Protesters and preachers
Faith & Inspiration | Bernie Sanders supporters hear the Word of God outside last week’s Democratic convention
by Andrée Seu Peterson
Posted on Tuesday, August 2, 2016, at 11:54 am
PHILADELPHIA—Last week I was a face among the Bernie Sanders supporters pressing our noses to the chain-link fence shutting us out from the Wells Fargo Center, where the defenestration of their champion was underway.
Among the gaggle of Woodstock wannabes parading “Never Hillary” and “Hillary for Prisoner 2016” signs, another kind of sifting was taking place—the division of humanity into the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. At the turnstile of this winnowing was a street preaching crew of six men taking turns standing on a picnic cooler and shouting through a bullhorn. George Whitefield would have done the same. And in fact did so here in this city some two centuries ago.
Philadelphia’s finest had set their meanest-looking specimen on the detail, an unbreachable human wall between protesters and preachers. Yet for all that, they could barely restrain philosophical disagreement about the destiny of the soul from becoming fisticuffs.
And indeed this was the topic: hell. On the two afternoons I claimed a patch of crabgrass under a tree in FDR Park and observed the contest, the discomforts of hellfire were laid out with attention to its sensual aspects that would make Dante blush.
I was uncomfortable. Was it the gospel offense eliciting obscene epithets from the bystanders, or was it boorish human offense? To be reviled in the first case would be glory, but in the second case tragedy.
I moved close enough to overhear a preacher under the “WWJD: Who Would Jesus Damn” banner fielding questions by a challenger who had stepped up from the crowd. I was amazed that one-on-one he was plainspoken but inoffensive. Afterward I asked him privately why the bullhorn guy doesn’t put more emphasis on God’s love than on the temperatures in the pit of fire. “All they ever hear about is love,” he defended his companion, unpersuaded. “No one ever tells them what the wages of sin is.”
He had a point. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that emphasis matters: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17) and “For I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (12:47).
On Day 2 I inserted myself into a few other huddles, just planning to listen. One particular group of three 20-something men I had noticed earlier along the fence had slowly migrated to the preacher phalanx. Now they were face-to-face with a preacher named John discussing sin. “What about thought crime?” asked one of the three friends, thinking to have stumped the evangelist with the one thing Jesus can’t change. The preacher seemed to be struggling for answers. I broke in, asking, “Can I borrow your Bible?” John looked at me for the first time, and said warily, “Only for a minute.”
I opened his multicolor-coded King James pages, turned to 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, and handed it back. He liked what he read, looked at me and said, “You’re a Christian.” John then read an entire paragraph aloud, and it went out with power. One of the three friends in particular seemed on the verge of something like joy. Can there really be hope for the thought life? Can we actually take captive bad thoughts by the power of God and demolish mental strongholds that keep men in bondage?
Later John was talking with a young girl named Emily (he always asked for their names). She was challenging his confidence that the Bible is the right book, since every religion seems to have a book. I was, as usual, a third wheel, listening in quietly and hoping that was OK. In mid-conversation John got called away. He turned to me and told me to take over. It was a pleasure.
On Day 3 I showed up, same time, same station, only to find the bullhorn fallen silent and the crowds thinned out to a few stragglers idling near their pup tents. I asked one of the policemen where the preachers had gone, and he didn’t know. As for the Bernie-ites, their messiah was no more, so I suppose they all went home.
Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her commentary has been compiled into three books including Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides in Philadelphia, Penn.