by Eric Bonetti
Despite Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, and similar situations throughout history, my view is that conversion generally is a series of small, daily decisions, made in a Christian context.
In Luke, Jesus says, “And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” But what does that mean in daily life?
My suspicion is that, all too often, we focus on large social issues when we think about following the risen Christ, while ignoring the consequences of our small actions. We see hints of this in the memorable words of the confession in our Book of Common Prayer— “In thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
In daily life, this might take the form of the small unkindness: The brushing off a coworker who needs to talk about her failing marriage, or the curt response to the cashier in the supermarket who is moving slowly because she’s working two minimum wage jobs to survive.
Or it might be inaction, when we ignore snarky comments made about a colleague or friend, or fail to speak up in the face of injustice or oppression. Or it may be as simple as not providing an employer with our best efforts while at work.
Of course, being human, we have a remarkable ability to justify our actions, no matter how appalling. As one friend of mine said with a wink and a nod in reference to human nature, “It’s not a bank robbery if I say “thank you” once the cashiers have handed over the money.”
Yet in the larger scheme of things, the sea of humanity around us, our fellow beings made in the image of God, it is this series of large and small moral failures that collectively interferes with the building of the kingdom of God, a just and fair society in which all of creation in honored and respected.
It’s interesting, too—we see Jesus assemble around him a motley crew of lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors and other undesirables. Typically, Jesus doesn’t convert them in the way we think of conversion. Instead, it’s his quiet acceptance and welcome, together with his actions, that result in a conversion, or change of life.
At the same time, those who try to set snares for Jesus, or who use their power to oppress others, particularly the downtrodden, get a quick and forceful invite to have a conversion experience when Jesus publicly calls them out on their actions. “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Not exactly the words of comfort we hear when Jesus reaches out to the oppressed.
So, what about non-Christians? Are we obligated to convert them? I think so, but not in the sense of asking them to leave their faith or encouraging them to join ours. Instead, my view is that we are called to recognize that they, too, are made in the image of the divine, that we have more in common than not, and that we are called to help one another live into lives of truth, freedom, justice and peace. The rest, I suspect, is sorted out by God at the end of the day, and reflects God’s boundless love for all humanity. Or, as my colleagues at a previous job would say, “Far beyond my pay grade!”
What do you think? Is conversion a one-time experience? A life-long experience? Or perhaps both?
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor