The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium
Pope Francis has been making a lot of splashes in the Christian community recently with his attempts at implementing a more social justice oriented theology within the Catholic Church. About a month ago, he published an apostolic exhortation entitled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) that’s been getting a lot of attention for its heavy criticism of capitalism. It’s a gigantic document, and I’ve just barely scratched it, but I’ve been reading through it, mostly because I’ve been endlessly impressed with Francis since he took office.
The quote I’ve listed above comes early on, and it deals with the attitude Francis thinks Christians should take in their evangelism work. What struck me most was the idea that we should have a certain zeal going about our work, but we must remember the goal is not to make enemies of people who don’t agree with our message.
It’s a sobering reminder, especially for myself.
See, I’ve been mulling over my own spiritual journey for the past few weeks, and its begun to dawn on me that I’ve been feeling particularly bitter towards the white evangelical subculture that I’ve come from. It’s hard not to when I’ve spent so much time thinking over problems with the theology of the subculture recently.
I don’t want to be bitter.
When it comes down to it, I’m indebted to a lot of people who identify as evangelical for bringing me to where I am in my faith (had I not had the communal experience that evangelicalism offered when I was in college, I likely would have continued on in life as a somewhat unhappy atheist), and that’s nothing to laugh at.
It’s just so hard not to be bitter when I read things like Chick tracts where evangelical fundamentalism gets boiled down to its most severe, and most baldly xenophobic, forms. It gets worse when I see things like Jesus Camp.
I rented this movie on the recommendation of a friend after some extensive discussion of our spiritual journeys. It’s a documentary that follows three children immersed in fundamentalist charismatic church communities who go to a week long summer camp that’s devoted to teaching children how to do evangelism.
It’s a very hard film to watch, with scenes of children red-faced and weeping as adults tell them how their lives are consumed by sin and that they need to repent if they ever want to be effective in God’s Kingdom. The entire affair is highly politicized with scenes from the camp and related activities showing the children being taught about abortion, homosexuality, and other issues that are important to Christian conservatives. The attitude of the lessons is that these children must become soldiers in God’s army so that they can take America back from secular liberalism (the events depicted in the film happened in 2005 at the height of George W. Bush’s presidency). It’s a really troubling thing to consider, because while I accept that religion will influence a person’s politics, I find it abhorrent that children, who almost invariably are not yet mature enough to develop their own opinions about complicated issues, should be indoctrinated into the political thinking of their parents through religious education (I won’t speak to the theology of this community, though regular readers can guess that I think it’s highly problematic).
At the same time that I get upset thinking about what this community is doing with its children, I’ve also been having to remind myself (constantly) that this film only reflects a single community in a very specific part of evangelicism (the charismatic branch of the Church). Because of that, it’s not fair to translate everything these people do to the entirety of the subculture.
It’s really hard to fight that impulse to be unfair towards evangelicism.
Before I came across that passage in the Evangelii Gaudium, I was considering a Chick tract for this week called Creator or Liar?. It’s a pretty uninspired propositional tract that hits the high points in the evangelical interpretation of the Bible, citing the literal reading of the creation stories in Genesis, moving on through the patriarchs’ histories to Jesus. I was planning to write a post where I poked at the problematic interpretation of Old Testament passages as being literal foretellings of Christ’s specific appearance, but the more I thought over it, the more I realized that I’m just not theologically qualified to make that kind of criticism, and my motivation for doing so would be more to make fun than to offer a legitimate discussion of a theological stance. As much as I like being funny, and Chick tracts offer a good opportunity for making jokes, I just don’t want to become mean-spirited in my critique.
If my thoughts seem a bit disjointed, it’s because I’ve been composing this post in fits and bursts over the course of a week. I’d like to have some kind of big summation here, but that doesn’t really seem to be in order. All I can say is that I think Pope Francis is right when he says that Christians should not seek to make enemies in trying to share the gospel. That goes for evangelicals trying to use their interpretation of it to shape the world into something they are comfortable with, and that goes for me trying to counter that movement in some small way.