While in seminary, I spent a few years living with a number of housemates who worked for a non-profit organization that exists to prevent child trafficking in southeast Asia by providing scholarships and other resources to at-risk children and families. Though some of the people I knew who were involved with the organization did--at least at the time--identify as Christians, the organization itself was (and still is, as far as I know) not affiliated with a church.
I remember one of those housemates once saying that she often fielded the question, when raising funds and awareness at various Christian institutions, why ‘sharing the gospel’ with the children was not a part of the project. This is not a surprising enquiry, as many Christians are told that the best thing you can do to help a person in need--even better, perhaps, than giving them food or clothing or cash--is to tell them the “good news” about Jesus. I know I was often taught exactly that.
My friend’s response to the question was, in so many words, that it would be inappropriate to do so. The people whom the organization seeks to serve are largely Buddhist, not to mention that they live in a place and culture that was not shaped by Christianity like Europe and the Americas were, and so the task of converting a child and/or a whole family would mean an attempt to shift an entire worldview. This is, of course, not to mention that making Christian conversion a part of the process of accessing aid runs the risk of racking up a whole lot of nominal confessions.
This completely logical answer made sense to me, and it also got me thinking--thinking about the arrogance, on a global scale, of Christian exceptionalism. As I’ve written about before, I was never that into evangelism in the traditional sense of heading out to the streets to spread the word that Jesus was the portal to eternal salvation. However, this disinclination was never really about respecting another person’s perspective and trusting their knowledge of themselves as much as it was about my own personal fear of intruding on and bothering another human. But when my housemate offered up the idea (perhaps completely obvious to everyone except me) that Christianity might not automatically belong everywhere, I was suddenly struck by how utterly ludicrous it is, from a historical and geographical perspective, to think that Christianity is the only religion that got it right.
I began to ask myself: how is it that the ONLY way to know God and gain access to his forgiveness is via this one Jewish man born in Roman-occupied Palestine about two-thousand years ago? You mean I just got lucky, being born in a place and time where that particular view was already the norm and thus totally acceptable to my mind because of the contingencies of politics and colonization that came into play since Jesus’ death? I sensed some dangerous implications. For instance, that other native belief systems are just straight-up wrong. In other words, that the people who belong to indigenous religions or who now live as the heirs to the huge variety of ideologies that are spread over the giant continent of Asia are ignorant or misguided or feral and idolatrous or all of the above. How fucking arrogant of us. I used to be told that God needed us--Christians, that is--to help spread His message to the “unreached” people of the world. It took me so long to realize that what I was really being taught was the social/cultural/national superiority of my supposedly loving group.
I say “supposedly” because the other thing that Christian exceptionalism necessitates is a bottom-line rejection of other worldviews. When an Evangelical Christian is discussing religion with a person from another faith or ideology, she or he is starting with the assumption that Christianity is still the truest of truths and, while that other person might have some interesting and even true-ish things to say, that person is, ultimately, off track. There is no real--and I speak from a lot of experience here--openness to being changed by a good argument or convinced by a new perspective. This is not to say that change doesn’t happen in Christian people (clearly, it did for me) or that the person who is not a Christian is not equally set in their ways. But personally, I was tired of that kind of interaction. I was tired of acting like I knew more than everybody else, like I had a secret. Like I was special. No, I just happened to be born where I was born and when I was born and if it had been any different, I might be a Buddhist, too.