Monday, July 16, 2012

The Violence of Conversion

Without wanting to turn into a poor man's Pete Rollins, there is a sentence at the end of a long and brilliant Zizek quote that I posted a few months back that resurfaced in a conversation with my sister.

... the “subject of free choice” (in the Western “tolerant” multicultural sense) can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being torn away from one’s particular lifeworld, of being cut off from one’s roots.

To paraphrase my sister's question, Is that not what conversion is? A violent process of uprooting?

Historically, conversion has been explicitly violent, with the threat of the sword awaiting those who refused the evangelism of the conquistadores, for example. But what about the kind of conversion that might have happened at a Billy Graham crusade, or through the efforts of a door-to-door evangelist? Is this violence of a different sort?

One could argue that the latter has New Testament precedent, with Jesus walking around Galilee calling some fishermen to drop their nets, leave their families, and follow him. Indeed one could argue that the mission of Paul was to tear people away from the normal lifeworld of Roman citizens, and to place them within the new lifeworld called "church".  Can we characterise this activity as "violent" in the way meant by Zizek?

I don't think so, though I'm not sure that makes things better or worse! For Jesus and Paul, evangelism was concerned not with free choice, but with calling. I can never call myself a Calvinist, but the debate over how a Calvinist can rightly engage in evangelism is not a debate fuelled by Scripture, but by the enlightenment project of violently creating subjects of free choice. In many ways, the biblically astute question should be, How can a non-Calvinist rightly engage in evangelism? Perhaps in this light, modern evangelism is quite akin to the "extremely violent process" that Zizek describes, for it assumes, if not creates, this independent, choosing subject.

Ultimately, what makes evangelism and conversion non-violent is that the one who calls is non-violent, and he calls us to follow him as agents of healing and peacemaking. The Christian way of evangelising must reflect this, in its practice and in its language. Efficacy, therefore, is neither a sufficient nor a necessary justification for a method. Since Christians are ways and means people as opposed to ends people, it matters not only that you become a disciple of Jesus, but how you become a disciple of Jesus.

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