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22 Feb 2008

After meeting some random evangelist – Yes, I am still alive. For a week there I thought I might not be, but I’ve pulled through. I’ll spare you the gory details and just say that I was down for some time with a bad cold/flu/hell-spawned demon virus. But I’m better now, and yesterday I was finally able to leave the house to take care of some things that needed taking care of.

“Jesus didn’t go around condemning, doubting, and judging people. So why are people who claim to be his followers doing just this?”

My first stop of the day was school (meaning Seoul National University—starting next month “school” will mean HUFS (once again, no love for Firefox... I think I’m going to get very tired of saying that), where I had to return some books and take care of some paperwork. I stopped at the little cafe beneath the library to get some plum tea, but unfortunately there was no place to sit. I went outside and sat on a bench there. It was cold with the wind blowing, but not as cold as it has been, and the tea was warm.

As I sat there drinking my tea, a man passing by stopped, looked at me, and started to walk over. On the whole, I’m not really the most sociable of people, and I don’t like it when people approach me out of the blue. I watched him out of the corner of my eye and started gauging the odds—I figured there was a seventy percent chance he represented some Christian organization or another, and a thirty percent chance he wanted me to teach English.

He greeted me in Korean and asked me if I spoke Korean. In retrospect, I probably should have pretended I didn’t, but I wanted to be able to pretend I didn’t speak English if he wanted me to teach him. He sat down and started asking me questions: what year was I, what did I study, where was I from, things like that. Innocuous questions, but annoying—perhaps annoying because they were innocuous. That is, it was obvious he was trying to “establish a rapport.” I politely answered his questions and noticed that he never even mentioned English. I was now 99% sure that he was a proselytizer.

A moment later my suspicions were confirmed. “I’m an evangelist,” he said. The Korean word is “jeondosa,” which can literally be translated as “evangelist,” but in terms of functional equivalence would probably be better translated as “pastor-in-training.” This is not completely accurate either, since not all jeondosa go on to be moksa (pastors), but I think it’s better than “evangelist.”

Anyway, I nodded politely when he identified himself. I knew what was coming next, because I’ve been through this countless times before. He asked me if I was a Christian, and I told him I was. Then he asked me how long I had been a Christian, and again I told him. Next he asked me how certain I was of my salvation, and I began to answer by quoting a few verses of Scripture.

“But how exactly can you be certain?” he interjected.

That was when I lost patience with him. “You know what? I don’t think I’m comfortable being interrogated like this. I don’t think I’m comfortable with the fact that you appear out of nowhere and doubt my faith from the start.”

I wanted to say more, but I stopped out of politeness. He said, “I was just asking because many people think of Jesus as their Savior and not as their Lord.” Translated out of Christian-speak, that means, “Many people think of Jesus as their ticket into Heaven but don’t really want to live according to the moral standards the he lived and preached.”

Now it was my turn to interrupt. “You don’t have to explain to me why you are doing this. I know exactly why you are doing this, and I’m not comfortable with it.”

He apologized, and then his mouth kept moving and sounds kept coming out of it, but I wasn’t listening. I let him ramble on, nodding my head and waiting for him to be finished. I heard him ask if I wanted to talk anyway. I wanted to say, “What do you think I am, an idiot?” Instead I said, “Sorry, but I have to head over to the department office to take care of some things.” Which was completely true—but I would have felt no guilt at all lying to him. He left, and then I finished my tea and went to the department office.

Like I said above, this isn’t the first time I’ve had such an experience. I once had a man come up to me on a subway platform and ask me if I was a Christian. When I said I was, he said, “In my experience, many Westerners who say they are Christians aren’t really Christians.” I calmly replied, “In my experience, many Koreans who say they are Christians are really very judgmental people.” I was accosted by a street preacher once who tried to prove that my salvation wasn’t real. I’ve had people come to my door and try to do the same thing. I’ve even been chased through the back streets of Sinchon by a group of street preachers who yelled at me to repent, presumably because I had earrings, or maybe just because I was in a sinful neighborhood.

You know what? I’ve lived here for a dozen years and change now, and I’m getting sick of this. Yes, I consider myself a Christian, and I have no problem discussing my faith and my struggles with friends, family members, pastors, and other people with whom I have close relationships. But some guy approaches me out of nowhere and wants to know the state of my soul, and I’m supposed to just open up to him right then and there? Two minutes of rapport-building is supposed to be enough to make me trust this guy? Who ever thought that this might be even a remotely good idea?

I think this might be the first time I’ve ever mentioned this on Liminality. I’ve talked about it with friends and family, but I’ve avoided it here out of my general desire to avoid controversial subjects or things that might come back to bite me in the rear later. But enough is enough. Really. I think I am perfectly justified in being upset about this, and I have every right to make my feelings known. After all, I’m not going up to anyone and shoving these feelings down their throat—if you’re still reading this, you’re reading it because you want to.

Christians in Korea are well aware that there is a distinct anti-Christian mood here. It’s not everyone, of course, but it is definitely there. The problem is that most Christians expect this. We expect it because Jesus himself said that the world would hate us because of him (Luke 6:22, among other verses). Now, I’m not saying this is not true, but it is not logical to assume that whenever someone rejects Christianity they are doing so because of this principle. Isn’t it also possible that some people hate us simply because we piss them off?

I hope it is apparent how dangerous this circular thinking is. I have heard it said by Christians many times, “Well, if the world hates us, we must be doing something right!” And I cringe every time I hear this, because these people feel completely justified in antagonizing non-Christians. Say you’ve got a dog, and one of your neighbors goes around telling everyone how dangerous this dog is, and how much this dog hates him. Maybe the dog does hate this guy, and maybe he doesn’t. One day, though, you see this neighbor taunting the dog and hitting it with a stick. The dog snarls and leaps at your neighbor, who then tells anyone who will listen, “Look! Look! Didn’t I tell you that the dog hated me?!”

Don’t take that analogy too far—I’m not saying that non-Christians are dogs, for example—but take it for what it’s worth. If you’re convinced from the start that a certain group of people are going to hate you, you’re going to do things to fulfill those expectations, even if you’re doing them subconsciously. Human beings seek justification for their prejudices—we all do, not just Christians—that’s just the way we are wired.

So what’s the deal? Why did Jesus tell us that the world was going to hate us? Was he giving us license to be antagonistic just to prove the point? I don’t think so. I think what we have here is a case of misinterpretation and oversimplification. When people hear “the world,” they automatically think “all non-Christians,” but I don’t think this is what Jesus meant. If you look at Jesus’ own life as depicted in the Gospels, he was generally not antagonistic toward those to whom he was attempting to minister. If he was antagonistic toward anyone, it was the religious leaders who feared and hated him. But for the most part, he was patient with them as well if they showed a willingness to engage in dialogue. He didn’t go around condemning, doubting, and judging people. So why are people who claim to be his followers doing just this?

It’s a simple fact: you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. What was this evangelist I met yesterday hoping to accomplish by judging me and doubting me without even knowing me? Did he expect that I would drop to my knees on the spot and cry out, “You’re right! I repent!” Something has gone terribly wrong in the evangelistic mindset here, and because of the built-in prejudice against the world (or, supposedly, the built-in prejudice the world has against us), it has become a self-feeding cycle.

Here’s another simple fact: you can’t change anyone’s mind on anything. The only mind you can change is your own, and all of your sermons and speeches aren’t going to do anything to change anyone else’s mind unless they want to change it. And while we’re handing out simple facts, here’s one more for free: people tend to trust people with whom they have an existing relationship, as opposed to people who approach them out of nowhere. Put all these simple facts together, and you have a recipe for effective evangelism. And it’s pretty much exactly the opposite of what I see happening every day here in Korea. Is it really any wonder that there is an anti-Christian mood here?

I am tempted to print up my own “evangelist repellant” cards to carry with me wherever I go. They would be the size of business cards, with a big smiley face on the front. On the back would be printed text, something along the lines of: “Look, I understand that you are concerned for the state of my soul. Thank you for that concern. But you don’t know me from a hole in the wall, and I have no real interest in discussing my spiritual life with you. If you really want to make a difference in someone’s life, try getting to know them, try really caring for them, and then try ministering to their needs rather than pushing your agenda on them. No, this is not something that you can accomplish in a day, or even a week or a month. Yes, it’s a lot harder to quantify than say, the number of random strangers you have harassed on the street on any given day. But you know what? It will probably be ten thousand times more effective. Thank you, God bless you, and have a nice day.”

Of course, I will write it in Korean. I will carry a couple of these in my wallet, and whenever I am approached by a random evangelist, I will quietly hand them one and go on my way. You think I’m kidding. Maybe I am, partly. But I really am getting sick of this, and there’s no telling what I might do.

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