If anyone has ever tried to convince you to get religion, change religion, or even lose your religion, then you’ll probably relate to this column.
In the early 1980s I went to work as an advertising intern for the Marin County Independent Journal where I toiled to make tuition expenses for Golden Gate Seminary. It was there that I spent every weekday afternoon constructing newspaper ads with a colleague I remember as Jeannette.
Within a few days, I was pleased to learn that Jeannette was a Christian like myself. Actually – not so much. She was an overly-zealous member of the Church of Christ, who was soon peppering me with daily theological questions.
“Do you believe in the Bible?” she’d ask. “If you die tonight, do you know where you will spend eternity?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m a born-again Christian.” I’d say, making sure to use all my religious buzzwords. Then with an extra flair of certainty, I’d add that I was born, bred and baptized into the Southern Baptist Church.
I was a first-year seminary student, but when my theological pedigree proved unconvincing, I tried cajoling her with teambuilding. I suggested that since “we are both Christians, we should double-team our four-pack-a-day supervisor, Jerry.”
“I’m not sure Jerry is going to hell,” I’d joke, “but he sure smells like he’s been there.”
She remained unamused by my flippancy and unconvinced by my steadfast confessions of faith. She thought that baptism in her church was the only way I could possibly become a Christian. Apparently I needed an extra helping of Jesus.
“In fact,” she said, “you’d better hurry because Jesus is coming back soon.”
Of course, Jeannette wasn’t looking for answers. Her queries were embarking points to intrude into my faith space.
So, one afternoon, I decided I had enough of Jeannette’s Jesus. I pulled her aside to tell her that if my faith didn’t pass her saintly litmus test, then I guess I’d be joining Jerry in the smoking section.
My witticisms hid a shameful truth.
The truth was that I recognized her style as the one I’d used as a ministerial student while scouring the minority neighborhoods surrounding Baylor University for new converts. Jeannette’s approach awakened something in my gut that said I was too smart to have my own techniques redirected on me. And more than likely, my previous “converts” were also too smart for that.
As a “recovering Baptist,” it’s easy for me to be smug when exposing Jeannette’s self-righteousness or while repenting of my Elmer Gantry moments. But if we can pause for a more authentic moment, I think we can see how easy it is to employ holier-than-thou techniques when trying to convert people to our views on everything from religion, guns, abortion, immigration, marriage or war.
Perhaps our problem is that we often approach people like we are guests on The Dating Game. We hold our political, personal, or religious questionnaires in hand while we gently, or in most cases, not so gently, probe folks for the right answers hoping to get a match. Or worse, we hope to expose their “wrong answers.”
Jesus believed in keeping it simple. If you love God, he said, you have to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This means accepting your neighbor without all of our qualifiers such as religion, politics, race, favorite rock bands and boxers or briefs.
I never passed Jeannette’s litmus test of faith, but in the light of this month’s Zimmerman verdict, I think we can use a few less litmus tests and a lot more neighborly love.