Evangelising in a Moral Way
Sherman Kuek, SFO
Published in Catholic Asian News
(March 2010 Issue)
Have you watched the movie Fireproof (2008)? Since its publication, it seems to have become quite a hit in various Christian circles, especially as a tool for the promotion of healthy marriages and family life.
In one scene, the son, Caleb Halt, says, “See, I don't understand. Why do I need His salvation? What? Am I gonna be thrown into hell? For what? 'Cause I got divorced?” And the father, John Halt, in apparent agreement that his beloved son is in fact bound for hell, replies, “No. Because you violated His standards”.
With indignation, the son continues challenging his father’s position, “What? 'Thou shall not kill'? Dad, I help people. I am a good person”, to which the father rebuts, “According to you. But God doesn't judge by your standards. He uses His”.
Unbeknownst to many unsuspecting Catholics who have come to appreciate this movie, Fireproof has incredibly strong Evangelical Protestant undertones in its understanding of salvation. Their doctrine of salvation says that people who do not receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour are condemned to an eternity in hell, no matter how well-intentioned and highly moral they may be.
It is also this doctrine of salvation that propels them to spread their faith convictions the way they do. The salvation of all their non-Christian relatives and friends is a fragile egg hanging on a string. As a result, out of pure care and concern, there is an urgency to “get them saved” so that their eternal fate will take on a different direction.
Of course, the Catholic Church too believes that Jesus is the only Saviour of the world. However, our understanding of salvation is much more complex and intricate than that which is believed by Evangelical Protestants. Hence, so is our understanding of evangelisation.
PROSELYTISM IS NOT EVANGELISATION
Understandably, for Evangelical Protestants, because there is an urgency to secure the salvation of their relatives and friends, there is often a certain kind of undue pressure being exerted upon the latter to decide to embrace the Christian faith. Forgiveness of sin and salvation can be attained by receiving Jesus through what they call “the Sinner’s Prayer” (not by baptism!), which sounds something like this:
Heavenly Father, I know that I have sinned against you and that my sins separate me from you. I am truly sorry. I now want to turn away from my sinful past and turn to you for forgiveness. Please forgive me, and help me avoid sinning again. I believe that your Son, Jesus Christ, died for my sins, that He was raised from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become my Saviour and the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. Please send your Holy Spirit to help me obey You and to convict me when I sin. I pledge to grow in grace and knowledge of you. My greatest purpose in life is to follow your example and do Your will for the rest of my life. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen.
And lo and behold, your sins are henceforth forgiven and you are saved! Evangelicals would be extremely vigilant about getting people to receive Jesus and to say an equivalent of this prayer in any season of their lives. Unfortunately, it is often in the midst of very vulnerable seasons of their lives that people tend to be willing to yield to such demands, albeit not necessarily feeling good about their decisions after that. Seeing people say these prayers at the verge of their divorces, in hospital beds, at the occasions of family members’ deaths, or in the face of some acute emotional need, is entirely common. At these events of life, there is inevitably a good Evangelical Protestant to be found there taking the opportunity to secure the “salvation” of that victim of life’s predicaments.
This is precisely what proselytism means: persuading people to embrace one’s religion and placing undue pressure on them to yield to such persuasion. In the process of proselytisation, the receiver often feels robbed of his dignity and his freedom to choose. It is not uncommon for him to feel that his faith and his choices have been belittled and put down. He feels disrespected and objectified rather than dignified. And yet, he often concedes, because such proselytising efforts are frequently accompanied by unrealistic assurances that Jesus can make everything better.
Evangelisation never brings about such sentiments. It treats the receiver with utmost respect, honouring his right to decide if he desires to embrace the faith, or if he even wishes to listen to that which the evangeliser intends to share in the first place. He is never caught off-guard in the midst of an unfortunate situation. When the receiver decides to listen, he receives that which he hears with much gratitude and joy, for he has discovered a treasure of life.
Whilst Catholics recognise that the Church is the "universal sacrament of salvation" (Lumen Gentium, 48) and is "necessary for salvation" (Lumen Gentium, 14), we also hold that people who do not understand the role of Jesus Christ and His Church are not necessarily damned into an eternity of helpless torment.
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.
This does not mean that there is no need for evangelisation in the Catholic scheme of thought. Indeed, evangelisation is our rightful duty in all places and at all times. But salvation, for us, is much more than merely about “getting them saved”. It is about directing the affairs of the world and the values of life towards the Kingdom of God, which is bigger than the Church itself.
We evangelise not because we need to save people, for God can save whom He so desires, and He does desire to save all who do not wilfully reject Him. But we evangelise because it is our sacred duty to cooperate with the coming of the Kingdom of God, to join in the establishment of His reign on earth, as we pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. We proclaim the kingship of Jesus more than we attempt persuading people to embrace that kingship against their will.
THE PROBLEM WITH PROSELYTISM
Proselytism has nothing to do with a lack of sincerity. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth than that many Evangelical Protestants proselytise out of sheer spite and disdain for other religions. They are very often fervently sincere in their desire for their relatives and friends to find the treasure they have discovered. They desire for their loved ones to “get saved”. But this fervent endeavour, whilst representing their sincerity, is sincerely wrong at two different levels.
At one level, their urgency to proselytise stems from a mistaken notion of other religions, that only Christians possess the hope of salvation, whilst people of other religions are doomed to an eternity of torment and condemnation no matter how sincere they are in their religious practices (even the Catholics!)
At another level, proselytism tends to rob people of their sense of dignity and self-respect. Rather than feeling that they are offered an opportunity to respond to a wonderful invitation, they are often compelled to listen to that which they do not desire and yield to the immediacy of the demands confronting them to decide on the desirability of the faith. There is little, if any, respect of the proselytiser for the proselytised’s preference or level of comfort with the situation he has been unsuspectingly thrust into.
The proselytised generally do not emerge from such situations feeling good. Many of them often manage to escape such circumstances with a new resolution: to never talk to another Christian ever again. And unfortunately, because they are unable to differentiate between the Protestants and the Catholics, they also resolve to avoid Catholics at all costs.
It is unfortunate that a good number of well-meaning Catholics today, especially those from some of the New Ecclesial Movements, are attempting to learn about evangelisation from the Evangelical Protestants. Learning some of these things are not bad at all if one can discern the subtle distinctions between the “evangelisation” spoken of by the Holy Catholic Church and the “evangelism” exercised by the Evangelical Protestants; the latter is, by the standards of the Catholic Church, proselytism.
HOW THEN SHOULD WE EVANGELISE?
At the 9th Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) held in Manila from 10 to 16 August 2009, papal delegate Cardinal Francis Arinze spoke of the transforming power of the Holy Eucharist. Whilst affirming that missionary outreach was “an essential part of the Eucharistic form of the Christian life” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 84), His Eminence also in the same breath reminded the Church that evangelisation was not synonymous with proselytism. He went on to explain,
Evangelisation refers to sharing our faith, bringing the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ who freely and willingly welcome this proclamation. Proselytism, on the other hand, refers to seeking to influence people to embrace a certain religion by means that exploit their weak position or put some other pressure on them. Canon Law (Canon 748 §2) and respect for the dignity of the human person forbid proselytism.
Evidently, we need to evangelise. But instead of thrusting our creeds and our faith claims into people’s hands, we need to start talking about God and our faith in ways that make sense to the present context of the world. This is not a practice that is alien to the tradition of the Church. It would take no more than a mere cursory reading of the popes’ encyclicals to witness how this has been and still continues to be done.
In fact, there is currently an urgent predicament confronting mankind, which in turn presents the Church with a renewed imperative of evangelisation. The world exists in a critical state today. Our natural resources are fast depleting, whilst Planet Earth suffers from greater heat now than it ever has in the history of its existence. These are results of a market-driven economy which people conveniently assume has a logical principle regulating it when, in fact, it is a mechanism regulated by no more than mere capitalistic greed. In the face of this crisis, surely we need to talk about conservation and sustainable development.
But the Church continues to remind us, none of this works if we do not start talking about God, the ground of all moral objectivity. Because believe it or not, no purely secular economist of capitalist would be truly interested in saving the world from self-destruction. It is we, the Christians, who need to begin directing these secular dimensions towards the Kingdom by speaking of them in a way that assumes moral values grounded in our belief.
It is not sufficient to do what many Evangelical Protestants do; just “getting them saved”. To simplistically endeavour to “save people” is to fall into a two-faceted trap of a same fallacy. Firstly, it misrepresents the Christian faith as one that is impotent and irrelevant to the realities of the world and human predicament today. Secondly, it misrepresents the Christian faith as one that is only good for eternal concerns but has absolutely no concern for the sufferings of mankind on this side of life.
If we desire a world in which authentic development of the human race is pursued and the wellbeing of nature is cultivated in the best of ways, we must once again talk about God. This is as much evangelisation as the soul-saving efforts of Evangelical Protestants is, and even more. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate, says:
The risk for our time is that the de facto interdependence of people and nations is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development. Only in charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanising value…
We need to start talking about God indeed. Not by way of prosyletism or “soul saving”, but by way of helping the world to understand that true conservation and sustainable development is to be built only upon the One who is the source of all beauty and truth. Jesus Christ, the One who was there at creation, is the One who can and shall recreate all that is in existence.
He alone is the lux mundi, the light of the world; this we proclaim.