A couple of years ago, a group of Christians who are very involved with justice issues in the Third World wrote a short booklet inviting Christians in the First World to convert more radically in the area of social justice. They entitled the booklet, On the Road to Damascus.
This was a good booklet and its appeal sparked considerable sympathy in diverse circles, despite the fact that its analysis was sometimes one-sided and ideologically-driven.
What made it good, and what made it a document that did not just preach to those already converted, was that it appealed to what is already religiously and morally good within its readers. It respected the sincerity and goodness that already exists in those it was trying to call to a deeper conversion. It wasn’t telling people that they were bad or religiously off the road.
Rather it was asking them to re-direct and fine-tune the goodness and fervor which is already firing their moral and religious lives.
As the title, On the Road to Damascus, suggests, they were inviting people to undergo the type of change that Paul underwent when he was felled by a flash of light on his way to Damascus.
What did happen to Paul on that road? Did he have a radical conversion or, more accurately, did he, in the light of this encounter with Christ, simply end up re-directing a moral and a religious fire inside of himself that already existed and was already good—even if somewhat misdirected?
Paul himself suggests the latter. He doesn’t speak of himself as being converted or as reborn. Rather he speaks of himself as being re-directed, but as still operating out of the same moral and religious intentionality and fervor that fired him before that confrontation on the road to Damascus.
Paul always remains proud of his pharisaical past and his former religious fervor. He never hates it, he draws fire from it. When he assesses what happened to him on the road to Damascus, he understands himself as re-directed, not as converted.
What is conspicuously absent in his self-assessment is the self-hatred and vicious revisionist judgement that is almost always present in those who have had a “conversion” and those who try to call others to one. Rare is the case of someone who has had some kind of conversion and who can look back on his or her religious past with pride and love and see in it the fire that now, somewhat re-directed, still fires them.
My own suspicion is that, until we understand this, we will not have much success in converting many persons to anything, especially in the area of social justice. It is also my suspicion that the inability of social justice spiritualities to make major inroads into the mainstream culture stems partially from not understanding (or accepting) this.
Let me try to illustrate this by using an example that I judge as typical:
I look at my own generation of Christians here in Western Canada. Most of us are children of immigrants.
We stand with one foot in another time, a time when we were poor (we didn’t have to talk about poverty when we were young… we were poor), when our families were very close, when our churches were full, when our parents and grandparents (whose style of faith is now what’s under fire) died with a strong faith in their hearts and when, irrespective of how naive and narrow such a piety might have been, we believed that being a good Christian meant that one went to church, prayed alone and in one’s family, and respected and tried to keep the church’s laws regarding sexuality and marriage.
It’s these men and women, us, who are being confronted with the challenge to social justice. Far too often, however, we are being confronted by voices which, irrespective of how much prophetic truth they contain, lack both an essential understanding and a fundamental respect for a rich moral and religious fire and tradition that is our heritage.
We are being asked to be reborn in a way that would cast false light on our parents and grandparents; to hate our past rather than, like the post-Damascus Paul, to draw energy and fire from it; and to meet a new Christ rather than to meet a deeper and more whole version of the one we’ve already met. Small wonder most people are saying: “I won’t have it!”
We need instead to be invited to be on the road to Damascus, to trust our faith in a God we’ve already met, even as we prepare to meet a Christ who will radically surprise us.