Conversion- Befriending Otherness, So That We Can Be Born Again… And Again…

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By Alyson Sousa

Does conversion happen only once in our lives, or can we be born again… and again?

What are we being born again… and again into, if not LOVE itself?

Here in the West, it seems that my Christian religion primarily defines conversion as faith in Jesus; His life, death, and resurrection as God’s son. Furthermore, it emphasizes that change happens as we live lives 'proving' that we believe, indicating that we can know we have been converted when we are sinning less and less, and as we are becoming more and more 'righteous'.

Since otherness is defined as: the quality or state of being different or distinct, perhaps we can be converted into more inclusive ways of loving ‘others’ as we realize that in both small and big ways, we are all ‘others’ to someone.

Perhaps there is something in ‘the other’ that I am being invited to explore, something God knows I desire, long for, and even need. 

But, unless I am willing to invite a deeper conversation with the other, and to see the me that ‘the other’ sees, (rather than feeling afraid or threatened by our differences), it’s NOT likely that I will move towards others, but away from them. There are a myriad of ways we devalue ‘otherness.’ I am using the terms ‘other’ or ‘otherness’ in both an unbiased way, as a means of focusing on what is obviously different, and also as a means of drawing attention to a sometimes less conspicuous, but often more complex system of devaluation. We simply may forget that ALL humans are made in God’s Image and Likeness by:

  • Over emphasizing our differences, or under emphasizing our sameness;
  • By our inability or refusal to see our similarities and connection, or what makes us each distinct from one another.
  • By ignoring the voices of others, either by way of speaking, or of being heard because they represent a viewpoint we don’t agree with, thus rendering them powerless.

We aren’t apt to notice the many occasions we are given for conversion until we understand that our truest identity is found in our common humanity, and until we begin to value ALL humans as equal to ourselves. Only then, can we begin to feel less threatened and antagonistic, and more receptive and loving. ‘For everything we know about God’s word is summed up in a single sentence: LOVE OTHERS AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF!” (Gal 5:14 MSG)

My Christian faith CANNOT genuinely represent ‘The Way’ of LOVE… if it doesn’t move me towards others, and propel me more deeply into what it means to be a human who loves more inclusively and universally. Saul was a Pharisee among Pharisee’s, and a devout man who believed he was doing God’s will when he set out to destroy anyone he might find belonging to ‘The Way.’ These followers of ‘The Way’ lived lives of forgiveness, enemy love, and generosity. We can read of these, and of the profound conversion of this very religious man in Acts, chapter 9. When Jesus revealed Himself by a blinding flash of light, he spoke to Saul and asked him, “Why are you out to get Me?” So really, it was revealed to Saul that he was not only persecuting these followers of ‘The Way', he was also persecuting Jesus. 

In revealing Himself, Jesus wanted Saul to TRULY see and know that to persecute ‘others’ is to persecute him.  Furthermore, when Jesus shares the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew, chapter 25, He shares with His listeners in verse 40; “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, THAT WAS ME- YOU DID IT TO ME!” (MSG)

Conversion can also be about TRULY seeing… and awakening over and over again… to the wonder and beauty of ‘otherness,’ of a willingness to joyfully enter into the everyday opportunities we are given to be converted to; new ways of seeing, other ways of relating, greater degrees of understanding, having more empathy and compassion, humility and forgiveness, and solidarity and unity.

In being open to this ‘Way’ of LOVE, we develop the capacity to actually enjoy our differences. We are willing to invite further engagement, and to come awake to the possibility that there might actually be something in ‘the other’ that God wants to share with us. Even when we encounter relational difficulties, an ongoing desire for conversion might make us more willing to struggle to see and hear the other’s perspective, so that we might each grow together into a deeper understanding of what it means to LOVE. 

One of Jesus’ primary ways of relating to people was by sharing parables, where He would describe and draw attention to common everyday realities, and then invite His listeners to not only be those who look at, but those who SEE THROUGH. This way of communicating allows for questions and dialogue, and can keep us open to ‘the other’ while still providing enough space for us to really listen and hear their heart. When we are willing to listen non-defensively to others, to their stories, even if we think differently, we can become more loving as we resist feeling afraid or threatened by our distinctions. A relationship of respect, mutuality, and friendship may develop as we are open, and as we begin to understand that perhaps one of the most profound ways that we are converted into better ways of loving is through others who are also made in God’s Image and Likeness.

We grow in humility when we vulnerably share our stories with others, and we are evangelized to become more loving humans when we are willing to ask, “How do you perceive me?” We are given an opportunity for a deeper conversion as we listen, and as we are reminded that we all have some pollution that we don’t see. I have come to believe that it is often these others that God speaks and moves through, people who help me see and understand some of the pollution I hadn’t noticed in myself.

What might happen in this world if we lived our lives expecting to find and experience JOY in the discovery of ‘otherness?’ Perhaps conversion happens when we stop polarizing, when we stop splitting the world and ‘others’ into goodies and baddies! Perhaps something novel, something brand new, can happen as we awaken to the possibility of LOVE in ‘the other.’ Perhaps satisfaction and joy in living are found in the struggle to discover ‘otherness’ so that ‘the other’ becomes a whole universe to explore!