The Five Conversions

May 25th, 2020 by JDVaughn Leave a reply »


The Five Conversions
Monday, May 25, 2020

If one of the primary markers of a Christian life is solidarity as modeled by Jesus, I am afraid that most of us still have a long way to go. It’s one of the reasons I say that Christianity is still in its infancy. We are just taking our first toddling steps towards a more mature and embodied faith. Transformed teachers like Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and countless others, both sainted and anonymous, have invited us into solidarity with the poor and oppressed. When we are comfortably centered, it is difficult to move to the margins, but that is where we must go!

About fifty years ago, a Brazilian educator named Paulo Freire (1921–1997) wrote a book titled Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire worked for literacy amongst the poor in Brazil and Chile. His work became influential among many liberation theologians and those struggling against unjust systems. This book continues to impact my thinking about what it means to be in solidarity with those on the margins. It challenges many of our preconceived ideas about Christian “charity,” “service,” and “mission.” It is some of the most humbling subject matter we cover in our Living School curriculum. Many of our selfless and goodhearted students have dedicated their lives to Christian “service.” Yet they recognize the ways those vocations, as they are currently designed, often reinforce dehumanizing systems of oppression and marginalization. That paradox is often what drives them to study with us.

This week I will introduce you to a teaching I have developed in the Living School inspired by Paulo Freire’s work that I call “The Five Conversions.” It can offer us a path toward a more authentic Christian life where we recognize our deep connections to each other and choose to live in solidarity with suffering. Solidarity begins by becoming aware of our own social location, which is our place in society. For me and most of my readers that place is a starting point of privilege within the dominant culture. Let’s begin:

The First Conversion to solidarity is to have basic compassion for the poor in general, or one poor person. Throughout this discussion, I will be using the word “poor” in a very specific way—those who are powerless, dismissed, or considered lesser in society. This is far larger than mere economic poverty. Sadly, there seems to be many Christians who don’t even have basic compassion for the poor. In the United States, we are pretty much trained to blame people who are poor, immigrants or refugees, victims, or gay, lesbian, or transgendered people. Far too many seem to think, even if to themselves, that if “those people” would simply work a little more, do things the right way, change their minds, stay hidden, or just “pray a little harder,” we’d all be better off. The first conversion is where we must begin. Our hearts must be softened, and we must experience basic sympathy, empathy, and recognition of another person’s pain.


Invitation to Solidarity
Sunday, May 24, 2020

Throughout human history, countless people have been poor, vulnerable, or oppressed in some way. Those holding positions of authority within systems of power secure their own privilege, comfort, and wealth—almost always at the expense of those most on the margins. Much of history has been recorded to hide this fact and instead celebrates the so-called “winners.” I call this systemic reality a form of sin, or what the apostle Paul describes as the “the world” (Ephesians 2:1–2). This type of corporate evil is often culturally agreed-upon, admired, and deemed necessary, as is normally the case when a country goes to war, spends most of its budget on armaments, admires luxuries over necessities, entertains itself to death, or pollutes its common water and air.

The hidden nature of systemic oppression makes it all the more remarkable that the revelation of God in the Bible is written from the perspective of the oppressed. The Bible reveals a liberating path of humility, compassion, and nonviolence in the face of oppression that culminates in the life, ministry, and state-sponsored execution of Jesus.

We see in the Gospels that the people who tend to follow Jesus are the ones on the margins: the lame, poor, blind, prostitutes, drunkards, tax collectors, and foreigners. He lived in close proximity to and in solidarity with the excluded ones in his society. Those on the inside and at the center of power are the ones who crucify him: elders, chief priests, teachers of the Law, scribes, and Roman occupiers. Yet we still honor people in these latter roles and shun the ones in the former.

For the first three hundred years after Jesus’ death, Christians were the oppressed minority. But by the year 400 C.E., Christians had changed places. We moved from hiding in the catacombs to presiding in the basilicas. That is when we started reading the Bible not as subversive literature, the story of the oppressed, but as establishment literature to justify the status quo of people in power.

When Christians began to gain positions of power and privilege, they also began to ignore segments of Scriptures, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Our position in society determines what we pay attention to and what systems we are willing to “go along with.” This is what allowed “Christian” empires throughout history to brutalize and oppress others in the name of God. Sadly, this is still the case today.

But when the Bible is read through the eyes of solidarity—what we call the “preferential option for the poor” or the “bias from the margins”—it will always be liberating, transformative, and empowering in a completely different way. Read this way, Scripture cannot be used by those with power to oppress or impress. The question is no longer “How can I maintain my special and secure status?” It is “How can we all grow and change together?” I think the acceptance of that invitation to solidarity with the larger pain of the world is what it means to be a “Christian.”


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