Have you ever had an encounter with someone who you felt was “pushing” you to believe what they believed or “get on” their train of thinking? Really think about it: Have you ever been that person trying to persuade someone else? Personally, I have been on both sides, as well as on the fence watching it happen between other people.
I don’t have a good word for it, but the best way I could describe it is “forceful,” or at the very least “suggesting strongly.” What I want us to think about today is this: Who benefits from that?
Before I came to college, I firmly believed that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true church and that all other “branches” were just that: branches, while we were the trunk. I was so sure of myself; I cited the apostolic succession and the papacy of Peter and the early church fathers to show that, “We’ve been around since the beginning!” But I’ll never forget the night that the Catholic Student Association had a shared event with Toledo Campus Ministry (a group of several different Christian denominations) and the speaker presented the same tree diagram that I spoke of, except in her model the tree trunk was called “Early Christianity” or “catholicism” with a little “c” (meaning “universal”).
I was confused and questioned her about it, and she smiled and replied that if the church fathers were to see the church today, they would have some very interesting things to say. That is, things have changed over time, and even we as a Roman Catholic Church have refined and reinterpreted things over time to help the Gospel shed light in today’s world and culture. I finally understood what I had really been missing the whole time: that Roman Catholicism, Episcopalian, Baptist, Lutheran, etc. are all branches of the same root of early Christianity.
Indeed, if the church fathers were to look at the current Baptist Church, they would have some interesting things to say, just as if they were looking at the current Roman Catholic one. The Spirit has moved and flowed in and out of all of these and other religions, not just Christianity, even.
Who are we to claim “rights” to the Spirit? Who are we to judge where God is and isn’t? I learned that it was foolish of me to think that any human or group of humans could ever claim to have complete and total claim to revelation (now, that is not to say that the church with its hierarchy does not have authority to speak on morality or that the scriptures are somehow lacking, just that the interpretation of these things should be done with careful consideration knowing full well our own human fallibility).
The example I just spoke of was just to shed light on the question I first started with: Who benefits when you “strongly suggest” that someone should believe what you believe? Will that make them change and become a better person, perhaps unlock their full human potential? I won’t deny the possibility of such; certainly there are people I have met who told me all they really needed was a good “kick in the rear” to get started in a healthy direction. But I would suggest, based on my personal experience, that “shoving” anything “down someone’s throat” is not really the best way to go about it.
The example people often cite when they talk about this is the familiar pressure of being asked by an evangelist if they have accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. When I talk to those people who have experienced that, they never seem to speak highly of the person who told them that, nor do they give a second thought to the message.
On the opposite side of the coin, a great many people I have talked to who are actively involved in a faith community tell me that they got involved not because of some single event but because they were inspired by another believer who they watched live their life with humility, compassion and moving generosity. The candidate I am sponsoring currently to join my Roman Catholic faith community this Easter has admitted that this was the case for him; he was inspired to join by the faith of his girlfriend.
The point I at least personally take away from all this is that anytime I have judged, be it in thinking that another person would be so much better off if they’d listen to what I had to say or thinking that I knew all the answers, I ended up being sorely mistaken. Frankly, I have seen people be very hurt. Adults who walk away from conversations admitting that never in their life have they experienced the kind of rudeness and uncharitable words as they had with young people like myself who think we know everything; young women who have done things they already didn’t feel good about now being criticized and shunned at the moment when they reach out for consolation and forgiveness.
There are certainly times when we should confront and challenge our fellow brothers and sisters, but I feel like there is a great level of tact that is being forgotten because our own pride is getting in the way. We should look to role models who demonstrate the compassion, humility and nonjudgmentalism that we know is possible of human beings, and remember in our hearts that the “forceful” approach really doesn’t benefit either side.