The topic of evangelism made national headlines in Canada recently. It all started with a twelfth grade student in Nova Scotia wearing a T-shirt boldly emblazoned with the words, “Life is wasted without Jesus.” William Swinimer continued to wear his yellow T-shirt even after the vice-principal at his school asked him not to do so, after some students had complained that they found the message offensive. Swinimer’s refusal to obey led to a series of in-school suspensions, and finally a five-day at-home suspension. The normally shy 19-year-old refused to comply even though it might have meant permanent suspension and the loss of his chance of graduating. “I believe this is worth standing up for,” he said, “it’s not just standing up for religious rights, it’s standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen; for freedom of speech, freedom of religion.”

The regional school board initially supported the actions of the school administration, with Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake maintaining that repeated defiance of school authorities was justified grounds for suspending Swinimer. The school board issued a statement clarifying that “students may choose to wear clothing that embraces their beliefs.” However, “it is expected that students will not wear clothing with messages that may offend others’ beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle.”

The nationwide debate ignited by this incident was most revealing. Superintendent Pynch-Worthylake at first described the issue as one of conflicting rights: “We absolutely support students’ rights to express their beliefs, but we absolutely support students’ rights to not have their own beliefs unreasonably criticized.” The vice-principal of the school even went so far as to suggest that the message on the T-shirt spewed “hate talk.” The students at the school were divided on this question.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is at least an implicit criticism of others’ beliefs in the message of William Swinimer’s T-shirt. Indeed, I believe that any evaluative statement entails an implicit judgment on contrary statements. But making judgments or criticisms of the beliefs of other people is surely not inherently wrong. Nor should criticisms be seen as inherently disrespectful. I would even suggest that making a criticism of someone’s belief is a way to honor that person. I am taking you and your beliefs seriously enough to critique them.

Then there is the claim of the school board asserting that students have the right not to have their own beliefs “unreasonably criticized.” What is so unreasonable about the implicit criticism of other beliefs by making a statement like, “Life is wasted without Jesus”? I suspect that what lies behind this judgment is a hidden assumption that all religious statements are “unreasonable,” and hence all implicit criticisms of other beliefs are similarly unreasonable. This is in itself a rather “unreasonable” position to hold, resting on a host of assumptions that need to be and can be critiqued.

Here the late John Rawls has something to teach us with his notion of “burdens of judgment,” introduced to help us to cope with the deep differences of belief within societies. Rawls maintained that we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt with regard to the reasonableness of our differing beliefs. We need a spirit of generosity, allowing that reasonable persons may affirm differing reasonable doctrines. Both those who believe that life is wasted without Jesus, and those who don’t, need to see each other as reasonable persons who can give reasons for their implicit and explicit criticisms of beliefs contrary to their own.

Journalist Emma Teitel brings to the fore another reason for considering Swinimer’s T-shirt message offensive. Religious beliefs are “far too precious to flaunt” and should be kept entirely private, according to Teitel. What is rather strange here is that we don’t demand this of other similar sorts of value declarations. We seem to have no problem with the flaunting of commercial messages in the form of advertising. Why single out religion as something that needs to be kept private? In truth, I suspect Teitel simply disagrees with religious beliefs and is annoyed by their expression.

But there is more to Teitel’s tirade against the T-shirt episode. “There is a great difference between cherishing a belief and wielding it like a weapon,” Teitel argues. Now this is really quite serious! At a minimum, the old skeptical sawhorse of coercion is now being equated with evangelism. To talk about a message on a T-shirt as a kind of weaponry borders on the absurd, of course, unless one is drawing on the insights of French postmodernist Michel Foucault who interprets all truth claims as “fruits of a poisoned tree of power relations.” But if so, then this also applies to Teitel and her company of critics. The weapon analogy is ultimately self-refuting.

Given the feverish and absurd criticisms of William Swinimer, it is not surprising that the school eventually backed away from their controversial decision.

Still, the reader might be wondering whether this comparatively minor, local incident merits the attention that I have given it. It does, because it is not an isolated incident. The arguments used against William Swinimer are representative of the kinds of arguments frequently raised against all forms of Christian evangelism or proselytizing. They deserve careful dissection and cross-examination. We are indebted to Mr. Swinimer for his bold demonstration and defense of ethical evangelism.

Elmer Thiessen is the author of The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion , recently published by Paternoster and IVP Academic .

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

blog comments powered by Disqus