Fire and brimstone: An apology

No matter your religious affiliation or lack thereof, the street preachers who appear on campus are an unwelcoming sight. I, like most people, prefer not to be condemned to hell as I walk to and from class in the morning. However, where there are differences, there can also be understanding.

Too often I have found myself standing on the edge of a large group of people who were attempting to argue with these preachers. I began to notice that the people who were drawn in were not only those who wished to mock them and attempt to get a rise out of them, but also believers who were horrified and upset that these men were taking a message of love and perverting it to fit some agenda.

Once a young freshman girl bravely stood up there and pleaded with the crowd, saying that Christianity is a religion of peace and love, not hatred and condemnation. To these street preachers, that idea is laughable.

For them, the love of God is not evident by redemption, forgiveness and compassion. To them, the love of God is the guarantee that people will be punished accordingly. Conveniently, the people who most deserve condemnation are those with whom they disagree. The way they see it, you must fear God in order to love God.

It’s very appealing to adopt an ideology in which you are always right and such claims are backed up by your own definitions of divine commands. It makes them feel justified and gives them an authority they wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s also very easy to see the appeal of the fire and brimstone approach. Many of us would love to yell and scream about things we disagree with. These preachers found a loophole where such behavior is encouraged.

It’s easy for a religious person who doesn’t proselytize to dismiss the street preachers and try not to accept responsibility for them, but it’s impossible not to see that they are doing more harm than good. People do not respond positively to abrasive language. People are not converted by the fear of punishment. This is not the 17th century. Fire and brimstone is no longer effective.

I remember reading Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” when I was in middle school. It terrified me. These streets preachers are probably just as scared as that middle school version of me. I do not mean that out of disrespect, but to illustrate that most of these preachers are operating out of a very powerful fear and the presupposed confidence that their actions will grant them pardon from an unquenchable wrath that is completely unavoidable unless you agree with them.

However, not every street preacher is the same.

One, when I asked if he believed he was bringing anyone closer to faith, boldly declared that Noah preached for a hundred years and converted no one and yet his actions were not in vain. That man was not even concerned with conversion, rather his own self-fulfillment and justification.

Another one told me that I would scream and yell too if I saw people trapped in a burning building and wanted to help them. He actually seemed to be concerned with the well-being of others in his own strange way.

These subtle differences may seem like nothing to someone who enjoys mocking these street preachers, but recognizing these contrasts is important in understanding why they do what they do.

If they are acting out of fear in order to find favor in the eyes of their god, they are doing nothing but being selfish. If they are concerned for the welfare of others, they are acting out of a misguided compassion that can be sympathized with.

The most difficult part about watching them is that I do, in fact, understand them. We share a similar plight. I work with a campus ministry and devote a lot of time trying to have faithful and educated discussions about religion and God. I agree with their motives, but I am appalled by their methods. At a place of higher learning, proselytizing does not work. If you want to talk about faith, you need to use reason, knowledge and compassion.

I do not condone what these street preachers do. It’s wrong, just like berating them with insults and trying to instigate violence among them is wrong. They are people too; with feelings, thoughts and emotions. They are people who are obviously very scared and misguided and are acting in regards to fears many of us are not aware of. Regardless, we should treat them with the dignity every person deserves.

On the other hand, religious people should no longer passively approach these preachers as an extreme that can be ignored. What people see is what they get, and those who believe that religion leads to love and redemption need to respond in polite ways to these street preachers and those who attack them.

Religion shouldn’t be treated as a taboo subject that people tiptoe around. We aren’t children, and these dialogues should exist and be encouraged no matter your religious affiliation.

So on behalf of many of Portland State’s religious students, I apologize for the proselytization and anger displayed in the name of a faith that I, and many other people, adhere to peacefully, lovingly and rationally.