Proselytizing in Disaster — Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

January 24, 2005

By Saturday, January 22, the new dominating theme in the coverage of tsunami relief was the controversy over whether U.S.-based religious groups were using their aid efforts to "proselytize" and "exploit" the people to whom they were extending physical aid. This marks a typical clash of worldviews that occurs after every major crisis of this sort.

One worldview of some Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and religiously passive citizens on the scene in the tsunami's wake finds voice in a "let-us-alone" rebuff to would-be evangelizers. They are often backed by governmental policy against efforts to convert others, which makes covert proselytizing a violation of the law. To some evangelizing Christians, the fact that they are singled out for criticism seems unfair because militant Muslims, it is well known, are on the front lines as 'exploiters.' The Christian minorities who criticize evangelizers in such places explain that their own long-term patient work and witness is jeopardized by the acts of their zealous co-believers.

A second worldview is that of the Western-based religions represented in relief agencies of Catholics, Lutherans, ecumenical Christian agencies, and Jews. The Christians in this company use religious motivation to do relief work, but do not think it has to be accompanied by proselytizing efforts. Let it also be noted that some evangelical mission-minded agencies resist efforts to make conversion a main theme during relief work.

A third version is that of Westerners who are not religiously involved, or in whose repertory of options nothing like mission-izing, evangelizing, converting, or proselytizing makes sense. They cannot understand why the 'aggressives' evangelize at all. But the missionaries believe that if they do not reach the orphans and other survivors, these unfortunates will not know Jesus and they will go to hell.

A fourth worldview, finally, says that while relief is important as a working-out of a Christian ethic, the highest form of love is the endeavor of soul-saving.

Can one be an evangelically minded Christian believer, and yet with integrity resist the temptation to exploit sufferers? Martin Heinecken, a Lutheran theologian of a generation ago, stated his take on this problem by referencing a parable told by Jesus, in whose name evangelizing goes on. His treatment had to do with the story of the Good Samaritan, in which an outsider is pronounced "good" for having cared only for the physical, medical, clinical, and sheltering needs of a victim. Heinecken: "Did the Samaritan take that poor victim, strapped to his ass like a captive audience, and hand him a tract or preach a sermon? No, he did what the situation demanded, and that was good."

In fact, most religious relief agencies are doing just "what the situation demands." The problem is that according to some worldviews, the "situation" is the poise of an immortal soul, heaven-bound or hell-bound. Those who hold such worldviews will do what they will do, no matter how it affects relief, foreign policy, or the situation of other-believers or even other-Christians.

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Martin E. Marty