Archive for June, 2012

The Offensiveness of Religious Persuasion and Evangelism

June 18, 2012

The topic of evangelism made national headlines in Canada recently.[i]  It all started with a Grade 12 student in Nova Scotia wearing a T-shirt in school boldly emblazoned with the words, “Life is wasted without Jesus.”   William Swinimer continued to wear his yellow T-shirt after the vice-principal at his school asked him not to do so because some students had complained that they found the message offensive.  William’s refusal to obey led to a series of in-school suspensions and finally a five-day at-home suspension.  The normally shy 19-year-old refused to comply even if it might mean permanent suspension and the loss of the rest of the academic year and his chance of graduating.  “I believe this is worth standing up for – it’s not just standing up for religious rights, it’s standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen; for freedom of speech, freedom of religion.”

The regional school board initially supported the actions of the school administration, with Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake maintaining that repeated defiance of school authorities was justified grounds for suspending William Swinimer.  The school board issued a statement clarifying that “students may choose to wear clothing that embraces their beliefs.  However, it is expected that students will not wear clothing with messages that may offend others’ beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle.”

The nationwide debate ignited by this incident is most revealing.  It can be interpreted as involving a conflict of rights.  This is how Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake described the problem: “We absolutely support students’ rights to express their beliefs, but we absolutely support students’ rights to not have their own beliefs unreasonably criticized.”  But does a T-shirt with the message, “Life is wasted without Jesus,” involve unreasonable criticism of other people’s beliefs?  Indeed, is it even fair to suggest that this message involves criticism of the beliefs of others?  The vice-principal of the school even went so far as to suggest that the message on the T-shirt spewed “hate talk.”  The absurdity of this assessment doesn’t even deserve comment.  I’m not even sure Swinimer’s message involves criticism of the beliefs of others.  The students at the school were divided on this question, with some saying that the T-shirt message was simply expressing the personal beliefs of William Swinimer – “I believe that life is wasted without Jesus.”   Indeed Swinimer is quoted as saying, “I don’t do it to be disrespectful or to put down anyone else’s beliefs.”  Clearly Nancy Pynch-Worthylake and some other students didn’t interpret the message this way.  But, maybe they are the problem.  Maybe they need to develop thicker skins.  Surely if someone tells me that they believe life is not worth living without Pepsi, I shouldn’t take offense because I do not like Pepsi.  People are also not entirely consistent in the way in which they take offense, as Swinimer himself pointed out.  He wondered why his T-shirt became so controversial when he had seen other students around the school wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Hail Satan.”  Is it Christians who are being picked on?

Let’s for the sake of argument assume that there is at least an implicit criticism of other beliefs in the message of William Swinimer’s T-shirt.  Indeed, I believe that any evaluative statement entails an implicit judgment on contrary statements.  We are now left with the claim of the school board that students have the right not to have their own beliefs “unreasonably” criticized.  But, what is so unreasonable about the implicit criticism of other beliefs by making a simple statement like, “Life is wasted without Jesus”?  I suspect that what lies behind this judgment is a hidden assumption that all religious statements are unreasonable, and hence all implicit criticisms of other beliefs are similarly unreasonable.  But this is in itself a rather unreasonable position to hold, resting on a host of assumptions that need to be and can be critiqued.  We need a more generous definition of what it means to be reasonable.  Here the late John Rawls has something to teach us with his notion of “burdens of judgment,” introduced to help us to cope with the deep differences of belief within a society.  Rawls maintained that we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt with regard to the reasonableness of our differing beliefs.  We need a spirit of generosity allowing that reasonable persons may affirm differing reasonable doctrines.   Both those who believe that life is wasted without Jesus, and those who don’t, need to see each other as reasonable persons who can give reasons for their implicit and explicit criticisms of beliefs contrary to their own.

Emma Teitel brings to the fore another reason for considering William Swinimer’s T-shirt offensive.[ii]  He is not being “discreet” but “rude.”   Religious beliefs are “far too precious to flaunt” and should be kept private, according to Teitel.  Another on-line critic uses more colorful language: “Bloody Jesus freaks…they just can’t keep it to themselves! They just have to be IN YOUR FACE!”  Ah yes, if only we could keep religion restricted to the closets of private homes, or, if we must, to mosques, churches, and synagogues.  What is rather strange here is that we don’t demand this of other similar sorts of value declarations.  We seem to have no problem with the flaunting of commercial messages in the form of advertising.  Billboards and T.V. ads are very much IN YOUR FACE!  Why single out religion as something that needs to be kept private?  It seems a little unfair.  And there are some real problems with the private/public distinction appealed to by Teitel and other liberals who so desperately want to keep religion out of the public sphere. It is very difficult to keep anything completely private.  No, I don’t think Teitel really believes that religious beliefs are too precious to flaunt.  She simply disagrees with religious beliefs and she dares to flaunt her own anti-religious sentiments in a national weekly magazine. How rude!  How indiscreet!

But there is more to Teitel’s tirade against the T-shirt episode. “There is a great difference between cherishing a belief and wielding it like a weapon,” Teitel argues.  Now this is really quite serious.  Teitel goes on to multiply analogies, one of which involves the inappropriateness of pulling out a revolver at the dinner table if your guests are pro-gun control.  Another on-line critic was a little less dramatic: “The problem, for me, with religious people is that they get so righteous and full of themselves that they think they have a duty to impose their beliefs.”  Ah yes, the old skeptical sawhorse of coercion applied to evangelism.  But surely we have stretched the notion of coercion beyond recognition if we apply it to a message written on a T-shirt of a normally shy teenager.  Other students are perfectly free to simply ignore the message.  They can even look away.  Or they could choose to tell William that they disagree with his message.  And to talk about a message on a T-shirt as a kind of weaponry borders on the absurd, unless of course one is drawing on the insights of French postmodernist Michel Foucault who interprets all truth claims as “fruits of a poisoned tree of power relations.”  But if so, then this also applies to Teitel and her company of critics.  The weapon analogy is ultimately self-refuting.  So perhaps we should tone down the rhetoric.

So what was all the fuss about?  Given the weakness and even the absurdity of the arguments used against William Swinimer, it is not surprising that the school administration and the board, after consulting with a human rights activist, backed away from their controversial decision.  However, they tried to save face by scheduling some follow-up “open dialogue” on how students can express their beliefs “in a complex multicultural school environment.”  Sadly, William’s father did not let his son participate in this dialogue.

The reader might also be wondering whether this incident deserves the attention that I have given it.  I believe this case is significant because it illustrates some deeply held suspicions in our society against all forms of Christian evangelism or proselytizing.  These suspicions also surface in the academy.  Take for example, Canadian philosopher, Jay Newman, in his important study entitled, Foundations of Religious Tolerance:  “We usually do not like the people who come to convert us.  We often find them arrogant, ignorant, hypocritical, meddlesome…. [M]any forms of missionary activity and overassertive ‘witnessing’ accompany, foreshadow, and promote more radical forms of religious harassment.  There is something essentially intolerant about the missionary, the proselytizer.”[iii]  Newman concludes: “Most religious proselytizing tends to promote resentment.  Resentment promotes intolerance, which in turn promotes barbarism.”[iv]   I have argued elsewhere that these arguments are not as strong as is generally assumed.[v]  We are all indebted to William Swinimer for his bold demonstration of ethical evangelism.

(This blog is an expanded version of a blog which first appeared on, June 8, 2012)

[i] I am drawing on the following accounts of this case:  Bev Ware, “Nova Scotia school to debate religious T-shirt controversy,” Globe and Mail, May 4, 2012;  Sarah Boesveld, “Suspended Nova Scotia student defiantly wears T-shirt with pro-Jesus message,” National Post, May 4, 2012;  and Megan O’Toole, “N.S. school backs off from ban of student’s T-shirt with pro-Jesus message,” National Post, May 5, 2012.

[ii] Emma Teitel, “A Tiring Tempest in a T-shirt,” Maclean’s Magazine, May 21, 2012, p. 12.

[iii] Jay Newman, 1982. Foundations of Religious Tolerance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 88-9.

[iv] Ibid, p.110.

[v] See Elmer John Thiessen, The Ethics of Evangelism:  A Philosophical Defense of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion.  Paternoster and IVP Academic, 2011.


Human Nature and the Future

June 6, 2012

Is human nature essentially good, or bad, or a bit of both?  It is in answering this question that the differences between Christian and secular thought often come into sharp focus.  The choice one makes here influences nearly all of one’s thinking, whether in the area of education, psychology, sociology, politics, or even economics.  It also shapes the way one thinks about the future.

The Christian narrative maintains that God first created human beings as “very good,” but sadly this goodness was seriously tainted by the fall of Adam and Eve.  The fall did not, however, entirely eliminate the goodness of God’s creation, including human nature. The original goodness of human nature still shines through.  But our sinful nature is still very real.  So the correct answer to the question I started out with is that human nature is both good and bad. There are some people, including Christians, who want to downplay the badness of human nature.  Others forget about the goodness that remains in human nature despite our tendency to sin.

Jesus had this to say to some religious leaders of his day who had difficulty admitting their own sinfulness:  “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-2).  I like to quote Jesus’ words when dealing with the problem of human nature in my ethics courses at college and university. But my students seldom appreciate this rather bleak assessment of human nature.  Why?

The view of human nature held by my students, along with many people in our society, has been shaped by the Enlightenment.  Eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant said, “In man there are only germs of goodness.” This kind of optimism about human nature continues to this day, and is expressed so well by A.S. Neill, influential British educator, who founded the well-know Summerhill school, based on the principle that children should be allowed freedom to be themselves.  Neill too is perfectly clear:  “Self-regulation implies belief in the goodness of human nature; a belief that there is not, and never was, original sin.”  Neill here reflects the orientation of many today who do not want to face up to the evil within them.  In fact, this refusal to face up to our true nature is simply one more indication of our evil nature.  We prefer to deceive ourselves about our moral condition rather than face the truth (see I John 1: 8).

Christians are always in danger of betraying a biblical understanding of human nature.  This danger is also present when interpreting the future.  We are tempted to become what R.M. Weaver calls, “hysterical optimists,” where our faith in human nature makes us believe that things will get better and better in society.  Evolution is always seen as upwards.  This faith in man’s goodness also makes it difficult for us to acknowledge the reality of the deepening moral crisis in our society, and the possibility of complete moral disintegration.

Os Guinness, in his book Unspeakable: Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror (HarperCollins, 2005), suggests that Americans were unprepared for 9/11 because of a failure to appreciate the sinfulness of human nature.  They have been influenced too much by the liberal progressive idealism that has been so pervasive over the past 200 years, Guinness argues.

Some time ago, I read Dietrich Neufeld’s A Russian Dance of Death: Revolution and Civil War in the Ukraine (trans. By Al Reimer, Hyperion Press, 1980).  Reading this diary, describing the terror and suffering inflicted on the Mennonites in 1919-1920 by anarchists, Reds and Whites, all of whom were still ordinary human beings, is a healthy antidote to any hysterical optimism.

Of special significance is the fact that the Mennonites were totally unprepared for these events.  They “remained blissfully unresponsive to the danger signals around them.”  I would suggest that in part, their failure to read the signs of the times was due to their not fully acknowledging the evil nature of human beings.

Neufeld goes on to describe the Mennonites themselves as “complacent and self-centered.”  “They understood the Revolution only insofar as it was advantageous to them.”  In other words they were also blind to the evil within their own hearts, which was in fact part of the cause of the suffering inflicted on them by others.

Jesus encouraged us to be careful to read the signs of the time correctly (Matt. 16:3).  Are we doing this, or are we letting false doctrine blind us to the possibility of imminent disaster?  There are some voices suggesting that we are just a step away from moral and economic chaos and collapse.  Will our society then also be transformed into a dance of death?  Or, will our supposed civilized decency prevail and prove to be more than just a thin veneer?  The answer to these questions again depends in part on our answer to the question as to what is in the heart of man and woman.

Proper discernment will make possible adequate preparation.  Here we would do well to examine the Old Testament prophets, many of whom predicted times of crisis, urging the people of God to repent of their own greed and injustice which was the cause of the ongoing judgment. At the same time the prophets kept reminding them that God was ultimately in control.  They also kept appealing to a remnant to remain faithful to God.  The prophetic message then and now is that there is still hope even in the midst of chaos and crisis.

(This blog is adapted from an article that first appeared in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Aug. 27, 1982)