Critics call for limits on proselytizing

— A Southern Baptist Convention official says he knows that critics say it is arrogant to target Hindus, Jews and Muslims for conversion on their holiest of days.

''There is an arrogance in truth,'' says Don Kammerdiener of the International Mission Board. ''The Gospel message is a stumbling block for those who choose not to believe it.''

The denomination enraged Hindu leaders in the United States this week when it released a booklet urging Southern Baptists to pray for Hindus on their major festival, Divali. Last month, it published a booklet aimed at Jews on the High Holy Days. An earlier book addressed Muslims on Ramadan.

Some Christian critics say it's possible to share the Gospel's ''good news'' without pummeling the listener. The Southern Baptists, they charge, offend members of other faiths with campaigns designed to make headlines as much as win converts.

Evangelists have long confronted the ethical implications of proselytizing abroad, often in tense climates such as India, where Christians and Hindus compete for followers. As more immigrants bring their religious traditions to the United States, evangelicals are facing similar moral dilemmas at home.

What tactics are fair in the battle for souls? In a country with relatively unrestricted religious freedom, what limits should Christians place on their proselytizing?

Take away a Southern Baptist's right to evangelize and you've taken away his faith, says Kammerdiener, executive vice president of the mission board.

He proposes rules of engagement. Offering inducements to win converts is unethical, he says. ''And I think it is absolutely improper to falsely describe another religion in attempting to share your faith.''

Hindus object to the way their faith is characterized in the recent Southern Baptist prayer guide, which describes them as living under ''the power of Satan.''

Even a former head of the convention's International Mission Board, Keith Parks, calls the Southern Baptists' proselytizing campaign abrasive.

Emory University law professor John Witte Jr., who directed a three-year project on proselytizing, believes that groups like the Southern Baptists should more closely monitor their own missionary activities beginning with a decision not to target religious groups.

''Hustling for Jesus is fine,'' says Witte, who heads the school's program on law and religion. An overly aggressive strategy ''violates the universal quality of the Gospel message and the example of Christ himself.''

Besides, he says, ''It will ultimately be self-defeating. It will stiffen the spines of religious groups being targeted and invite retaliation.''

In Eastern Europe, he notes, anti-proselytizing sentiment has risen in response to some missionaries' use of high-tech media and high-pressure tactics. A similar public opinion backlash could follow in this country, he says.

Attempts to use the law to curb proselytizers by charging them with harassment or disturbing the peace have failed in the United States, beginning with attempts to stop Jehovah's Witnesses in the 1930s.

The Rev. John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, finds missionaries who focus on converting Jews particularly disturbing.

''It's offensive ... when we have been part of a long history of abusive behavior ultimately leading to the Holocaust.'' Better, he says, to focus evangelizing the more numerous nonbelievers.

Thomas thinks it is arrogant to claim that Christianity offers the one path to truth. Parks, on the other hand, has no problem telling potential converts that Jesus Christ provides the only way to salvation. After all, Jesus told his followers to go ''and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'' (Matthew 28:19)

That does not justify aggressive or offensive proselytizing, says Parks, who left the Southern Baptist Convention to join the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Christian missionaries' descriptions of other faiths should be respectful, he says. ''We need to cultivate personal relations rather than launch a new crusade that's confrontative,'' he says.

Witte calls for ''gentle interaction, the fragile ethic that supports respect and toleration for each other. It also involves education about others' faith.''

Thomas agrees: ''Christians are called upon to bear witness to their faith in Jesus... But proselytizing and evangelizing needs to me more of a dialogue in which we both share and receive. It doesn't mean we are timid about sharing our faith or making judgments about the relative value of faith understanding. It means we have a kind of humility in our witness.''

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