Response: Is Proselytizing Offensive? Sure. But I Won’t Give Them the Satisfaction of Martyrdom

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My colleague Chrissy Stroop’s powerful excoriation of evangelical Christian proselytizing pushed the predictable buttons among many readers. I’m guessing that she was glad to sit back and savor the many misreadings, false equivalencies, and outraged yelps that her broadside brought forth. A sea of writhing red herrings can be an entertaining sight.

A common and willful misreading that Chrissy needed to shoot down immediately: the idea that proselytizing is just another form of persuasion. It’s not, of course. The dictionary supplies two distinct meanings for proselytize, and it’s clear that Chrissy was referring to the firstthe one with the aim of religious conversion. There’s nothing objectionable about me trying to convince my neighbor to support my view of, say, police union power; but asking my neighbor to accept Jesus as her personal savior is quite a different matter. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I’m a United Church of Christ ministerof the non-evangelical variety.)

Chrissy is also totally right about the Christian privilege problem. It’s plain as day that proselytizers treat the unconverted as inferior and that there’s more condemnation than compassion involved when they try to get the marks to step up and get saved. Chrissy didn’t mention this, but I tend to think that many proselytizers actually enjoy having their conversion efforts rejected, as this reinforces the smug sense that the cross of Christ will be a “stumbling block” for many. It reinforces the neat and comforting division of humanity into the saved and the damned.

Chrissy also doesn’t address a particularly egregious dimension of the proselytizers’ program. I’m referring here to the obvious potential for abuse in situations where the subjects of conversion efforts are especially vulnerable: situations of incarceration, hospitalization, addiction, etc. It’s always disgusting to see social workers, teachers, drug counselors, foster parents, and supervisors in juvenile facilities use positions of power and influence to swoop in and “save” people who are under duress.

I wish Chrissy had said just a bit more about the difference between behavior that’s abusive and behavior that’s offensive. She won’t get an argument from me on the point that all proselytizing is offensive. But is all of it abusive, and does it always involve an unacceptable objectification of the other person?

I’ve never tried to convert anyone, but neither do I decline to engage with people who ask me about my beliefs. Usually what I say is that questions matter more than answers, what one believes is much less important than how one behaves, and that while I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Jesus, I don’t buy the whole Nicene package

I also say that my faith, such as it is, is really important to me. Am I proselytizing when I say this? I suppose I am, in a way, though I’m fairly certain this isn’t what Chrissy had in mind. Is it offensive? I hope not. What I absolutely never do is peddle false faith-centered comfort to bereaved or traumatized people. To me there’s a bright red line in such cases.

When others try to convert me, I usually try to deflect it by saying “I’m in the businessyou’re wasting your time.” When they persist (and they often do, when they discover that I’m actually an apostate in cleric’s garb), I still try to keep it light. What I don’t want to do is flaunt my moral or intellectual superiority over the born-again interlocutor at my door or the energetic pamphleteer out on the street. If unwanted Christian “testimony” is offensive (and it is), so is excessive sneering.

But I do understand the history and the power dynamic that Chrissy lays out with such clarity. For those seriously wounded by evangelicalism (not to mention Jews, Muslims, and committed atheists) proselytizing behavior can be more than merely offensive; it can be a real trigger, a hard slap, a source of renewed hurt.  

I’m totally with Chrissy in wanting to see Christian proselytizing critiqued persistently and thoughtfully in such a way that doing it eventually gets treated as a fairly serious faux pas. I’m with her as well in taking down Christian supremacy in all of its forms and getting rid of the undue deference that believers get from the media, the courts, and the politicians. 

Meanwhile, and speaking only for myself, I’m not going to freak out when people try to buttonhole me about my beliefs or put their own beliefs on flagrant display in an effort to win my soul. It’s annoying, and I want to see it go away. But I don’t want to give the evangelizers the satisfaction of martyrdom; that’s playing into their game, and it’s only bound to keep it going.