catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 1 :: 2003.01.03 — 2003.01.16


Revolution and conversion

Connecting the personal and the communal

Why is it that the first person I think of when I hear the term “revolutionary” is Che Guevera? Sure, Guevera was a passionate leader involved in fighting injustice, but I don’t condone his affirmation of violence. He’s not really the icon I’m looking for to represent one of my favorite words.

I really like the word “revolutionary.” To me, it’s one of the highest honors a person can receive to be called revolutionary when he or she is trying to inspire and facilitate change. It indicates a unique and necessary vision, a passion to make real what people desire most, a willingness to suffer rather than submit to the way things are.

On the most basic level, revolution indicates a radical change in a community, but the full definition involves more than this. We can discover something about its nuances by looking at the personal counterpart to revolution, which is conversion.

In her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes a chapter titled “Conversion: A Family Story,” in which she identifies the difference between the definitions of conversion held by her maternal and paternal grandparents. Her Norris grandparents "believed that a Christian is someone who can name the date and time when he or she was “saved.”" This notion of conversion finds its revolutionary parallel in the idea that fixing all of society’s problems will involve a sudden uprising and transfer of power. While this idea is certainly valid, we run the risk of falling, as a community, into despair and then apathy, just as Norris did when she felt inadequate for not having “met” Jesus yet. There is a place in the lives of individuals and communities for sudden change, but more often, constructive, lasting change fits the second definition.

Norris’ maternal grandparents, the Totten’s, had a definition of conversion that took longer for Norris to recognize and which she identifies as a constant effort to conform one’s self to Christ, “to incarnate religion in one’s bones.” This will look different for everyone, but what all people will have in common is that the core of their being will be focused on Christ. In a communal setting, this theory has interesting implications. Being revolutionary in this sense does not indicate being reactionary, it involves discernment. In the constant process of revolution, we must always be asking questions of the current environment, protecting what is good and reshaping what is bad. It can be compared to cultivating a garden by removing the weeds and watering and pruning the desirable plants, replacing those that are sick or dead with new plants.

Another metaphor that serves us well here can be attributed to Abraham Kuyper. A member of the Anti-Revolutionary Party in the late 19th century Netherlands, Kuyper was not against change, but against the idea that the entire structure of society as it currently existed was evil and needed to be torn down completely. His “architectonic critique” of society takes into account the fact that God is working through all people at all times in history. Therefore, the society that has been constructed, if we imagine it as a building, has portions that are God-ordained, God-honoring, and ought not to be torn down. On the other hand, several sections of the building, because we are imperfect builders, are in need of repair and major restoration. Kuyper’s call to revolution is one that says, “With God’s help, let’s identify our goals for this building and modify the structure to meet those goals.”

This call echoes from the halls of the first Christian social congress in 1891 where Kuyper articulated these ideas, to the present day, where writers and activists and artists and believers who deserve to be called revolutionary are still tackling the same problems. Jim Wallis, in the most recent issue of Sojourners magazine, reminds us in his editorial on the war with Iraq that our first allegiance as Christians is to Christ. “Patriotism means loving your country and its best ideals, enough even to oppose it when it is grievously wrong. And Christian faithfulness always supercedes patriotism,” Wallis writes. Compare this to Kuyper’s 1891 questions: “Have we ever the right to cease delivering, with God’s Word in hand, a withering critique of such an unhealthy society? Have we any right to rest as long as this society remains unreformed according to God’s Word?” These are two believers whom I admire and trust, and I tend not to think it’s an accident when they are telling me the same things from a century apart.

As I think about the many ways in which revolutions led by Christians are needed today, I return to Kathleen Norris’s thoughts on conversion. “We know what happens when we have stability without conversion,” she writes. "We end up stagnant, curled up comfortably with that familiar idol called “This is the way we’ve always done it.”"

In the same way, our lives as members of communities, families, neighborhoods, countries, planets, depend on revolution and each of us has a different role to play. We have different passions, interests and skills, but as a community that is the body of Christ, we should all be leaders in this world our Leader has created. My challenge to you is to identify the area in which you are equipped to make a change for the better and become a revolutionary. The more I learn about the work being done by the body of Christ, the lower Che Guevera gets on my mental list. We have reason to hope and reason to rejoice because people like Jim Wallis, Jim Skillen, Ron Sider and many lesser-known people are out there changing hearts and actively modifying the house we’ve built. But there is so much more work to be done. Until we are all warm and safe inside God’s house, there is always work to be done.

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