Evangelism with a Hint of Smugness

This morning I met with a couple of other Catholic guys at a coffee shop to read over the Scriptures for Mass on Sunday and talk about what was on our minds. It’s been encouraging, to say the least. We do this weekly, and I always walk away feeling spiritually and emotionally filled. We meet for an hour outside this coffee shop early in the morning – for privacy and maybe also so we don’t have to subject those inside to a conversation about religion. I don’t know. Definitely the first reason, at least. But this morning, someone actually came out to us.

Forty minutes in, a man sat pretty close, but at a different table, sipping his coffee and smoking a cigarette. I have a somewhat irrational suspicion, whenever I’m really getting into a religious conversation with someone in public, that the people around us fidgeting are doing so because they don’t like hearing what we have to say. If they get up and move to a different table, I am all but convinced I said too much. This isn’t the deep south. This is California. And Sacramento (where I live now) might not be so harsh, but in the San Francisco Bay Area, a guy literally got up in a public restaurant and started yelling at me and my then-pastor before storming off because he overheard us talking about how to love people who were gay while still holding to a view of traditional marriage ourselves. So now, I imagine fidgeting people in tables next to me.

I had the same suspicion this morning, but I put it away in the same corner of my brain where I store my thoughts on what I’d do if I got into a prison fight and what I would say to Stephen Colbert if I got on the Late Show. Only problem is that the man didn’t help because he then got up, started pacing, and audibly sounded exasperated as we were talking. Mind you, our little group and this man were the only people outside at this time.

But we kept talking, and one of the guys brought up a question about salvation. The Gospel passage for Sunday is all about Zacchaeus, the tax collector. After spending time with Jesus in his home, Jesus pronounced that salvation had come to him. We discussed.

Our smoking friend then begged to interrupt, and started talking with us. Now, you have to imagine this man: he reminded me of a condescending British aristocrat in a BBC movie, but without the British accent. He clearly felt superior, and attempted to enlighten us. He had no taste for the New Testament, though he’d read it. I wouldn’t peg him as an atheist, but he picked maybe two or three passages in which Jesus said things like, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword,” and the passage during the Last Supper where he counsels his disciples to see if they have any weapons with them and, with these passages in hand, tried to peg Christianity as a violent religion. And with his words of wisdom, he tried to save us from it.

Now, this was a little comical for a couple of reasons: 1. If you are going to say Christianity is a violent religion, the last person you want to reference is it’s founder who over and over again purposely chose not to retaliate against violent people  – even to crucifixion – and every instance He could, discouraged His disciples from doing so as well. Jesus and his disciples are the epitome of non-violence, and encouraged their followers to live the same kind of life. There are plenty of passages in the Old Testament that really are challenging when it comes to this. Why he went to the New Testament is sort of dumbfounding. 2. Sitting with me, to my left, was a man who had a Masters in Catholic Theology, and to my right was a seminarian who would soon be ordained a priest. They are the last two people you would want to lecture about what the Bible says.

He was a nice enough guy, to be sure. He didn’t yell at me, which is a step up from other experiences I’ve had. But the smugness…. oh, the smugness. He reeked of condescension. And from someone who clearly didn’t know what he was talking about…..

It made me think of myself.

The thing is, I don’t think the man was trying to be smug. Or perhaps, he imagined we thought we were better than others because we were Catholic, and so he wanted to return the favor. But whatever the reason, his tone turned me off right away. He didn’t really want to listen. He didn’t really want to discover truth with us. He just wanted to bring his own version of truth to bear upon us. He wanted to save us, and that sounds awfully familiar. I don’t want to be smug, but I’m called to evangelize. Every Christian is. So where does that leave us?

I don’t think I know the answer to that fully, but I think the Bible gives us some pointers. In 1 Peter 3:15-16, the Apostle Peter counsels Christians to always be ready to give an explanation for the hope they have in Christ. Always be ready with an answer. But he goes on to say that we must explain our answer with gentleness, reverence, and a clear conscience. If I could add to that what James says in his own letter, we should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

I’m not going to say I’m great at doing this. I’m not. I get emotionally caught up in these sorts of conversations, but I’ve made enough mistakes to know how I want to be. And the more I think of it, the more I feel that Peter and James’ wisdom can act as a good rubric to guide me and anybody. In light of their words, here is how I would like to act if I were on the other side of my conversation with my friend this morning:

1. I want my conversation to be a dialogue. I never walk away from an argument without learning something new. I don’t care how much someone disagrees with me – if we argue, I will gain from it. But that can only happen if the talking is two-way. If I don’t really listen with a spirit of genuine curiosity, I won’t really learn anything.

2. I want to admit it when I realize I’m wrong. Oh sure, part of me doesn’t want to because I think that the person I’m having the conversation with will then “win the argument.” Screw that. Let them win. The next time I talk, they will know they have someone in front of them they can reason with, and it will open up conversation.

3. I want to remember that this is a real person I am talking to, which may not mean much to them, but means everything to me. To say someone is a “person” means they are made in the image of God – someone second only to the Eucharist in their sacredness. They deserve not just my respect, but my reverence and love.

4. I want to remember that my fight isn’t with them. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made the point that he fought bad ideas, not bad people. Paul made the point that “we battle not with flesh and blood” but with spiritual forces. If I think the person I am talking to is the enemy, I’ve missed the point. Demonizing people is never the answer.

Especially now, after this vicious political cycle and with all the vicious comments and tweets people leave for one another, we might need to learn again how to talk to one other. We need to remember that the whole reason we have vigorous discussions is because we are all trying to grasp at truth and we have the duty, the obligation, to remove every hindrance in our lives that keeps us from that pursuit – especially our own egos.

Pray for me. I know I’m not there yet.

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