evangelical Protestantism, reported the merger of two Evangelical organizations engaged in missionary work in the Muslim world: Pioneers USA and Arab World Ministries. These have a combined total of 2,300 missionaries. The report does not make clear how many of these are actually trying to convert Muslims to Christianity or are only engaged in various forms of good works, such as medical services or famine relief. The former activity is obviously more difficult than the latter, but both are dangerous, as evidenced by the murder of ten medical workers, six of them Evangelical Westerners, by the Afghan Taliban in August 2010. The Evangelical organization that had sponsored their work, International Assistance Mission, has a policy of refraining from evangelism, but the Taliban justified the murder by saying that the victims were spying for the Americans and engaging in “proselytizing.” The sentence of death for the latter charge is based in Islamic law, which prescribes this penalty both for a Muslim who converts to another faith and to those who induced the apostasy.
One should step back from the factual report of an organizational merger and reflect on its meaning: Here are people willing to face death by non-violently witnessing to their faith. It seems to me that, regardless of one’s own beliefs, this is something that merits respect.
Christianity has been a missionary religion from its inception. In the so-called Great Commission, supposedly given by Jesus to a group of disciples on a mountain in Galilee in the last of his post-resurrection appearances: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mathew 28-19). Few modern New Testament scholars find it credible that the historical Jesus could have uttered this Trinitarian formula. Be this as it may, the Christian missionary enterprise has always been legitimated by this mandate. Most churches (including the Protestant mainline), give lip service to it but have reinterpreted it so as to exclude direct efforts to convert. Evangelicals not only take the mandate literally, but have put the obligation to witness at the very center of the Christian life. If by “missionaries” one means people who preach in order to convert, most who carry this label with this understanding are Evangelicals. Their numbers are very difficult to pin down. The estimates vary so widely that it is not worth repeating them here, except to say that they certainly include tens of thousands of individuals. Some of these preach on street corners, but others work in medical clinics or food distribution centers. Some have full-time jobs as missionaries, others do this on a part-time basis (many Evangelical congregations encourage members to go abroad doing missionary work for a few weeks or months). It is also important to keep in mind that Americans are only a part of the worldwide Evangelical missionary enterprise—the other part is even harder to pin down. Brazilian Evangelicals are preaching in Portuguese-speaking Africa. Missionaries from Africa are ”planting” churches in the former Soviet Union. South Koreans, often under the guise of doing business, infiltrate into China in order to spread Evangelical Protestantism.
But outside the Evangelical world, “proselytizing” is indeed a bad word. Other Protestants and the secular media regard it as an expression of “fundamentalism”—an elastic term, which can mean anything religious one does not like, in this case a faith that is intolerant and aggressive. The politically correct of all or no religious persuasion associate it with ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism and colonialism. Roman Catholics tend to be more cautious in condemning “proselytism”—after all, they practice it themselves, asserting as they do that theirs is the only true church—but the more progressive ones also shy away from outright conversion activities, preferring terms like “enculturation” (adapting Christianity to non-Western indigenous cultures rather than going at them head-on) and “Christian presence” (bearing witness not by overt preaching, but rather by quietly practicing the Christian virtues of compassion and charity). The most favored alternative to “proselytism” is “dialogue,” the non-confrontational, open-minded conversation with “the Other.”
Personally, I have no interest in converting anyone to my own religious or philosophical worldview, except for certain moral convictions of the latter—such as an abhorrence of racism, homophobia and capital punishment (in my earliest writings I suggested that a humanistic sociology could be helpful in combating these three instances of inhumanity—I did not use the term “homophobia” because it had not yet come into the language). I regard it as part of my religious freedom that I am free to convey my own convictions to others and, even in amicable dialogue, to explain why I disagree with some of theirs. No desire to “proselytize” here! But I have respect for those who feel that they must do so, as long as they do it without coercion—even if I do not particularly respect their belief system as such—and especially if they engage in their missionary activity under threat of persecution and death.
As a social scientist committed to Max Weber’s methodology of “interpretative understanding” (Verstehen), I think it is important to put oneself into the mindset of people whose behavior one wants to explain. A few years ago the Southern Baptist Convention reiterated its intention to continue its program to convert Jews. This has been a big no-no in mainline Protestantism, ever since sometime in the 1940s Reinhold Niebuhr, its most renowned theologian, said that Jews should not be targets of conversion efforts (a position with which I fully agree). The Southern Baptist statement aroused particular resentment among Jews. Some Jewish organizations condemned it as anti-Semitic. In a conversation with me, a rabbi friend of mine made the same charge. I suggested to him that he should put himself in the minds of the people who made this statement. They actually believe that anyone who does not “accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior” cannot attain eternal life in heaven. Therefore the Gospel must be preached to “all nations.” I think this is a foolish and objectionable belief. But anti-Semitic? Hardly so. To exclude Jews from the opportunity to go to heaven—that would be anti-Semitic! I did not, alas, convince my friend.