I was approached recently in the parking lot of a local park by a courtly, elderly man and his two female companions. They cheerfully greeted me, told me that God loves me, and handed me literature.
I have read the Watchtower and Awake!, the two publications they gave me. Their enthusiasm to spread the word of God — as they interpret it — aside, I wondered whether they ever have moved out of their comfort zone to study and understand others.
Proselytizing takes many forms. It could be as subtle as inviting someone for coffee, then talking about religion in a tangential way. Or it could be as blatant and occasionally forceful as some missionaries are known to do in Third World countries. In the former, there is some social and cultural equality. In the latter, there is food and health in the balance.
I am amused by the fired-up evangelists who think they have the answer to all the problems that humanity faces. Then there are others who claim they have an answer, but it’s a different answer than that of fellow evangelists.
Among the great world religions, Christianity and Islam lead the way in proselytizing. While many Christian denominations make it a part of their belief system and proselytize to non-Christians, Muslims generally limit themselves to preaching to the choir. They also lack the sophistication of their Christian counterparts in spreading the word.
Mankind has come a long way from the medieval world, where religion provided a convenient cover for political and economic domination of others. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitutions of most western democracies. And still there are groups that consider it their God-given duty not only to proselytize, but also to demonize other religions.
In 1999, the Southern Baptist Convention went on a frontal assault against the Hindu religion. Members of the convention declared 900 million Hindus to be “lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.” They further said that Hindus lived under the “power of Satan.”
In unprecedented evangelical zeal, they targeted Jews to convert to Christianity. After loud and pointed protests by Hindus and Jews, they at least publicly backed off — at least publicly.
Another amusing aspect of their misplaced zealotry was a declaration that yoga was against the teaching of Christianity. According to Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, yoga is decidedly un-Christian.
Hinduism and Judaism are much older than Christianity. Though Hinduism and Judaism evolved through history, their core values and practices provide spiritual fulfillment to devotees today, as they have to countless generations through their long history.
So where should we find a middle path in the cacophony of self-righteous shouting? Have we entered a modern-day Tower of Babel, where we talk past each other and we are good at hearing the reverberations of our own partisan voices?
Or must we devote our precious time and equally precious resources to re-create the original Tower of Babel, where people spoke in one tongue? Was it not God who gave disciples different tongues and scattered them to different parts of the world?
I see unity amid diversity. Why not get off our individual celestial high horses and accept the fact that we were all created equal. Despite our individual faiths, we are still equal. No one has the right to tell anyone that his or her belief system is inferior to any one particular religion. Native Americans were not godless heathens, nor are modern Hindus in the clutches of Satan.
In our life journey, we are like cowboys who ride the fence lines and return home at the end of the day. They carry tools and provisions for their journey. At the end of our life journey, we will return, I believe, to the same place as others.
My advice to the courtly gentleman and his two companions in the park parking lot: Let’s be friends and neighbors. I will not tell you I have the perfect road map for your life journey. I expect that you will refrain from telling me that you would show me the correct path.
Two bullhorns blaring would impair our ability to hear each other.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org