Criticizing “Evangelism”

Rajan Zed is a prominent Hindu leader based in Nevada. He is president of Universal Society of Hinduism, and in 2007 was the first Hindu invited to open the U.S. Senate with prayers. He is a panelist at On Faith for the Washington Post, and is also a prolific writer of press releases on a variety of issues of interfaith concern.

On September 22, 2009, Zed and his colleague Rabbi Jonathan B. Freirich, issued a statement, “Jews & Hindus find Pope’s message `shocking'”:

Jews and Hindus have found some of the Pope’s World Mission Sunday message posted on The Holy See website “shocking.”
…[the]Pope, who heads the largest religious group in the world, should be a unifying force to bring all the religious traditions closer so that they could work together as equal partners on a mutually acceptable agenda for the enrichment of the humanity while still keeping their unique identities.

What was it that caused such shock and alarm? In his message for World Mission Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI said,

The goal of the Church’s mission is to illumine all peoples with the light of the Gospel as they journey through history towards God, so that in Him they may reach their full potential and fulfilment…

The mission of the Church, therefore, is to call all peoples to the salvation accomplished by God through his incarnate Son… At stake is the eternal salvation of persons, the goal and the fulfilment of human history and the universe… The whole Church must be committed to the missio ad gentes, until the salvific sovereignty of Christ is fully accomplished. . .”

It’s easy to see how someone outside of the Roman Catholic Church might be concerned about such statements, and wonder what it means in relation to them and their own tradition (or lack of tradition). But Zed and Freirich take the next step, suggesting that the Pope should not be making such statements, but should instead focus on the commonality of religions so that together they can work “as a team on common world religious and human concerns like economic and social development, peace-making and peace-keeping, freedom and human rights, ecological responsibility.”

I’m not sure the two are incompatible- and, in fact, this Pope has been involved in many efforts to bridge the differences among religious traditions. It is clear that proselyting is illegitimate in any effort to build interfaith relations. If I believe the other is only there to convert me, the trust that is essential for dialogue is lacking. If I am certain that the other’s religious tradition is inferior, no genuine dialogue can take place.

When and where is it legitimate to tell another what they should be doing in their own tradition? One of the keys to dialogue lies in allowing participants to define themselves and their own tradition. I can’t tell someone what they should believe, or how they should behave.

Evangelism (telling the “Good News” of Jesus) is a central component of traditional Christianity. Telling the Pope that he should not emphasize this dimension of his own tradition serves no purpose. However, calling the Pope and the Church to recognize that what the Church has named as “Good News” has not always appeared that way to those outside, and to avoid the coercive and sometimes brutal approaches to conversion the Church has used in the past is a benefit both to the Church and to those it encounters.

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