The Apostle Paul’s conversion narrative in the ninth chapter of Acts has long exerted a tremendous force on the religious experience of Christian believers across the last two millennia. Indeed, in the religious tradition of my childhood, among the independent Baptists, such conversion experiences were de rigueur, being sought from the earliest years in children of my tribe of the Christian faith. I had one at the age of five and can attest to its power and significance in my life as well as my family’s, with every moment of that evening printed indelibly on my memory, its effects still marking an essential aspect on my personhood even to this present day.
My experience, although dramatic, was nonetheless perhaps more organic than others. I had not done a great deal of advanced level sinning and being the son and grandson of Baptist preachers, was being raised at the time in an environment of total immersion in the faith, to say nothing of this same effect in the baptismal pool. And, as research indicates, this type of conversion, involving gradual changes over time is primarily the way they occur, rather than out of the kind of dramatic, instantaneous “Damascus road” type that the author of Acts narrates for us bout Paul. Readers should be mindful that there are differences between the conversion narrative of chapter nine and the two re-tellings by the character of Paul later in Acts. And these three Lucan accounts of Paul’s conversion are also at variance with what Paul himself says in his own writings.
The elastic nature of Paul’s repeated conversion experience is one of the most important features of its presence in the New Testament for political theology, for it suggests the dynamics of shifting identity. The suggestive title of theologian Darrell Guder’s book, The Continuing Conversion of the Church illustrates this trajectory. Paul!’s conversion experience shifts within the narrative of Acts to meet the situations faced by his character in his own spiritual journey. This also seems to be the case in an analysis of the Pauline epistles themselves. However much truth lies in the cathartic scene in Acts 9, the deeper truth is that the transformation which grew out of it rippled through Paul long after, because even for him, it was a process. Traditionally referred to as “growing in Christ” or “sanctification,” by whatever label, this on-going identity shift in the life of the individual is the space in which political and ideological change also occurs. In the Protestant establishment, church and culture were conjoined and therefore the focus of religion could be directed inward, e.g., the song lyrics “and he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” With the collapse of that model of church, however, Christian faith is no longer the dominant cultural narrative, it can no longer count on public funding special favors to transmit its message and values and thus is being compelled to become more creative in its approach. That is, it is being forced to attend to the process of conversion in deeper ways than it has for decades if not centuries since it can no longer count on children being born around it becoming adherents. They are as likely to become Muslims or atheists.
The reason this development is so important for political theology is that what I have just described requires a complete overhaul of everything in the life of the church. The process of conversion, shorn of its imperial supports, is once again becoming the pains-taking labor intensive work that it once was in earliest Christianity. And the church is not setup, either in the way that it manages its time, its money, its personnel or its facilities to do the work of conversion in the modern world. It is still fixated on re-roofing its cathedrals and other such “life-changing details”. It still thinks that you can have a “crusade” in a stadium and create enough emotion and sentiment to manufacture conversions en masse. In political terms, it still thinks that it can speak to issues of the day and that society will understand what it is saying and re-calibrate its views towards “the truth.”
One person who seems to get this is the newly elected Pope, Francis I. He has shown no interest in the trappings of empire that have over the centuries attached itself to that office. Instead of behaving like a potentate, he is seen talking to the street sweepers and garbage collectors. Instead of donning the traditional finery during Holy Week, he chose to be on his knees in a jail, washing and kissing the feet of prisoners, including Muslims and women. Here is a man who understands conversion. Here is a man who understands our situation in the modern world. Here is a man who grasps how it is that the church now must communicate its message and values. Not by throwing its weight around and demanding that it be granted a place of honor and respect, that everyone pay attention, but rather on its knees, serving, listening and waiting for an invitation to speak.