The Offensiveness of Religious Persuasion and Evangelism

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 http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/06/the-offensiveness-of-evangelism, 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.

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One Response to “The Offensiveness of Religious Persuasion and Evangelism”

  1. Alex Jones Says:

    This is a good reason for introducing school uniforms to prevent conflicts like this.

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