MAXWELL:  “Return’ to sender offers clear message to Christian mailings

5/14/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Jesus, the Christian Messiah, came in the mail to Palm Beach County residents the week before Easter. But the ubiquitous protagonist of the New Testament was sent packing by an overwhelming number of angry would-be converts.

I am writing about the event at this late date because the fallout from it has contaminated the national faith scene. Those contemplating a repeat of the effort should cease and desist.

This is what happened:

A coalition of 100 local churches, members of an organization called the Jesus Video Project, mailed a film of the life of Jesus to every soul (450,000 of them) in Palm Beach County.

Imagine. Every household _ mansion, condominium, house, apartment, trailer _ was targeted to receive a film of the Nazarene. Such an action may seem benign but only if we forget that approximately 225,000 Jews, many of them observant, live in the region. Even more, the film was mailed during Passover, a high holy time for Jews.

And why did the Christian churches mail the video?

“We did this because God’s nature is loving and giving, and we wanted to give the gift of Jesus to everyone in the county so they could view him without all the religion and other trappings,” the Rev. Gene Walton of Grace Fellowship in West Palm Beach told the Palm Beach Post.

A graduate school chum of mine, now living in Boca Raton, sent me his copy of the film. Made in 1979 and starring British actors, it is 83 minutes long and depicts the life of Jesus from Bethlehem through death and the resurrection. It is an accurate account of the Gospel of Luke. The Orlando-based Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical group, owns the rights to the tape and has been distributing it in mass mailings worldwide since the 1980s.

But the $1.2-million South Florida effort mostly backfired when thousands of irate recipients mounted a “return to sender” campaign, dumping the unsolicited videotapes into the laps of local post offices. Rabbi Stephen Pinsky of Temple Beth Torah in Wellington told the Post that many residents were so angry that they tied a brick to the tape and wrote “return to sender” on the accompanying postcard hoping that the Jesus Video Project would have to pay additional shipping charges.

“It’s not something we need in our homes, especially during Passover,” Pinsky said.

Also condemning the mailing, Bishop Anthony O’Connell, head of the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach County, told the Post: “We must stop seeing ourselves as rivals before the one God.”

One man was so angry, according to the Post, that he sarcastically thanked the project, saying he had used the tape to copy a porn movie.

Obviously, not everyone was incensed about receiving the tape. Many people, in fact, welcomed it.

Even so, the mass mailing demonstrates the arrogance and insensitivity of Christian evangelicals who, as Bishop O’Connell suggested, believe that God is theirs and theirs alone, that only they will pass through the pearly gate and sit on the right-hand side of St. Peter. The Rev. Harris Campbell, a local preacher, exemplifies such intolerance. Speaking to the Post about the mailing, he said: “We’re doing this because it’s our fundamental belief that unless a person trusts in Christ, they will not be saved.”

We may assume, then, that all practicing Jews, for example, are going straight to hell, that the Holocaust was a mere warm up of what is to come. As a Unitarian Universalist, I must certainly have a seat reserved for me in the burning chamber down below.

I have traveled to every continent and have studied, to some degree, all of the world’s major living religions. Although I am not intellectually equipped to explicate each faith and explain its comparative validity, I know in my own crude way that Christianity is no better than, say, the different brands of Judaism I witnessed in Israel. Or the Islamic sects in Gaza, the West Bank and Northern Africa. Is Christianity holier than Zoroastrianism and Hinduism?

As far as I know, the Sikhs of India’s Punjab region and the Jains have no reason to follow Christ. Are they all going to accompany me to hell?

Why do Christians think that they have a message for the Buddhists I have met in different parts of the world? The Chinese and the Japanese have practiced their religions for centuries and will continue to do so. Why should they listen to Christian proselytizers?

And, if anything, some Christian groups should beg American Indians for forgiveness for the sins committed against them.

My purpose is not to condemn Palm Beach County’s evangelical community for its faith. I am simply arguing that Christianity is just one _ that’s one _ of the world’s living religions.

I want to point out that the Navajo’s belief in “holy people” and “earth-surface people,” for example, makes as much sense as the Christian belief that a woman became pregnant without having intercourse. Or that a man survived in the belly of a whale. Or that a man, by raising a stick in the air, caused the Red Sea to part.

Anyway, instead of bringing people of various faiths together, the mass mailing engendered permanent resentment and pushed many people even further away from Jesus. I like what Jac Wilder VerSteeg, deputy editorial page editor of the Post said: “I can’t picture a God watching me, women and children die in Hitler’s ovens and then deciding to turn up the temperature _ and for eternity _ because those people didn’t trust in Christ. Where is the Christian who can reside happily in heaven while those souls burn in hell?”