Christianity and Proselytism
EVANGELICAL Christianity is usually represented as a proselyting religion, the benefits of which are for those who become Christians. Intensive evangelistic efforts in the homeland and wide-flung mission lines in non-Christian lands bear eloquent testimony to this conviction of orthodox Christianity. There are many leaders who speak the thought of their great parishes when they state that the one and only function of Christianity is to ‘bring men to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ,’ by which they mean proselytism to the Christian faith.
But Christianity has another function and another message which do not involve proselytism. It has a purpose in the world beside that of making men Christians. It is most unfortunate that the evangelical zeal of its leaders has caused that fact to be overlooked. Sympathetic understanding of Christianity at home and in non-Christian lands would be greatly furthered if these nonproselyting objectives were more clearly recognized and more constantly stated. Certain insistent problems of the American Church and its missionary organizations would be greatly simplified by a recognition of the twofold message of the Christian faith, and many indifferent people would be attracted by a clear presentation of its nonevangelical message. Such a balanced emphasis, furthermore, would present a working religion in which the thinkers of Christian and non-Christian lands would discover more to remind them of Jesus Christ.
When Christ stood in the temple and cried to the surging mob that He had drink for their thirsty souls, He knew that most of them would never become Christians. Yet He did have refreshment for all of them. When He healed the lepers, He knew that they would not thank Him, much less follow Him. Yet He healed them. When He taught the Beatitudes to the multitude, He knew that His hearers would not become disciples. Yet He taught them.
In brief, while Christ had a unique and eternal message for those who would follow Him, He had, at the same time, a great and unprecedented gift for those who He knew would never become Christians.
Christianity, likewise, has such a gift. It proposes to make certain contributions to the world, and these proposals are not based in any way on proselytism. They are based simply and frankly on the words and life of Christ. To receive the direct benefits of these contributions no man in the world needs to become a Christian. No theological or doctrinal faith in Christ is necessary. The recipients and beneficiaries may be Moslems, Hindus, Shintoists, or devil worshipers. Christianity proposes to make these contributions even though from this day to the end of time not a single person surrenders his indifference or deserts his own faith to become a Christian.
In the first place, Christianity proposes to offer pure and unselfish service to all men, without money and without price. Christ taught the multitudes, healed the sick, comforted the sorrowing, ministered to the poor, and died in behalf of men, with but a handful following Him. It is evident that at no time in His life was He visionary enough to expect anything else. From the beginning of His ministry He knew He would be rejected of men. But He carried on, nevertheless, because men needed that ministry. He healed men, in addition to other motives, because they were sick and needed healing. He comforted men because they were heartbroken and needed comforting. He taught men because their minds were dark and needed teaching.
Christianity proposes to perform the same ministry, in so far as it is able. Its purpose is to heal the minds, the bodies, and the spirits of men, to cast out devils which rack body and soul, to wipe out leprosy and other pestilential scourges, to minister to the needy, to comfort the mourning, and to develop in men the health and capacity for a fuller enjoyment of life. To this end it is establishing hospitals in every land, whether it be Christian, Moslem, or Confucian; it is dotting Asia and Africa with its schools, and there is no form of human suffering and misery which is not being challenged and combated by Christianity through one or another of its agencies.
The important fact is that this proposal of Christianity, already substantiated by the investment of millions of dollars and thousands of lives, is not for the purpose of proselytism. While those in charge of many such institutions hope and work for converts, it is invariably recognized that this gift of service to needy men requires no pay in the form of conversion to Christianity. The most superficial glance at the work of mission institutions as well as philanthropic enterprises will discover ample evidence that this service is administered impartially to men of every race and every faith. Though never another Moslem turn to Christ, nor devil worshiper leave his fetishes, nor Hindu stir from his ancient philosophies, still Christianity will offer these services to all.
In the second place, Christianity proposes to lift human personality to a primary place in the thoughts and considerations of men. Christ attempted this in His day and age. Among a people indifferent to the importance of children, He valued them collectively and individually. In an age which hated the lepers as unclean and left them to rot their miserable lives away, He stretched out His hand and touched them, teaching for all time that the value of the personality of one of these was beyond the ken of human comprehension. In a self-righteous society which would have stoned an impure woman, He dared to believe her worth saving. Disregarding the powerful race prejudice of the ‘chosen people,’ He recognized Syrophœnicians and Samaritans as being of equal value. Scorning class feeling, He found among the despised taxgatherers men as worthy of His love as those who served in the temple. This recognition of the value of human personality was a conception which could have been accepted by any Jew in Palestine without becoming a disciple of Jesus. It was one of Christ’s nonproselyting contributions to the thought of His age.
Christianity proposes to make a similar contribution to this age. It proposes to teach the value of human personality in every land and under every condition. It is opposed to slavery in any form, not because of traditional cruelties, but because of the dwarfing of personality which is slavery’s inevitable concomitant. It is opposed to child labor in the sweatshops of America, the collieries of Great Britain, the rug factories of Persia, or at the looms of China, because such a system is, for the children, a torturous murder of their personality. Christianity is actively opposed to the opium traffic, to excessive alcoholism and such social evils, because they are known to hamper and chain personalities which should be released for powerful service. Christianity at heart is opposed to war, not primarily because of maimed limbs and destroyed lives, but because of the repression of human personality which is essential to national military success and achievement. Christianity proposes to further in every nation that education which serves the peculiar needs of each people, to the end that men and nations may develop those diverse personalities with which they have been endowed. And none of this depends upon proselytism. Christianity is pledged to the accomplishment of this programme though not a single convert be gained in the process.
In the third place, Christianity proposes to remind all men of a personal responsibility before a just and loving God to whom they have direct access. Christ came to a world wearied of priestcraft, and He represented a God who had long before expressed Himself as hating the ceremonies and intermediaries which stood between Him and His people. Christ struggled to eliminate these obstacles to direct communion, and taught that every man — not only His disciples — that every man had direct access to the Father in Heaven, that within the chamber of each man’s house was an entrance to the Holy of Holies, and that within the Holy of Holies was a God, not vengeful and cruel, but loving, tender, and fatherly.
Christianity likewise proposes to do away with deadly burdens of priestly religion and to teach men that they have direct access to a God who is a loving father. It proposes that the world dispense with the crude idols which blur its consciousness of God, and that the heavy and antiquated priesthood in all religions, including the Christian, be abolished in so far as it stands between the aspirations of worshipers and their attainment of God. The accomplishment of this objective involves the destruction of no non-Christian religion and requires the conversion of no man from his own faith to that of Christianity. But upon all men of all religions who are weary of ancient liturgies, burdened with massed traditions, confused with manmade obligations, Christianity urges a pure spiritual worship of and a loving obedience to a Father God who can be approached directly by every soul.
In the fourth place, Christianity would bear testimony to a great and deep conviction, which is that spiritual values will be ultimately supreme in the destiny of men. This conviction found its first expression as Christ sat on the hillside and said such things as these: ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Each of these sayings is a promise that spiritual forces and spiritual values will ultimately predominate and conquer.
Because Christianity feels an inescapable compulsion to carry this conviction to men, it translates these sayings into every known tongue and sends them where no missionary dares to go. It bears testimony to its belief that the meek are, more and more, inheriting the earth, that right is slowly downing the forces of evil, that good will is taking the place of ruthless conflict, and that love is the most potent force ever released by God for the use of mankind. Christianity hopes that there will be more men like Gandhi, who, though not necessarily Christians, will demonstrate in their lives the superior power of spiritual forces. The benefits of this testimony do not depend on acceptation of the Christian faith. If these convictions find their way into the tenets of Islam or the sermons of Brahmanism or the books of Shintoism, Christianity will be rejoiced.
The last great proposal which Christianity makes is that men be taught that the indispensable requisite for accomplishment is sacrifice. Christ taught this to all who watched Him live, regardless of whether they accepted anything else in His life. He demonstrated that self-sacrifice was the basis of all accomplishment, the key to success, and the constant element in all service. He paid the price of self-sacrifice for every accomplishment of His own life. Even His remarkable work of healing was the result of a sacrificial agony of prayer, as witness His words to the unsuccessful disciples, ‘This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.’ Finally He seared this truth into the consciousness of all men of all religions by sacrificing Himself on the cross, forever teaching the cost of accomplishment — self-sacrifice.
Christianity proposes to teach this fact to the world of men regardless of their acceptation of Christ. It wants young men everywhere to know that if they would serve their times they must be willing to surrender selfish comforts and gratifications. It wants men of every faith to know that patriotism is only such when it puts self last and the nation first. It would teach young Egyptians that nationalism is not enough, that it is useless unless accompanied by self-sacrificing idealism. It would teach young Turks that it is not enough to throw away their red fez and overturn their hodja schools. They must surrender more than ancient laws and customs. They must surrender themselves if they would make Turkey a great nation. Christianity would teach young Persians that, whether or not they follow the Christ, they must crucify themselves on the cross of Persia else their nation will remain in humble defeat. Christianity would hold before the world of Hindus and Moslems and Shintoists and Christians a dying Christ on a hard cross, and teach all men that this is the price of service in any land and in any religion.
This is the nonevangelical, nonproselyting message of Christianity. ‘Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters . . . buy, and eat . . . without money and without price.’
On the other hand, Christianity must proselyte. It has another gift for those who will accept it and a clear commission to perform. Though this commission and this gift involve proselytism, it is not for the purpose of multiplying adherents or of defeating other religions. It is a solution offered in pure love with the conviction that it will meet one of the world’s hardest problems.
All religions have contained excellent precepts and lofty laws. Follow any religion to its source, and principles and teachings will be found for which the world is richer and which are Godinspired. There has been no poverty of principles and teachings. Literature now is teeming with sweet thoughts and high standards of living.
However, eloquent testimony is borne to the fact that men are not inclined to heed these precepts. The worldly-wise precepts of Confucius, the love and selflessness of Buddha, and the pure monotheism of Mohammed would each transform the world had men the desire to follow these teachings. But the complaint is as old as the mounds of Babylon that men of China will not obey their teachers, that young Buddhists are indifferent to the noble precepts of their religion, and that young Moslems show no inclination to follow those Islamic teachings which are worth while.
It is exactly here that Christianity believes it has a unique contribution, and one of such definite value that to withhold it would be morally wrong. Christianity believes not only that its religion is a code, a principle, a way of life, but that it has an actual power which enters into the personality of man and gives him both the desire and the ability to obey higher laws. Any brief statement of this unique contribution will be criticized. Nevertheless, we may dare to state that evangelical Christianity believes that through the living Christ there come to men an infusion of life and power and a spiritual will which make possible a long process of spiritual growth, a soul evolution. Aside from this there seems to be no assurance of the attainment of that righteousness which will make men worthy colaborers with God in the task of eternity.
Believing this, evangelical Christianity has no more right to conceal its contribution than a wealthy man has to bury his treasure. In fact, considering the disturbed condition of the world to-day, no person or group has any justification for withholding any serious proposition that can be offered as a solution. The outstanding problem of the world is the degeneracy of human character expressing itself in imperfect human relationships, in unhappy social conditions, in unnecessary industrial ills, and in civic and national unrighteousness. For the solution of this problem Christianity has a serious proposal, as outlined above. It has no right to withhold this proposal; and, so long as it seems practical, Christianity should exert every effort to lay that proposal before the minds of men and to demonstrate it in the laboratory of human experience. Christianity has, therefore, an obligation to carry its evangelical and proselyting message along with its nonproselyting activities.
This whole matter is not merely an academic question. There are great and harassing problems which hinge upon it for solution. Most outstanding of these problems is that which results from the diverse opinions of those who administer Christian philanthropic institutions throughout the non-Christian world. One group feels that the policies of such schools and hospitals should be directed toward the ultimate goal of proselytism. This group is opposed, often in the same institution, by those who with equal sincerity feel that service and not proselytism is the only justifiable objective. Those who have not worked in these throbbing centres of Christian activity in far lands can scarcely comprehend how acute is the problem which results from this divergence in judgment.
Recently, because of events in such countries as China and Turkey, the question of proselytism and philanthropy has thrust itself forward with new insistence. Where legal restrictions or other circumstances make religious teaching impossible, are our hospitals to be continued for purely medical work? Are schools supported by the Christian Church still to receive such support when the evangelical message cannot be presented to the students?
In a personal way, also, this general problem is faced by literally ten thousand Christian workers who are scattered over non-Christian portions of the world, and by a larger number who labor in homelands. In their daily choice between imperative and unfinished tasks, amid a growing tendency toward institutionalism in religion, they must determine what proportion of their time and effort can be legitimately expended on that service which is not definitely evangelistic. Some inevitably abandon themselves to nonproselyting service, many hold themselves devotedly to that work which is evangelistic, but the vast majority will be found struggling to discover which is right, and wavering between one emphasis and the other.
The greatest number involved in the problem of proselytism, however, comprises those millions in Christian lands who support the world-wide work of the Christian Church and whose contributions build the magnificent philanthropic institutions of both East and West. With each new appeal and each new drive, these men and women are called on to judge this issue. They have constantly to establish and reestablish their own standards as to the proper objective for Christian institutions in non-Christian lands. They are compelled to reach some conclusion as to whether such institutions should be definitely evangelical or purely philanthropic. Many of these supporters are conscious of the importance of first one objective, then the other. Finally, assuming the objectives to be mutually exclusive, they seize upon one alternative and cling to it with an uncomfortable devotion.
But the solution of this general problem in its several aspects lies neither in absolute proselytism nor in absolute philanthropy. Each of these extremes is being tried at the present time and the result is conflict, confusion, and much misunderstanding. The solution, as always, lies in balance, in proper emphasis on each, in the neglect of neither.
Those involved in the administration of Christian institutions, and those countless faithful ones who support by their contributions, will find some of their hardest questions answered and the entire situation considerably clarified if they will recognize both the proselyting and the philanthropic function—if they can accept either as justifiable in itself alone, and at the same time hold both to be absolutely essential for the solution of the world’s hardest problems.