Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Is it unethical to preach the gospel?


I asked myself this question last night. My job (a law clerk for a legal services organization that serves migrant farmworkers) is constantly inviting me to make comparisons with my missionary service. Like my time as a missionary, I work with Latinos, mostly Mexicans, in the U.S., who live off of field work. Like missionaries, I visit my clients in their homes. Like missionaries, I have to gain my clients' trust. Heck, I even drive a 1999 Sentra like when I was a missionary.

9:00 PM. Last night was a late night. As I met with a client family in a trailer park in a small town in western Minnesota, I couldn't help but be brought back to my mission service. Especially when my client asked me: ¿Cómo aprendiste el español? I explained to him that I was a missionary for my church a few years ago in Arizona. His face glowed with recognition and he said that he had had visits from Mormon elders at his home in Texas. At that point, I would have responded with a follow up question: how did you like it? Or, why did you stop meeting with them? Or, did you ever go to church? Or, would you like me to have the elders here visit you?


I would have. But I stopped myself. I hesitated. It didn't feel right. Somehow, it had the feel of an abuse of authority, or an impermissible blending of church and state, or a violation of the legal services non-solicitation policy, or some other verboten thing. Even though it wasn't strictly any of those things, it felt like something of that nature.

9:15 PM. We finished up our interview and I packed up my client files securely. We shook hands. ¡Que Diós te bendiga! I heard my client exclaim as I got in the car. As I drove to my temporary 3-day-a-week apartment, I wondered why it was that I felt like it was wrong of me to preach the gospel at that moment. The best answer I came up with was that my relationship with my clients, is one of professional advice and counsel, and that the gospel is outside the bounds of that relationship. They come to me to find out what to do. I, after conferring with a licensed attorney, then give them the advice they seek. Even though I explain that I am only a law clerk, not a licensed attorney, they still see me as some kind of professional authority figure. I am entrusted with that authority for the specific purpose of giving them legal advice and counsel. To give, unsolicited, religious counsel would seem like a breach of that trust.


I don't mean that I would never speak about the church with a client. If a client asked me about the church, I would respond. If a client asked me about a non-legal matter, I would be likely to draw on relevant gospel-related experiences. But somehow, it feels wrong to "look for an opening" to share the gospel like I might do in another situation.

But is that just an attempt to artificially separate my gospel self from my professional self? At some level, my understanding of the law is founded on my understanding of justice, which is founded on my understanding of religious truths. The gospel really does infuse everything I do, like it or not. So is my attempt to banish it a Canute-like futility?

Or again, is my sense that it would be wrong to preach the gospel in that situation nothing more than an excuse? Is it really my human reluctance to share personal things (what could be more personal than religion) with people I've just met? Maybe I'm justifying after the fact my failure to share the gospel by rationalizing that I probably shouldn't have anyway.

Or is my hunch right? Is it unethical in some situations to preach the gospel?

I know that sometimes it is illegal to preach the gospel. And I suppose that some might argue that given our belief "in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, magistrates, and obeying honoring and sustaining the law," the very fact that it is illegal makes it wrong. But I can't accept that as an absolute. That would mean that Daniel and the three Hebrew children were wrong to disobey their king. It would also mean that Helmut Hubner was wrong to oppose Hitler. Scripture and conscience don't allow those conclusions for me.

Maybe a discussion of "ethical" would be helpful. I've always liked Kant's expression that it is unethical to use a human being for the benefit of another because it is a nice critique of hard materialist utilitarianism. I'm not sure how that relates to my question, though. Preaching the gospel is not using anyone. I suppose I am using the situation, but it is not for my benefit, but for the benefit of the other. Then again, perhaps I am not qualified to decide what is in another's best interest because that would rob him of a sacred autonomy. A utilitarian ethicist would simply balance the potential harm from me preaching the gospel against the potential good it would do. But this doesn't work here because the potential good is infinite, great enough to justify the spilling of God's blood. How can you balance anything against infinity?

Ethics is weird for me because I feel like I have a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, but it is highly intuitive sense, not a rational sense. For me, the abuse or misuse of authority of authority is important to ethics. The idea of trust and its betrayal is also an important ingredient. Maybe this idea subsumes the former; a misuse of authority is fundamentally a betrayal of trust. If it is unethical to preach the gospel, maybe it is ethics that is flawed. Ethics for me is a matter of conscience, but is defined to most of the world by philosopher and scholars working in rational proofs.

Should ethics be defined by reason or by intuition? Is religion (and with it the injunction to preach to all the world) superior to ethics because it is revealed truth rather than merely rational or intuitive truth? Then again, given what we Mormons believe about the light of Christ, what is the difference between revealed truth and intuitive truth?

Or is it just that there are exceptions to the command to take the gospel to all the world? I don't like the idea of there being exceptions because it might lead us to assume that some people's immediate spiritual salvation is worth less than others' to God. The Lord certainly doesn't qualify it in scriptural language. But then again he also doesn't qualify "thou shalt not kill" and yet we accept that he appears to command Abraham, Joshua, Nephi, and others to do just that. If there are exceptions to the mission to proclaim the gospel, is there a way to recognize these exceptions without giving room to justify laziness in our mission?

But maybe the exceptions idea isn't the right approach. Maybe it's not a matter of if this particular person or group should hear the gospel, but when. I think of the 11th hour laborers. The fact that they were called later did not devalue their labor. In fact, their work was worth more to the lord per hour in strict economic terms. Given what we believe about our post-mortal life, the universalism of the command can still stand even if current circumstances render it impossible, impractical, or even unethical.

But there's always that nagging voice in the back of your mind, telling you that you're still just trying to justify yourself.

11 comments:

Bjorn said...

That's a tough one. Of course, you didn't approach the situation expecting to preach, and the topic of missionaries only came up through casual dialog. I don't think there would have been a problem with you asking if they'd like a member of the church to stop by. That way, you're just passing on the torch, not lighting the bonfire.

I hope you can get some good responses to your question. It's important to all people of certain convictions, religious or not. What is ethical to do when in a professional environment? If I go to someone's house to fix a computer, should I remark about their "The God Delusion" book on the counter? If they have a book on creationism, depicting cavemen with dinosaurs, should I comment on how I feel that book is unscientific, then go on a rant about evolution?

I'm posing your question to the keeper of the Friendly Atheist blog. I hope he posts it, and you get some good responses from that. There are some really good people there, who should be respectful, both Christians and atheists. Some people there have studied separation of church and state issues heavily, and may offer good insight to similar cases.

Cabeza said...

Good questions. The overall impression I got from reading the post, though, is that you seem to be overanalyzing the situation and the question. I happen to be the Duke of Overanalyzing (I wouldn't be so presumptuous to claim kingship), so I can empathize with you.

First off, I think there are situations in which it is unethical to share the gospel. For example, if you were on the BYU Study Abroad in Jerusalem, it would be unethical to share the gospel because you and the Church have committed not to. It would be unethical for the Church to smuggle three-year special assignment missionaries into Red China because the Church has committed to bringing the gospel to nations by legal means. So yeah, there are situations in which one should refrain.

As to your specific case, I'm not sure ethics apply. You didn't bring up the church and missionaries; he did. You never mentioned a specific instruction from your employer not to talk about non-law-related subjects, or religion. I think that this is a situational grey area, which would lead me to tell you to reread what your wrote about conscience and the Light of Christ. Even better than that, Jesus promised to send the Comforter, who would teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance that Christ taught you. I know I'm preaching to the choir, but if you felt unsure of what was appropriate, I think invoking a little personal guidance and revelation is appropriate. Ask God what you should do. Perhaps it wouldn't be appropriate at the moment, or perhaps this is the best time.

One other thought I had, in response to your questioning your authority to decide what's best for other people. I think you have a valid point there. My first thought was, "Of course you know the gospel is best for him! That's why you went on a mission, isn't it?" But what you said next about robbing your friend/client of his sacred autonomy made sense. And it makes sense in the context of missionary work. Missionaries don't force the word on anyone. We invite and exhort, but never compel. So Pablo (you never said his name, so I'm calling him Pablo) has to decide for himself. On the other hand, how can he decide if the gospel is right for him if he isn't offered? I really loved Robert C. Oaks' talk from the October 2000 General Conference. He gave a great analogy about not wanting to offer a friend fresh-squeezed orange juice; he was afraid it might offend. I think there's no harm in offering, even in the situation you described.

I wouldn't make your client visits a routine proselyting experience, but I also wouldn't pass up the opportunity to invite someone to talk with the missionaries if the subject came up.

JKC said...

bojrn and cabeza both,

Thanks for the good thoughts. The wierd thing is, it's not like I was sitting there wondering what I should do. I felt pretty distinctly that I should not do anything that would give the impression of proselytizing. It wasn't an angel with a sword or anything, but it was what I would call an intuitive or spiritual impression.

The question only came later as I wondered why it could be wrong to preach the gospel. So perhaps you're right Cabeza, that I'm just overanalyzing and should stop worrying about it.

At the same time, I don't want to give the impression that I'm losing sleep over it, it was just an interesting question that made me think.

Bjorn said...

Ethical questions are always fascinating. By the way, you need to edit your last comment, my name has been horribly mangled.

Maria said...

I think you did the right thing. It was not an appropriate time. Work is about work, not religion. It would have been different if the guy had told you he was religious or asked you about your religion. If the person wants to talk about it, that's different. But you shouldn't bring it up for no reason. Good for you. :)

Andrew said...

As an atheist (bordering an anti-theist), I find this same situation happens to me occassionally. Sometimes the subject of belief in the supernatural (faith) might arise and I'm sort of torn between just keeping my mouth shut or stating my real thoughts. I don't think this is just restricted to questions of religion either. We all experience this in subjects of conversation such as sport, politics, the best running shoes or cars. The point is (as you found) it is irrelevant to the professional relationship you have.

Anonymous said...

I come to this situation from a differently similar perspective. I am an atheist who served in the Peace Corps in Muslim West Africa. While there I hid my beliefs completely so as to avoid professional conflicts of interest. I know how uncomfortable your position can be. I did not pretend to be Muslim, but dogded the religion question...Most people there assumed white person = catholic. Now, as a social worker, I feel that lying or dodging the question creates a false relationship. I wish I had been honest in my village. I think that your ethical question is also a question of honesty. In the situation you describe on The Friendly Atheist I feel you behaved in an ethical way. You honestly provided information about yourself to the client and allowed him to control the conversation. As a social worker and as someone subjected to preaching, it sounds like you took the best course of action. The bonus for you is that if he now has an open path to speak with you about Mormonism. If you had attempted to preach or pry you may have closed the door spiritually. You respected his right to privacy in his views. While you felt personal discomfort, he may have felt relief or curiosity.

Greta Christina said...

Another atheist here from Friendly Atheist. Interesting question.

At work, I don't bring my atheism up unless somebody asks me about it. And I don't pursue it unless that person wants to pursue it. But then, most of my co-workers read my blog, which kind of finesses the question.

Anyway, I think that's right and that you made the right choice. I could see how you might think, "But this is life or death -- I wouldn't be 'professional' if someone were choking at my office, and this is no different, if I don't testify they could burn forever in hell." But it's a little arrogant to assume that people have never heard of or considered your religion before they met you. And proselytizing is very likely to make them feel uncomfortable about working with you in the future -- even if they really needed to. People need to be able to go to a law clerk and get help without worrying about being preached to. I can see why this would be a dilemma -- but I think you made the right choice.

TXatheist said...

Are you in a position that they must come to you? If so and you push the BOM I find it unethical. It's abuse of a position in my book. If a mormon, JW, or xian comes to my home and wants to chat that's differen. I have no problem telling them why Joseph Smith, the watchtower society or early xians were wrong.

Richard Wade said...

It didn't feel right to you because it would be exploiting the original intent of your relationship with them.

If you follow a professional code of ethics as a “law clerk,” (not quite sure what that is) then most likely the code would prohibit any such preaching to someone you are seeing as a client in your law clerk capacity. As a professional, you have power and influence over people who are vulnerable. You must not take advantage of that to promote an agenda that was not part of the reason they came to you, and not part of the reason that you are being paid for your services.

As a psychotherapist if I did that to a client it would be betraying the trust that person had put in me to interact with them strictly as a therapist. To take advantage of the power or credibility of my role and preach something beyond the agreed and expected relationship would be severely unethical and could result in the loss of my license and a lawsuit, and I would deserve it.

You talk about trust being essential in your work with your clients. If you're helping them with legal difficulties, they may be vulnerable to your influence in a variety of areas. To preach in that situation would be to betray that trust. If you want to preach, then put on the white shirt and black tie and start knocking on doors again. But not on your clients’ doors.

JKC said...

Richard Wade,

I think you make an interesting point about the "original intent" of the relationship. I think that idea gets closest to the ideas I was mulling over in the post.

On the other hand, that idea can be taken too far. I don't think it makes much sense to always limit a relationship to what it foreseeable at the start. If a client asked me on his own initiative to explain a doctrinal point of the church's belief's or asked where to find the missionaries, I wouldn't hesitate to do answer his questions.

Maybe in the end it just comes down to client autonomy.

Bjorn,

Sorry about the mangling.