John the Baptist’s call—”Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”—succeeded in bringing Jews “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” to the desert where the prophet preached, to confess their sins and be baptised. Two thousand years later, the exhortation to “repent” is buried under a mountain of pejorative associations.
Nevertheless, every now and then a “crazy evangelist” appears in the urban jungle. Fănel Zainea, one of those with a reputation, became nationally known after Adevărul published the story of the man who has been preaching from a megaphone in the capital’s Unirii Square for 20 years. “He is more than a religious fanatic,” wrote journalist Cristian Delcea. “I wanted the story of a religious fanatic and I found a man who once drove a BMW 5-series, tried all sorts of businesses and is honestly surprised that a Red Bull ends up costing four euros on an aeroplane. But there’s something between him and God. There’s definitely something.”
This “something” got Fănel into all sorts of trouble on the streets. As well as being cursed in all sorts of creative ways, he also has had to dodge threats and physical violence. “But it also happened that people started to cry, kneeled down and gave their lives to God,” Fănel said in the newspaper report.
Although he belonged to one of them, Fănel did not promote any neo-Protestant denomination. In his sermons he simply said, “Read the Bible and get closer to God.” Nothing more has been heard of Fănel, not even on the Internet. But there is no shortage of creative missionaries in the capital.
Armed with a video camera and an undersized microphone, two young couples walk through parks and crowded areas, conducting interviews. “Do you think you’re a good person?” is one of the questions they repeat in their interviews, to which the interviewees usually reply that they are. The direction is usually the same: from one question to the next, the interviewee ends up admitting to being a liar (has told at least one lie in his or her life), a thief (has cheated at school or downloaded films from the internet) and an adulterer (admits to having looked “lustfully” at some girl/boy). If the interviewees are open enough, the interviewer tells them how they can still go to heaven in spite of these sins.
That’s what happened to “Alex the atheist” in one of the interviews published on YouTube by the two e-evangelists. The young man (probably of high school age) kind of spoiled the script of the interview when he answered that no, he hasn’t looked lustfully at any girls, and that no, he’s not gay either. But because Alex remained polite when he clarified to the interviewer for the second time that he “wasn’t looking at girls with those thoughts,” he got a “thank you for your patience” and a handshake at the end of the interview.
It’s hard to say whether this was a successful interview from the missionary’s point of view, because it’s not clear what his purpose was. But from the viewer’s point of view, there is a slight lack of fairness, firstly, because the young man probably did not agree to be called “Alex the atheist” and for the interview to end up on YouTube; secondly, because between his clueless smile and the questions that were designed to condemn him, there was only one side that was being honest.
The result of an unusual evangelisation
There will probably be those who will say that all this is a small disadvantage compared to the advantage of being made aware that your eternal destiny is at stake. But even if this judgement were correct, it is still not acceptable to manipulate someone just because you mean well. The end doesn’t justify the means, even when it comes to missionaries.
Respect for the intelligence of others and their free will are values in themselves, and not even the God who created this better future disregards them.
Leaving aside the deontology of undercover evangelism, the issue of the results of this strategy remains. Let’s just say that Alex had a naturally higher tolerance for indiscretion and was not easily offended. But what about those who respond simply because they are intimidated by the presence of the camera and the seemingly professional setting in which the discussion is taking place? What will have a greater impact: the existential questions asked during the interview or the atmosphere of interrogation created unsolicited and without warning in the middle of the street? Certainly the answer depends on personal preference, but it is clear that most people in developed societies will find such a discussion inappropriate, even rude and intrusive.
Today, the “privatisation” of faith is spoken of as a trend that few sociologists of religion dispute, and political correctness, so important in educated circles, is increasingly becoming the norm, even legally enforced, to correct the failings of common sense.
Where common sense does not bind, the law does
It is true that some would dispute the definition of this “common sense.” Such was the case in January 2013 after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in an international lesson in political correctness, dismissed three out of four cases brought by Christians claiming that their freedom of conscience and religion had been restricted. For the Christians, it was common sense to exercise and express their religious beliefs freely. From the perspective of the ECHR, common sense required, first and foremost, respect for the right to equal treatment of the parties concerned.
However, the judges advised employers to enter into a “reasonable” agreement with employees, one that would not suppress employees’ religious views, but only subordinate them to “higher priorities.”
The rejected cases included Lilian Ladele, a registrar at Islington Council in London, who lost a case challenging her dismissal for refusing to perform gay marriages, and Gary McFarlane, who worked for Relate, who refused to counsel gay couples about their sexual relationships (although he had counselled gay people about their relationships) and was terminated. Both Ladele and McFarlane applied to the ECHR for a “reasonable adjustments” whereby the employer would use other employees to carry out tasks that conflicted with their religious beliefs. They stressed that their actions would not prevent any gay person from entering into a civil partnership or seeking counselling.
The judges also rejected the appeal of Shirley Chaplin, a nurse from Exeter, who was ordered to stop wearing a crucifix on the grounds that it was unhygienic. The court said it was not in a position to assess the health risk posed by the crucifix, but the ruling suggests that if a company can prove such a risk, it can prevent employees from wearing religious symbols.
Only one case settled in favour of the plaintiff. The only case in which the court ruled in favour of the claimant was that of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways receptionist. She was fired for refusing to stop wearing a small silver cross pendant. She sued the company, but the government dismissed the case. The woman took the case to the ECHR, which ruled that the UK government and national courts had failed to protect her right to express her Christian faith. The ECHR also ruled that the state should pay Nadia Eweida €6,000 in damages to cover both her legal costs and her wages following her dismissal.
The present day, a testing ground for tolerance
Gregor Puppinck, director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), said the court’s decisions did not actually favour the principle of equality but of post-modernist ideology. Why dismiss a worker, Puppinck wrote in an opinion piece, when it would have been easy for the employer to integrate them by offering them other jobs or tasks? He answered his own question by saying that employers refuse to accommodate the religious needs of their employees as a way to sanction them ideologically; in other words, to show them—as a question of principle—that there is no room in the staff for “intolerant Christians,” Puppinck believed.
Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, also believes that people have the right to defend their freedom of conscience when it comes to “morally controversial subjects such as abortion and homosexuality.” In other words, equality must give way to individual freedom as long as there is no consensus on homosexuality, the prelate suggested in an interview with Vatican Radio. And moral relativism must not be allowed to “undermine the foundations of individual freedom of conscience and religion.”
Agree to disagree
The reality is far more nuanced than the two extremes of street evangelisation—seen in all European cultures (and elsewhere) as invasive rather than legitimate—and liberticidal official decisions taken under the guise of equality. Caught between these two realities, ordinary people find it increasingly difficult to speak freely about what they believe without being considered offensive.
Between these two extremes, however, lie statistics showing that 75 out of every 100 people killed by religiously motivated hatred are Christians, a reality that shows how far the intentions to eradicate intolerance are from the practical reality.
Those who call for tolerance must ensure that they themselves are not intolerant.
This means, on the one hand, that missionaries who want the “public” to be interested in the relevance of the religious message should themselves be interested in the actual needs of the public. On the other hand, it also means that the system that protects those who are irritated by Christians should give equal priority to protecting Christians. And for this, as the renowned neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson once said, “what we need to do in this PC world is forget about unanimity of speech and unanimity of thought, and we need to concentrate on being respectful to those people with whom we disagree.”