Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why missions matters

To the debate about Muslim takeovers of Western countries, that is.

I wrote to a correspondent recently in e-mail that the low-church Protestants are the canaries in the mine for Muslim oppression of Christians in erstwhile free Western nations. As an exhibit I offer the case discussed in my recent post on W4 concerning two Baptists (Americans long-resident in England) who were forbidden by a Muslim policeman from passing out Christian literature and trying to engage Muslims in religious conversation in a so-called "Muslim area." In the thread on that post, M.Z. Forrest, one of the commentators, actually said, "Why is it always American martyrs? Perhaps they deserve it." (He later said in the thread that this comment wasn't "completely serious.")

Now, I wonder if there is a hint there, too, of the idea that anybody who goes standing on street corners passing out Bible extracts and trying to witness to Muslims cold-turkey "deserves what he gets," because that's such a weird and crass thing to do. Of course, M.Z. didn't say that, and I won't put those words into his mouth.

But it is certainly true that Baptists and their like are a lot more likely than, say, Catholics, to engage in that sort of street evangelism. And it's also true that a lot of people, myself included, are not huge fans of that sort of evangelism, feeling vaguely that it's a little tacky, unlikely to be effective, a case of "bugging people," and so forth.

But the more I have thought about it the more I realize that the matter of evangelism is crucial for the whole question of dhimmitude. While Our Lord didn't say, "Go ye into all the world and pass out tracts on street corners," he did say, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel." While some people are called to missions more than others, and some people are called to engage in evangelism in different ways than others are, the Great Commission hasn't been rescinded.

And it's flatly incompatible with dhimmitude. I made that point in this exchange with Jim Kalb on the subject of whether Islam "has room for" Christianity. This is something I've never heard anyone else say: Christians are supposed to try to spread their faith. Islam makes converting from Islam to Christianity punishable by death. It is thus no accident that Christian missions are illegal in Muslim countries like, say, Iran. So in a sense, anti-dhimmitude is built into Christianity. We aren't allowed to ask nothing more of the world than to be let alone. We are called upon by the very nature of our religion to stand up, be men, and try to lead others to the light of Christ.

The trouble is unfortunately that some Christians don't realize all of this. Some Christians think that Islam "has a place for" Christianity so long as one is sophisticated and sensitive enough to keep quiet and to leave other people alone, not to do offensive, low, uncouth, things like standing on street corners passing out tracts and preaching to total strangers.

But this isn't true. Consider this story from Iran. An Iranian Christian woman gave sewing lessons. In the course of her sewing lessons, some of the women she was teaching came to know about her Christianity and were attracted to it. One of them, from a fanatical family, converted. The convert had to run away, and the seamstress was punished by the family for her role in the conversion. She had no legal recourse. The judge told her it was her fault and that she should be happy nothing worse had happened to her. So even quietly testifying to your faith in a natural manner to interested people is not permitted. And understandably enough. Remember, the penalty to one who converts is death, so there must be some penalty for being deliberately instrumental in conversions.

Worse, some Christians think that we are not called upon to try to witness to people, to try to get them to (as the negative phrase now is) "change their religion." And I am afraid that some "interfaith efforts" have contributed to this confusion. Once again, the fundamentalist types are the ones warning us about this. Maybe they have a point. Maybe we should listen.

So it's an interesting connection: The confused ideas about evangelism and the negative image of evangelism (now sometimes called "proselytizing," which indicates the shift) among some Christians have arisen independently of the rise of Islam in the West. But that negative image has left a weak spot, so that when low-Protestant missionaries get into trouble, I fear that there is a feeling of "that doesn't have that much to do with me" that goes around and that enables people to say that Islam "has a place" for Christianity. But actually, it doesn't, because it has no place for proselytizing, and we are called to proselytize.

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