Have you ever given thought to the violence of conversion? To convert to something, be it an idea or politic, is a violent act, in that it estranges you to something in your past – people, families, institutions, ways of life, thought patterns or paradigms, etc. This is no small thing. To convert to anything is incredibly world-altering and inherently violent.
Christians, in particular, have a strange relationship to conversion. We assume our primary task is to convert others. But between the time of Jesus and now, Gospel took an epistemilogical turn – that is, Gospel became pure knowledge, a set of propositions that we give intellectual assent to. Thus, evangelism took a turn from something like “bearing witness to…” toward something like “convincing others to change their mind about…” So the culture of conversion has become one of argument about intellectual propositions – knowledge based.
Essentially, we see the Gospel task of evangelism as one of paradigm shifts. And since paradigm shifts involve estrangement from past patterns of thinking toward new patterns of thinking, the epistemological gospel proclaimed is violent.
I want to be clear on this point: all conversion is violent. Whether the conversion is purely intellectual or whether it is more ontological, psychological, cultural, social or physiological, it is always violent. But there is a certain peculiarity about the kind of violence involved with conversion of the mind – especially in an age when truth is something constantly under investigation. In the post-modern world where relativism reigns, convincing the other of an objective truth (while once an accepted form of social engagement) has been deemed inappropriate and borders of assault.
So, my question for evangelism and mission in the 21st Century is “How do bring Gospel into the lives of others without assaulting them?”
It is an important question for missiologists, parishioners, clergy and ultimately all Christians. I could write an entire series of posts, or even dedicate an entire blog to answering this question. I dare not take up this task here.
Rather, I want to show how similar Christian political engagement has become to this form of Christian evangelism.
Christian political engagement has devolved into two kinds of involvement, both stifling the broader Christian imagination: (1) Voting (2) Stumping. If we do both of these (or even one of these) we assume that a we have fulfilled our duty in the public sphere as Christians. It’s not the voting that concerns me here – its the stumping. Comb through your news feed on Facebook and see how long it takes you to find a Christian that is stumping for this or that political persuasion. Not long, I’m guessing.
I saw a funny, but important, Facebook post the other day: “Your relentless political Facebook posts finally brought me around to your way of thinking…. said by no one… ever.”
While this is funny, it is also heightens our awareness to something troubling. As we scroll through our News Feeds on Facebook, or our text messages, or our twitter pages, or listen to conversations all around us – we now notice something. That is, all of the political rhetoric and arguing accomplishes nothing. It is entirely ineffective. Yet we are addicted to it. The question I have been wrestling with is “Why?”
This is my best shot at answering that question:
(A) We are addicted to the idea of converting others. Conversion, as we already established, is violent. And little in this world is more addictive than violence. Yet, there is a problem with this. As the funny Facebook post reminds us, rarely, if ever, do we ACTUALLY convert anyone with harsh rhetoric.
(B) We are failures at conversion, so we resort to using the language of conversion in order to do violence to our political enemies. This still gives us the addictive thrill of conversion, whether we actually succeed in converting or not. We still get the sense of satisfaction that comes from having done violence. You can hear this in comments like “Well, I did my part. I spoke the truth.” Nevermind that we hurt someone.
Therefore, having lost the effective tools for both political and religious conversion (or the imagination to discover new ones in a changing and complex world), and still craving the sense of satisfaction that violence and conviction deliver us, we can ignore two major things:
1. The well-being of the person or people we have engaged with.
2. The truth about whether or not we actually changed anything.
In other words, the sense of satisfaction for having “taken a stance” overrides any sense of truth about what has actually taken place. If we were objective we could easily see that fruit of religio-political language that seeks to “convert” the other only serves to hurt other and further widen the gap making reconciliation less and less possible.
So, what are the alternatives to this? Surely we cannot abandon conviction for the sake of witness?
Of course we can’t. But neither can we abandon witness for the sake of conviction. Therein lies the difficulty of bringing faith to the world – especially in the political sphere. We must constantly struggle with how to simultaneously remain faithful to our deepest convictions about our lives, the world, humanity, and a well-ordered society while also respecting others, being kind, gentle, and listening like someone who is filled with love (even love for our political enemy).