Last night on the way to dinner, I happened to have to stop at a red light at the busiest intersection in town. It is the place where people often gather to get their message out to the world. This time, however, it seemed not so much a gathering - there were only two young men in evidence - as a takeover. There were signs planted in the ground. There were the two men. And there was a bullhorn.
If you know me at all, you know I had to put my window down so I could hear what the young man with a bullhorn was saying.
The Gospel of Luke, he shouted though the horn, says that it's fine to compel people to come to Christ.
Huh? What? Never heard that one before. One would think I would have come across that sentiment, if it exists in any widely accepted school of Christian thought. I graduated from a Christian university, after all, and took several Biblical studies and theology courses in the course of my education there.
He can't, I thought, be saying it's all right to force people to believe something, or to act as if they believe something, just because someone tells them the must.
The light changed, and I drove on, but what I had heard bothered me a great deal. There was some discussion of it over dinner, before the friend I was dining with and I went on to other topics.
It was still bothering me this morning when I woke up, so I decided to do a little research.
Thanks to an online Biblical search engine, I discovered that there is a verse in Luke's gospel which does, indeed, use the word "compel" in a parable that talks about a supper, a master, a servant, and bringing people to the table for supper. Or, the Supper, meaning, I suppose, to bring people into communion with Jesus.
In the King James version of the Bible, Luke 14:23 reads:
And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.
That wasn't the sort of Christianity I was brought up in. I was always taught, at least before my lengthy foray into Mormonism, that god wants people to worship him because they want to, not because they are required to. No compulsion, no force involved.
That is the definition of "compel", after all: "to drive or urge forcefully or irresistibly"; "to cause to do or occur by overwhelming pressure" (Thanks, Merriam-Webster Online.)
Fortunately, there were links to Bible commentaries on the website I was looking at, and so I had a look around to see what the commentators had to say about this verse and it's meaning. The reading was interesting.
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible casts the verse as an invitation to all, that the servant in the parable was not to take excuses such as that the invitee was not worthy of the supper, or that the invitee did not have proper dress to enter the master's house.
Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible states explicitly that the verse is not an "argument...for compelling men's consciences, nay, for compelling men against their consciences, in matters of religion." Henry's Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, calls the verse an instruction to the apostles to invite Gentiles to follow Jesus at a time when there were huge controversies about whether once must be a Jew in order to follow Jesus.
In another commentary to something called The Fourfold Gospel, the commentators follows Jamieson, et al. in insisting that the verse is a commission to make sure that no one holds themselves to be unworthy of the gospel. It specifically adds that they were to be constrained by moral and not by physical means" and that "Physical constraint would have been contrary to all custom" at the time.
That was clearly not what the street-corner preacher was saying last night. Even in the short bit of his screed that I heard, it was very clear that his intent was to say that it is just fine and dandy to force people to follow his particular brand of Christianity. That there is only one choice, his choice, and that he stood ready to "compel" - his word, not mine - people to follow Jesus.
I could hear it not only in his words, but in his tone, in his emphasis of that word, in his very posture, which was nothing if not aggressive.
Where do people get these ideas? That it is perfectly alright to force someone to accept Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, or some other religion or philosophy, that they do not believe in.
And, how would he enforce this compulsion? By physical threats, economic threats, with firearms?
And what ever happened to the Christianity of my youth, where no one would ever have had this concept of what it means to be a Christian, that it is okay to force others to follow your religious beliefs, much less shouted it through a bullhorn as a threat on the busiest corner in Fresno?
I can only hope that this street-corner preacher was an aberration, that he was speaking only for himself and the young man who was with him, and not for the vast majority of Christians in America. Anyway, he wasn't speaking for the Christians I know.