Evangelism by force

The Feast Day of St. Boniface

640px-Saint_Boniface_by_Cornelis_Bloemaert.jpgAt the beginning of his highly successful missionary career in Hesse, St. Boniface chopped down the Sacred Oak of Geismar, a giant tree sacred to the god Thor. Allegedly it fell after only four blows and broke into four pieces, because it was rotten.

This is one of those treasured old stories that makes me a bit ashamed to be a Christian. As a student of the psyche I know how important sacred trees are in the nourishment of the soul. Without them something in us withers. We are diminished.

Somehow our forebears in the faith often had the idea that it was all right to come into a foreign domain, set up shop and destroy the local culture and religion. It is the same mentality that in the U.S. in more recent times had us removing Arapaho children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools, where the children were not allowed to speak their own language or follow their ancient ways. What destructive arrogance!

I have to admit to vacillating between being mystified and being horrified by all the stories of saints in which Christianity was delivered to the “heathen” by force. Wasn’t one of the temptations Jesus resisted in the wilderness taking charge of the world and holding dominion over it?

Granted, I didn’t live in the times or places in which our holy men and women wreaked such devastation, and I am from a much different culture. This leaves me somewhat unable to judge what happened. But at the very least it is not right to unequivocally celebrate the destruction of artifacts from other people’s religions.

As I write this my conscience is asserting itself and reminding me that I can get quite caught up in the role of Crusader myself. When I am just certain that I am right about something, I often don’t listen well to other points of view. In fact I can get downright underhanded when it comes to having things work out my way. Again, what destructive arrogance!

It is confusing and frightening to contemplate how to proclaim the news about repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name to all nations (Luke 24:47) in this age. There are so many cultures, ethnicities and faiths, and each deserves our respect. And this at a time when we are just learning that our fall-back position – ensconcing ourselves in a church, making it lively and inviting, and hoping that people will come for the experience and stay – is proving untenable.

What should we do? At the very least, we need to gather together in churches and dioceses and address the questions surrounding evangelism. Perhaps God will guide us into a new understanding.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.

Past Posts