(Not so) civil debate

(Not so) civil debate

Emily Doran

This past week, I had the unfortunate—albeit fascinating—experience of witnessing some “fire-and-brimstone”-style proselytizers surrounded by and being harassed by Grand Valley State University students near the Transitional Link on campus. Between classes, I stopped to observe some of the interactions between these two groups, and although I could not stay very long or make out everything that was said, I was still left with a very negative impression of the whole proceeding.

I was upset by the manner in which the zealots chose to share their message (and even more by what I later heard secondhand about their remarks to students, although I cannot accurately reflect on those here as I did not witness them firsthand), and I was equally appalled by the behavior of the students who chose to become engaged in the presentation (although, again, I could perhaps understand and sympathize a little more with their actions given what I have since learned about the lecturers’ verbal harassment of students). The chaos and hatred and misunderstanding emanating from around the Transitional Link struck me so profoundly that I knew I had to offer some commentary on it somehow.

First, I would suggest that the method of holding signs condemning certain “sinners” to an eternity in hell is usually not the most effective method for garnering positive interest in your quest to save mankind. Although human depravity and the need for salvation are cornerstone beliefs of any legitimate branch of the Christian church, I believe that most Christians would also agree that the best way to go about discussing these serious topics is from a perspective of love and a shared humanity (e.g., we are ALL condemned if not for divine intervention), focusing on God’s profound love evident in the means of salvation which He has provided.

Instead, by concentrating from the onset on self-righteously condemning other peoples’ lifestyles, you are only going to isolate yourselves, push your audience away from you, and turn them off from your message. This is not to suggest that Christian churches should abandon the concepts of human depravity and hell, or attempt to placate their listeners by preaching that these topics are less serious than they actually are. But surely there are more loving and less “holier-than-thou” approaches to communicating this idea. It’s important for people preaching in this manner to recall that, according to classic Christian theology, they, too, would be condemned to whatever demise they claim awaits non-Christians if not for divine intervention.

When it comes to the goal of persuasion, sometimes it’s better to gently guide your listener in that direction by posing thoughtful questions and evidence as they (hopefully) inevitably come to the conclusion which you had hoped they would.

Many Christians who favor these subtler means of persuasion are rightfully upset by the way the aforementioned proselytizers are going about sharing their message. One concern is that listeners will immediately associate these preachers with all of Christendom, lumping every member of this group under the same unfortunate label. I would instead suggest that these people actually represent only a small portion of professing Christians, and I would urge anyone who was in the unfortunate position of observing their preaching to keep this in mind.

In the end, I hope that these lecturers will try different methods of communicating their messages—as their current approach is clearly only making students angry and that much more opposed to their theology—and I in turn hope that these students will not treat this group as an all-encompassing example of Christianity.