We are called to witness to Christ and the gospel. But this call to witness to Christ explicitly is increasingly difficult in today’s world. We are faced with the challenge of promoting religious harmony on the one hand, whilst grappling with the growing number of secularists who claim that they do not profess any particular religion but believe in the Sacred, and those who are professed humanists, agnostics and atheists on the other. Countries in the first world promote secularism. And they are seeking to export their ideology to the rest of the world through trade and technology. Of course, the rise of secularism is also due to the quarrels and divisions among religions; and not least, the loss of credibility of religious leaders due to scandals. At the other end of the spectrum, we have many countries that are still deeply religious but often discriminate minority religions. Many are subtly, if not overtly, persecuted or marginalized because of their faith.
The rise in secularism is further complicated or reinforced by the ideology and dictatorship of relativism and individualism. The former champions a contradictory ideology claiming that relativism is the absolute way to see life. Everything, according to the relativists, is relative except relativism, which is absolute. There is no truth or rather, no one can find the truth because truth is seen from different perspectives. Hence, there is no objective truth but it is pure subjectivity. So there is no right or wrong. The ideology of relativism is strengthened by an individualistic mentality. In those days, our parents and forefathers would sacrifice their happiness for the sake of their children and children’s children. Nowadays, people only live for themselves and for today. The future is not our business because we will be dead and gone. Let the people of tomorrow handle their own problems.
The challenge in witnessing to Christ is also made more difficult because of two other factors. With advancement in technology and mass media, especially digital and social media, news travel fast, almost in an instant. But technology is a double-edged sword. We can harness it for good or for evil. Some use social media to spread fake news or distort the message. Instead of using it to spread goodwill, some will use it to cause division, sow hatred and even cause civil wars. Because religious views and doctrines are easily accessible, those who do not agree with the doctrines or morality preached and taught would often speak out against them. They extract the message out of context and circulate it, causing misunderstandings, dismay and anger. Of course, when used positively, mass media and technology are powerful means to spread the Good News. But it behooves preachers and teachers to be more sensitive and careful in what they say.
The other factor in witnessing to Christ is global migration where society is no more homogenous. When society is cosmopolitan, there is a need to find common space among the different religions and cultures. When society is homogenous, it is easier to unite the people because all have a shared religion, culture, belief and values. Seeing it positively, it is a great opportunity to share our faith with each other and our cultures too, so that in the process we are enriched in our own faith and in our cultures. But there is also the danger of aggressive competition leading to oppression, persecution and discrimination.
There is still another obstacle in the proclamation of the gospel. This could come from government policies. Most democratic governments will formulate policies to reflect the common will of the people, as one of the most important tasks of the government is to preserve harmony, ensure law and order so that everyone can live in peace. In a cosmopolitan country, it appears that a secular government is the way to manage the differences among all religions. By adopting secularist policies, there is an apparent neutrality of the government towards all religions. But unwittingly, it also renders support to secularism as well, since religions are taken out of public life. So such policies, whilst not favouring people of faith, does inadvertently favour people who are without faith. In truth, secularism is another form of “religion”, if we see religion as a way of life and belief. On the other hand, countries that do not have a secular government tend to oppress those of minority religions where there is a dominant religion or where atheism is considered the professed “religion” of the nation.
So what do we do in the light of the heightened sensitive situation we are in? Evangelization can no longer be conducted as in the first or second millennium. We need to find new ways to overcome these challenges in sharing the gospel with everyone.
Right from the outset, we must accept the fact that we will always be misunderstood at some time and by some people. Persecution is inevitable in some countries because there is a state religion or state atheism. Misunderstanding and criticism of our doctrines, beliefs and practices are even more unavoidable. But should we be surprised? “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.” (Jn 15:18f)
Indeed, the reason why Christians are persecuted or misunderstood is because those who are not believers do not share in our religious experience or encounter with the Risen Lord. For such people, we need to forgive them for their ignorance. As Jesus said to His disciples, “They will expel you from the synagogues, and indeed the hour is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy duty for God. They will do these things because they have never known either the Father or myself.” The prophecy of Jesus came true during the time of the early Church when the Jewish leaders were arresting the Jewish Christians whom they considered as adopting an outlawed religion that was deviant, subversive and divisive. (cf 1 Tim 1:12-14) So we should not blame those who misunderstand us and cannot accept our beliefs and doctrines simply because they have not enjoyed the same encounter we have had with the Risen Lord. Those who sincerely object to our beliefs are doing so in ignorance and we should not fault them but to pray for them and enlighten them.
But there are those who persecute us because of sin, that is, because they want to protect their interests, their positions in society, money and power. Some persecute us because we preach a morality that offends them or compromises their economic interests in promoting unhealthy entertainment and a promiscuous lifestyle. Again, Jesus said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. It was to fulfil the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’” (Jn 15:22, 25)
So, as Christians, we must exercise patience in dealing with opposition and persecution. We must also exercise greater sensitivity in the way we proclaim the gospel and avoid giving ammunition for others to distort our message of truth and love. But it does not mean that we need to compromise what we believe in. As St Peter exhorts us, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” (1 Pt 3:15f) We must also proclaim the truth with charity!
In the final analysis, we must remember that conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. This was true for the conversion of Lydia, “a devout woman from the town of Thyatira who was in the purple-dye trade. She listened to us, and the Lord opened her heart to accept what Paul was saying.” Without the Holy Spirit opening her heart, she would not have had the gift of faith. This is why the Lord said, “When the Advocate comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father, he will be my witness.”
More importantly, we must sing praises to God for what He has done for us through testimony in songs, words and deeds. We must sing the Lord’s praises through works of charity and love. These are means to help people to open their hearts to the love of God. It is preferable that we steer away from doctrinal arguments because it presupposes faith and experience. As the Lord said, “you too will be witnesses, because you have been with me from the outset.” Unless we have been companions of Jesus, seen and heard Him, we cannot have faith or be His witnesses.
Only with matured believers of all faith who are lovers of God and men, can we can then dialogue in charity and truth. Inter-religious dialogue must make progress beyond cordial friendship to the sharing of religious experiences and how our doctrines are expressive of what we experience and what we believe. By humble sharing of our faith, we can actually enrich each other’s faith, making us re-examine our beliefs and practices. Indeed, at the end of the day, our desire is that all peoples will come to know God more and more and love Him in our brothers and sisters, so that we all become one family of God. We should not envy people of other faiths but rejoice that they too have found God and to give praise to Him, for God indeed works in many ways unknown to us. Even though we believe that Christ is the image of the invisible God (cf Heb 1:1-3a), yet we also hold that salvation “holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery. (GS 22)