The First Conversion (A Reflection) by Ryan McLaughlin

In the gospel of John, Jesus is brought before the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate on charges of political crimes. The author constantly depicts Pilate as attempting to “wash his hands” of the situation through indecision. Each attempt at indecision, however, is met with frustration. In the end, the gospel suggests that indecision in the face of an encounter with Jesus is an impossibility.

This gospel narrative is most likely meant to highlight John’s understanding of the definitiveness of Jesus and the imposition he forces upon the world. History, in the gospel writer’s eyes, must be decided in the face of Jesus’s life. This authorial intent notwithstanding, the notion that indecision is an impossibility in the face of an encounter with the “other” is a powerful notion. This notion is highlighted in the following story:

Two people, A and B, are sitting together in a room. A says to B, “Let’s play a game. I’m going to write an action down on a piece of paper and fold it up. I’ll bet you that I can force you to do the action I write down without any physical coercion at all. I’ll make you do it simply by saying two words to you. Furthermore, the action won’t be something reflexive like ‘breathe’ or ‘blink.’ It will be an action that requires your ability to make choices.”

B accepts the challenge, unconvinced by A’s confidence. After all, B reasons, how can someone force you to do something that requires your ability to choose? The game begins.

A says to B, who is sitting on a chair, “Stand up.”

Nothing happens. B, while suspicious that the paper may have written on it something in the vein of “Remain Seated,” nevertheless decides to remain seated, at least maintaining a hint of rebellion to the imperative.

A asks B, “Why didn’t you stand up?”

B replies, “Because I chose to disobey you.”

A smiles victoriously and says, “I win,” handing over the folded piece of paper.

B opens the paper and finds the words “Make a choice.”

Indeed, only two words were spoken, the action was non-reflexive and definitely requires the ability to choose, and the action was forced.

Much of philosophy has traditionally drawn upon the notion of freedom of the will to establish the uniqueness of the human creature. Whether free will is simply one leg of rationality, the result of self-awareness and reason, the spark of the divine, the outpouring of language, or the canvas for morality, the ability to make decisions based on more than instinct has a long history of separating the human from the nonhuman. It furthermore grounds the dignity of the human creature as one to whom direct moral concerns are due (and so Kant). My purpose here is not to discuss the validity of this distinction—though such discussions are certainly warranted. Rather, my aim is to explore the notion of free will, understood in the sense of the ability to make decisions, particularly as it pertains to the relationship between the self and the other.

The first point, which has already been adumbrated to the extent that it may seem redundant, is that the ability to choose is simultaneously the inability not to choose. If free will exists in some manner, humans are not its master; we are its slaves. We are powerless to engage in genuine indecision (i.e. the complete absence of choice) once we are confronted with the opportunity to make a choice. In this sense, the opportunity to make a decision is always the demand to make a decision, as was the case in our example.

The second point worth considering is that, if freedom of the will is constitutive of the personhood of humanity, then it is always enacted in the face of something “other” which places a demand upon it. In this sense, the constitution of the human person is not a self-contained cogito (a thinking “I” whose constitutive substance is separable from its relations) but rather a relational event requiring that which is other for its realization. In short, our humanity is enacted by an encounter with that which is other than the self (and so Buber and many others in his wake).

Thirdly, while in the example of the two people in the room the first person demanded decision by enacting the other person’s free will through the act of speaking, speech is in no manner necessary for such an enactment. On the contrary, the mere encounter of that which is other mandates a judgment.

The world I accept is that which I know, whether concretely or potentially. But potential knowledge is not the same as concrete knowledge. When I encounter the other as an other in the concrete, I come to know that other as a particular reality breaking into my world and thus enlarging it.

That is, the world that I have encountered concretely now consists of everything I knew concretely before the encounter with the other plus my encounter with the other. It is this specific reality—this world that is new at least from my perspective—that mandates decision simply because it now exists within the purview of my world. Furthermore, from the second point above we can say that this other constitutes my own humanity by enacting my free will. Also, we can say in light of the first point that once I encounter the other, which is not in itself an act of my choosing (and therefore we can perhaps agree with Levinas that ethics precedes intention), indecision is no longer an option. I am made human, one who must decide (and here my emphasis tends away from Levinas in the emphasis on will).

But what must I decide? This question brings us to a fourth point. The first decision the other mandates is whether or not I will accept this new world—the world that is enlarged by an encounter with a specific other in the concrete. That is, can I live in a world in which this other, as a specific concrete other, lives?

Like Pilate I am forced to decide, to pass judgment on this matter that has been brought to me from outside forces beyond my control. Also like Pilate, the basic parameters of my decision are, on the one hand, life, and on the other, death. If I accept the other, I choose (leaving aside the question of how much pure choice is actually involved in this act) to become one who can live in this new world. In this act, I choose to acknowledge and accept the other as part of the world and thereby confer on them life (at least from my perspective).

If, on the other hand, I cannot accept this other, I choose to grasp at the world I enjoyed prior to being accosted. Like Pilate, I try to wash my hands of the encounter so that I might return to the safety of my smaller world (where I do not find myself asking “What is truth?” a question an encounter with the other often raises). But this act of washing my hands is not indecision. For, to deny the other his or her (or its) place in the world is to act as if they did not exist at all. But since they do actually exist, the denial is a robbing the other of existence. We normally call robbing someone (a person) of existence murder. In this sense, denying someone existence in the manner described above is akin to murdering them (and here of course we are again approaching something along the lines of Levinas’s understanding of the face).

Whether my judgment actually ends in physical murder (and it may indeed, a fact to which history may attest time and again), I choose to live as if they did not exist—as if they were dead. From a Christian perspective, we might recall that Jesus intensifies the command of Torah regarding murder to include anger toward a brother or sister (Matthew 5:21-22). The point is that the other lays at my feet the demand to judge on their behalf between life and death. This judgment is not a power that humans have or possess in the encounter of the other, it is a power we cannot escape. It accosts us with the encounter itself.

From this point derives another. Namely, that the demand the encounter with the other forces upon me is, in a quasi-Levinasian twist, the injunction not to murder. (I say “quasi-Levinasian” because, as Levinas says, the encounter with the face of the other is the injunction not to murder; but, as I have depicted it, freedom of the will plays a fundamental role in this ethical interchange between self and other. The emphasis on the will for the exercise of ethics grinds against Levinas’s thought.)

The other is already in the world (and has been prior to my knowledge of her in the concrete). Furthermore, the other, by virtue of her ongoing existence, displays what Albert Schweitzer would refer to as the will-to-live. This will-to-live engages my own free will in an encounter that can now not be undone and demands a verdict regarding its own validity. Because her will is in fact a will-to-live as opposed to a will-to-die—that is, because the other seeks to remain in the world—her demand upon me is the recognition of the sanctity of her own existence. Her dignity does not ultimately depend on my decision. But to deny one existence—to wash my hands in the face of an encounter so that I am not soiled by it—is nothing short of a full out affront to dignity.

To this point, I have suggested that freedom of the will, if it is constitutive of the human person, is only so in relation to that which is other (whether the other is human or not, or alive or not). Furthermore, this constitution provides more than the status of entitlement (that badge of “not-less-than-human”); it provides an inescapable call to decide in the face of the existence of the other. I have suggested that this decision, on account of the other’s desire to remain alive, is the injunction not to murder in the sense of denying that which is other than existence in the world as I accept it.

From these comments follows a reflection on the notion of conversion. In the religious sense, conversion tends to carry the connotation of shifting allegiance—committing oneself to something different than before. Coming from a dogmatic affirmation of one’s own position as that which encapsulates the absolute truth (leaving aside the question as to whether such truth, if it were indeed absolute, could ever be exhausted in a dogmatic formulation formed via mediation by a historically located human person or group), conversion tends to embody a call to the other to fit into the world as I know and accept it, not as the other that she is in the concrete, but as the other she could become—the other that is homologous with the self.

It is to this end (i.e. drawing the other into the world I knew prior to my encounter with the other) that proclamation devoid of dialogue is inevitably directed. It carries the agenda of burying my encounter with the other in the dirt of my former, smaller, and safer world. It enables me to declare “This is truth!” rather than ask “What is truth?”

If the other fails to convert, many times the result is a violent attempt to return to the world prior to the encounter. Such an attempt is nothing short of an exorcism of the other, driving the otherness out in order to bring her into “the truth” of the world I already know. Such a move is another manner of denying the other, as a concrete other–existence as she is. In this sense, if conversion is proclamation without dialogue, if it is accosting the other without allowing the other to accost the self, it is a form of murder.

But if what has been said is correct, at least within the presupposed parameters of some level of freedom of the will, then the first conversion, whether religious or not, is always the conversion of the self that is mandated by the encounter with the other. The call to conversion issued by this encounter is the call to commit to living in a larger world, to accepting an allegiance to that world’s life. This conversion is not a simple act of tolerance. Tolerance, especially in the form of avoidance, can be just as murderous as a violent colonialism. Indeed, perhaps Pilate envisioned himself tolerant of Jesus by washing his own hands of the encounter.

Nor is this conversion a blind affirmation that this other is without fault. Such affirmation runs the risk of conflating my world prior to the encounter with the other to my world after the encounter with the other. Once again, such an act is similar to denying the new world all together in that it acts as if my encounter with the other makes no change at all in the world I know. As opposed to both blind tolerance and blind affirmation, the first conversion mandates commitment to this new world in which the other, whether a person, an animal, a plant, a rock, or even an idea, exists. This commitment does not require affirmation of the other (e.g. the claim that a new idea must be admirable because it exists), but rather acceptance and genuine interaction with the other (e.g. accepting that I can live in this new world where this idea exists and engage it, whether accepting or rejecting it, as peacefully and genuinely as possible).

Narrowing down this notion to the religious other—understood broadly enough to encompass even the nonreligious—the first conversion mandates dialogue, the interaction of self and the other within the larger world created in the encounter. The converted self engages in dialogue neither to return to the world prior to the encounter with the other (i.e. to cram the other into the world I already know) nor to overshadow the genuine difference highlighted in that encounter (i.e. to feign acceptance of the new world by overlooking the significance of its alterity from my previously known world).

Rather, the converted self engages in dialogue because the act affirms the life of the other as the other by facing her genuinely within this new world. The ongoing encounter with the other in dialogue continues to expand the world. Each new idea, each new dimension learned about the other, brings afresh the call to conversion, not to one who accepts or embraces the new idea or dimension, but to one who can live peacefully within this new world the idea imposes.

In what has been said, the prized possession of free will brings the self to a relationally constituted identity that calls for perpetual conversion in the encounter of that which is other. This “first conversion” is fundamentally the ethical response to the encounter with the other in which the self refuses to engage in murder and instead chooses to affirm life. The result of this conversion is the commitment to live in this larger world with the other as other. For the religious other, it entails genuinely engaging in dialogue within that larger world. In short, to be free to choose is to be bound to decision. The other always enacts the freedom to choose and thus mandates a decision in the face of her otherness. The decision posed to the self is that between life and death, acceptance and exclusion.

The other, whether with words or not, speaks the injunction not to murder, calling instead for the decision to affirm life by living in this larger world opened by the encounter. This conversion of the self called for by the other leads to dialogue, the genuine interaction of self and other in a world big enough for both to live. The aim of dialogue, then, is not first to bring the other into that world I knew before my encounter with her, but rather to understand the extent of this new world opened up by the encounter and become one, through perpetual conversion, who can live in that world. Only after this first and ongoing conversion can I begin to evaluate this new world. But this evaluation happens within that world, and therefore never without it.

Returning to the biblical narrative in which we began, we can say that Pilate’s attempt at indecision symbolized in the washing of his hands was in fact an act of murder (and here Pilate must remain a symbol as well, so as to avoid the attempt to locate the fullness of blame for Jesus’s death). This vision is of indecision and an attempt at maintaining clean hands is brought to light in another passage of Christian scripture: The parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

The story is well-known, and so only a brief summary is necessary here. An expert in the Law poses to Jesus the question of what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus redirects the question to the expert, who sums up the law in terms of love of God and neighbor. Jesus affirms this vision. But the expert then asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus tells the parable of a human traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who is attacked by robbers and left for dead. Both a priest and Levite happen on the imperiled person and “passed by on the other side.” (Of course here we must be careful not to permit this parabolic use of Jewish leaders to become anti-Semitic by forgetting that Jesus was a Jew in conversation with other Jews). Then a Samaritan (the “half-breed” of Jew and Gentile) “saw” the person and “was moved with pity.” The Samaritan proceeds to pick the person up and care for the wounds inflicted, even to the point of writing a blank check to an innkeeper.

This parable continues the theme addressed abovein a few manners. First, both the priest and the Levite “saw” the wounded person (see vv. 31-32). But both pass by “on the other side.” The suggestion here is that of seeing but ignoring. They are accosted with a new world by this other in the concrete but choose to live as if they were not so accosted. The result for the wounded person will certainly be death (literally in this case). Furthermore, concerning questions about the uncleanliness of the dead, these religious leaders might indeed, in this parable, have concerns for clean (i.e. pure) hands. But the Samaritan has no such concerns. The decision he makes is for the other. And surely the Samaritan gets his hands dirty in picking up such a bloody victim. Yet no mention is made of washing hands. And it is of the Samaritan that Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”

Yet the narrative is richer still for our theme. Not only does the Samaritan get his hands dirty for the sake of promoting the life of the other (and here I am reminded of the Hebrew Scriptures in which the LORD forms Adam out of the slime of the earth), but he does so with no information about this other (aside from the other’s need). In the parable, Jesus describes the other in the Greek anthropos and autos, both gender-neutral terms. Thus, to the hearer of the story, this other could be male or female. Nothing is said about the other’s nationality or religion. The other here could be Jew, Gentile, or Samaritan. Nothing is said about righteousness. Nothing is said about race (anachronistic but still). Nothing is said about sexual preference. The other is encountered as complete mystery. And yet Jesus says “Go and do likewise.” That is, Jesus favors getting hands dirty in the messiness of the encounter with the other in order to promote life. And this promotion is favored regardless of the other. Thus, in this parable, the first question is not “Who is my neighbor?” in the sense of learning how to calculate the other to whom we owe dignity and thereby exclude the other other from such concern. Rather, the first question is “Who will you be a neighbor to?” And the implicit answer is: to the one you encounter. Being a neighbor precedes calculation. And what is a neighbor except one that lives next to me? One with whom I share this world? It is the encounter itself that mandates a response in favor of life—a neighborly response.

All that has been said can be summed up in the following notion. Encounter mandates conversion of the self to one who can live peacefully with and for the other. Without this first conversion, some form of murder is looming. Without this conversion, we become Cain asking, “Am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?” By that point, the deed has already been done.

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