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Don’t Proselytize Me

By Matthew Arnold Stern

I gave this as a test speech for Toastmasters evaluation contests during Fall 1996. This speech was generally well received by most people, including Southern Baptists.

After reading this speech, see “Make Your Club a Safe Zone” for further thoughts.

I am very disappointed with the Southern Baptists. Back in June [1996], the leadership of the Southern Baptist Church had their annual convention in New Orleans. There, they passed a declaration stating that they were going to make a special effort to convert Jews to Christianity. Since that time, not one Southern Baptist has asked me to change my religion. Clearly, they’ve got to get on the ball!

The Southern Baptists have taken a lot of flak for this declaration, including criticism within the church itself. But before we judge them too harshly, we should take a look at this declaration in its proper historical perspective.

All the Southern Baptists really did was to say aloud something that all religions have done since, well, there have been religions: To proselytize! To be “fishers of men,” if you would. But it hasn’t been just the Christians who have done it. Muslims and Buddhists are also known for spreading their religion far and wide. Even Jews have had their missionary efforts in the past. Granted, most of these efforts haven’t involved putting on a nice shirt and tie and cruising around on a mountain bike, but every religion has had its proselytizing efforts at one time or another.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with all this proselytizing. After all, if you have something good, why not share it? And there are people out there who can use some proselytizing. They need someone to say, “The way you’re living your life isn’t working. Here’s something else you should try instead.”

Personally, I don’t like proselytizing very much, and I certainly don’t like it when people try to proselytize me. There are three main reasons why I don’t like it.

First of all, it’s rude! It never fails: These missionaries pick the most inopportune time to try to save me from eternal damnation.

This has happened to me at, of all places, a Toastmasters speech contest! I was competing at an area contest a few years ago. Afterwards, a gentleman came up to me and asked, “How’d you like to have a personal relationship with Jesus?” Please bear in mind: I just finished competing in a speech contest. I just finished spending seven minutes and eighteen seconds pouring out my heart and soul. It was late at night, I was tired and wanted to go home, and the last thing I wanted to do was engage myself in a theological debate. But I didn’t want to be rude. So, I thanked the man and used all the nice, polite ways of saying, “Go away and leave me alone.”

Well, he did not go away and leave me alone. He persisted! He continued, “Don’t you want to make Jesus Christ your personal savior? Don’t you want to know how he died on the cross to save your immortal soul?”

Don’t missionaries like him realize that when they come on strong like this that they might have the opposite effect from what they’re trying to achieve? By the time I managed to escape from him, I wasn’t thinking, “Yes, sir, you’re absolutely right. I will turn from my sinful, depraved existence and devote my life to Jesus Christ.” Instead, I was thinking, “You schlemiel! (That’s a Jewish word, by the way.) I am not interested in learning about Jesus Christ right now! When I want to learn about Jesus Christ, I will go to my library at home, I will go through my vast collection of Bibles, many of which include the New Testament with the words of Jesus printed in red, and I will pick up the Bible and read it myself!!”

Then, there’s the second reason why I don’t like proselytizing: I don’t want to change my religion. Has it ever occured to anyone that I might be Jewish for a reason? (And, no, it’s not for the money, thank you very much.) My religious faith is not a rote, off-the-shelf sort of thing. My religious faith is the result of years of study, contemplation, and exploration. I have studied other religions, including Christianity, and I have integrated a number of religious expressions into my life. As a result, I’ve developed a religious faith that some might consider unorthodox, but it’s a faith with which that I feel comfortable. It has given me a strong moral anchor, a sense of who I am and what my place is in creation, and what my responsibility is to God and my fellow humans. It’s a religious faith that will continue to grow and evolve during my life, but it will change because there are things I want to learn or gaps I see in my religious understanding. They will not change because someone wags a Bible in front of my face.

This leads me to the third reason why I don’t like proselytizing: It goes against what I feel religion should truly be about. I believe that the gentleman I met at the Toastmasters speech contest was right in one respect: religion is a personal relationship. I believe that every man and woman of faith chooses his or her own path to God. Even if you go to the most orthodox synagogue or fundamentalist church and poll the people there, you will notice at least slight variations in how they feel about religious matters or practice their faith in their daily lives.

I feel that proselytizing disrespects these differences. What it says is, “My religious faith is the only valid one there is. Your religious faith is, at very least, wrong, and at worst, a manifestation of the devil that must be destroyed at any cost.” This attitude has turned religion into a force of destruction and discord, instead of a source of healing and harmony that it can and should be. This is the main reason that I don’t like proselytizing.

Just because I don’t like proselytizing, does that mean that I’m not willing to listen to what people have to say about religion? Of course, not. As I mentioned before, I consider myself on a spiritual exploration. I believe that when we can share our religious ideas, it only makes our individual faith stronger and enables us to work together to make this a more moral and humane world.

So, let us learn from each other. Let us share the spiritual gifts our religions give us. But, let us do it with an attitude of respect and courtesy. Let us not try to shove our religious views down each other’s throats or damn others because their views are different from ours. Furthermore, let us remember the great teaching shared by all major religions, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So, please don’t – don’t – proselytize me.