Walking down Harbor Boulevard in downtown Fullerton tonight, I encountered a strange social interaction. The Occupy Orange County folks were gathered outside Bank of America, holding signs and writing messages in chalk on the sidewalk, such as "Bank of America: Bad for America," and "Your Ignorance is Their Weapon."
Amidst the Occupiers were sprinkled some Christian evangelists, "witnessing" to them. There was a man with a Bible, asking if he could pray for one of them. I overheard a young evangelist saying to a young man with an "occupy" sign, "Ever since I let Christ in my heart, I have not masturbated."
"Masturbation is natural," the protestor said, a little confused.
"It is natural, but it's not godly," the young evangelist said.
I did not stay long enough to hear how this played out. I walked through this strange social event, listening and observing, and continued to the coffee shop, but it got me thinking. My first thought was…You evangelists are in the wrong place. The people you should be witnessing to are about a mile north, in large gated communities.
But then I thought…This interaction reminds me of a conflict that happened about 90 years ago in America, a conflict that rocked the Christian church that became known as the "fundamentalism/liberalism" controversy. At that time, Christians were split between two views of Christianity. The "fundamentalists" thought that what was most important was belief and correct doctrine. As long as you accept Jesus in your heart, you are a Christian. The liberals thought that Christianity could not separate itself from real-world social problems. The liberals emphasized action and social justice more than correct doctrine. Ultimately, the fundamentalists "won." I believe it was because, for Americans, it is much easier to say you believe something than to take social action and devote your life to justice.
Of course, these two views need not be mutually exclusive. But this ideological split endures in America. I am not saying that the evangelists are wrong and occupiers are right, or vice versa. But here is my take. I think, in contemporary America, everybody knows about Jesus. "Witnessing" in this time and place is an exercise in futility. In my experience, what people of this time and place respond to is what you do, not what you say. Whatever your beliefs are, whether Christianity or anti-corporatism or Islam, the only way to demonstrate them is action, active love.
Also, you're not going to convert anyone by telling them not to masturbate.