The minister of my grandfather's church, when preaching the funeral of some beloved relative, would always take a few minutes out of his recital of the dear departed's virtues to announce that we were going to Hell.
Not because we were bad people, those of us who didn't subscribe to his particular brand of religion, but because his brand was the only one ordained of God and thus the only sure ticket to Glory. He would urge us to join before it was too late -- then return to the business of the funeral.
We were, by turns, embarrassed, annoyed and angry. The preacher's remarks struck us as thoughtless, inappropriate and, rude. After all, we were guests at his church -- not altogether voluntary guests at that -- and we thought we deserved the simple courtesy of not being harangued about religion. We also thought it insufferably arrogant that this unlearned man (actually it was a succession of such men at a series of funerals over a period of some years) should presume to declare our own brand of religion null and void and take advantage of our captive presence to proselytize us for his.
We felt the way a lot of Jews felt the other week when the Southern Baptist International Mission Board urged members of its 40,000 churches to pray for the conversion of Jews -- especially during this month's Jewish holy days.
"Pray each day for Jewish individuals you know by name," a pocket-size guide instructed. "Build authentic friendships with Jewish People. Love them as you would an unsaved relative."
Some Jewish leaders were -- well, annoyed. "We'd like a little less love and a little more respect," Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations said. "There's a kind of theological arrogance that pervades all of this, a certain willingness to play God, and an absence of awareness that these sorts of statements throughout history are associated with coercion, hatred and violence."
It's easy enough for me to understand that reaction. Except for the "hatred and violence," it was my reaction to those annoying funeral orators.
But look at the matter from the preacher's (or the Southern Baptists') point of view. The minister believed to the point of certainty that he and his fellow believers had found the one sure path to Salvation. It was his duty to share his knowledge with the rest of us -- not because he wished us ill but precisely because he didn't. It was as though he knew the bridge around the next mountain curve had been washed out and that to allow us to continue along that route would mean our death. Who would refuse to warn an unwary motorist, even if the warning might be misinterpreted as rudeness? We were, by his lights, on the wrong road -- even though we were as sure of our Christianity as he was of his.
The Southern Baptist leaders who mounted the Jewish conversion campaign (two years ago, they launched a similar campaign to convert Muslims during Ramadan and Hindus during Divali) must have felt the same duty to warn. Indeed, the surprise is that more Christians are not doing the same thing. Unlike other religions that acknowledge the possibility of multiple paths to Truth, Christians tend to think of Christianity as the only -- or at any rate the only reliable -- path. They are duty-bound to preach to -- and pray for -- the heathen.
Didn't the Old Testament prophets do the same thing, warning people to repentance before it was too late? And weren't they Jews? Was the Southern Baptist prayer guide any more offensive or arrogant than, say, Jeremiah?
And yet this whole proselytizing thing is annoying. It's one thing for friends of different religious persuasions to exchange views and to try to bring one another around, quite another for one religion to target another as ignorant and lost and in need of conversion. I'm a little annoyed even by the mild-mannered Jehovah's Witnesses who come around to disrupt your Saturday, just when you're mowing the lawn or engrossed in the game of the week.
But if they "know" that they are right, and that you are tragically, damnably wrong, just what are they supposed to do?