Lately I've been getting a little flack for downplaying the importance of evangelism. I wrote a post recently entitled, "We Need Each Other," celebrating diversity of various kinds: ethnic diversity, linguistic diversity, cultural diversity, and yes -- religious diversity. But how could I celebrate this as a Christian, some have asked.
"Isn't your central goal as a Christian to convert others to Christianity?"
"Don't you decide to follow Jesus, then you help others to do the same?"
I disagree with the first question. We'll get to the second in a moment. I am not interested in making religious converts. Converts to a set of doctrines about somebody. Converts to a confined, cultural way of thinking. Converts to outdated conventions or to a dualistic religion of escapism: "Believe this and go to heaven. Get on board or go to hell. Our religion is the only true religion. Convert or die." Or just as bad: "Convert and experience God's wonderful plan for your life." No, thank you.
Such an approach explains my hesitation when people ask if I'm excited about evangelism. In fact, if that's your impetus, I'd say, just stop sharing. We don't need more religiosity, more escapism, more fundamentalism, more prosperity-gospel-inspired materialism. Hence my hesitation about "evangelism."
The second question -- "Don't you decide to follow Jesus, then you help others to do the same?" -- I am more prone to agree with. Following someone indicates a way of life. Following someone is something you do today. Following a set of teachings, a manner, an approach, an ideal -- this I can get on board with, and is what I think Jesus was actually about. In the Great Commission, he called for the making of disciples -- people who followed a teacher in order to bring about his or her vision of the world.
So I say, if you're going to bring them to Jesus, then actually bring them to Jesus!
Bring them to the Jesus who was born an illegitimate child to peasant parents in an out-of-the-way place, in the shadow of power and empire. Bring them to the Jesus who told stories denouncing abuse of money, power and privilege. The Jesus who, in parables, helped people see the darker side of themselves while also inspiring with the reminder that the divine presence was hidden in plain view. The Jesus whose parables exposed systems of abusive power. The Jesus who touched lepers, dined with outcast prostitutes and sellout tax collectors, the Jesus who eschewed violence and incarnated love. The Jesus who stared Rome in the face, received their worst, yet responded in love and forgiveness. Yes, please bring them to this Jesus.
In the Great Commission, Jesus didn't say, "Make sure to scare people away from a mythical hell so that they'll sign the dotted line of a later constructed doctrine. Make sure they also know to vote this way on abortion and taxes, and always fund military efforts (ALWAYS), because you know, that stuff about 'live by the sword, die by the sword'? I didn't really mean it. Also, make sure that you pass laws that protect a very narrow definition of the family from those who don't get on board with your narrow idea of sexuality. In short, no gay people. Also, corporations are people, so always give the benefit of the doubt to the richest and most powerful. Their voices count the most -- so be sure to convert them first."
Jesus didn't say anything like this. And perhaps I've made a caricature here, but in far too many cases, it's awfully close to the truth -- a truth that would make Jesus weep.
As Marcus Borg has put it: "The dominant values of American life -- affluence, achievement, power, competition, consumption, individualism -- are vastly different from anything recognizably Christian. As individuals and as a culture ... our existence has become massively idolatrous." Or perhaps, as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer notes, these values are all too Christian, but all too little like Jesus.
And maybe we shouldn't be surprised. After all, the religion of Christianity was formed in many ways by the subsequent creeds that cropped up in the centuries after Jesus. Nelson-Pallmeyer noted, "How would Jesus make sense out of Christian creeds that ignore his life and confess an ahistorical birth? Like a peanut butter sandwich without peanut butter, the Christian creeds are destined to disappoint. They jump from 'born of' to 'suffered under,' leaving out the most important ingredient. The Christ of faith enshrined in the creeds has literally displaced and rendered the life of Jesus meaningless. If Jesus' life is not important enough to make it into the creeds, then why should it be allowed to shape the content of our faith that, according to creedal logic, [finds it not even worth mentioning]!"
So I say again, if you're going to bring them to Jesus, then bring them to Jesus. Not to Christianity. Not to a doctrine. Not to a creed. But to a way of life. One that embodies the kingdom Jesus proclaimed of justice, mercy, forgiveness, equality and love.
As John Dominic Crossan so helpfully puts it, we need to ground our lives in faith in the Jesus of history:
"The earthly Jesus was not just a thinker with ideas but a rebel with a cause. He was a Jewish peasant with an attitude, and he claimed that his attitude was that of the Jewish God. But it was, he said, in his life and in ones like it that the kingdom of God was revealed, that the Jewish God of justice and righteousness was incarnated in a world of injustice and unrighteousness. The kingdom of God was never just about words and ideas, aphorisms and parables, sayings and dialogues. It was about a way of life. And that means it was about a body of flesh and blood. Justice is always about bodies and lives, not just about words and ideas. Resurrection does not mean, simply, that the spirit or soul of Jesus lives on in the world. And neither does it mean, simply, that the companions or followers of Jesus live on in the world. It must be the embodied life that remains powerfully efficacious in this world...
There is, then, only one Jesus, the embodied Galilean who lived a life of divine justice in an unjust world, who was officially and legally executed by that world's accredited representatives, and whose continued empowering presence indicates, for believers, that God is not on the side of injustice -- even (or especially) imperial justice. There are not two Jesuses -- one pre-Easter and another post-Easter, one earthly and another heavenly, one with a physical and another with a spiritual body. There is only one Jesus, the historical Jesus who incarnated the Jewish God of justice for a believing community committed to continuing such incarnation ever afterward."
Evangelism? Maybe, maybe not.
Postscript: My desire to follow Jesus has plenty of room to respect, learn from, and cooperate with other faith traditions and other religions, as well as atheists, agnostics, and humanists. And I think Jesus would be okay with that.