Conversion in a World of Violence
While violence manifests in many forms, two instantiations of violence are particularly prominent in the U.S. and growing: racial resentment and polarization, both political and ecclesial. Violence emerges from the false and malforming narratives that contribute to our identities and worldviews. Insofar as these narratives contribute to the ongoing malformation of our identities and worldviews, they contribute to a bias in need of conversion; that is, violence as the result of false narratives is in need of a conversion understood as a revision of those formative narratives. In my dissertation, I draw on the work of James Alison and Thomas Merton to offer a spirituality and ecclesiology of humble discovery and prophetic accompaniment that facilitate an openness to a holistic conversion at the personal, communal, and political levels that can counter this violent bias in the transformation of our formative narratives. In chapter one, I evaluate the role narratives play in human identity and worldview formation as well as the possibility for violence to emerge from false and malforming narratives. I focus especially on racial resentment and polarization in the political and ecclesial spheres as instantiations of violence that are uniquely pervasive and growing in the United States. I posit that these false narratives are a bias in need of conversion, and I consider conversion as a transformation of those formative narratives. Chapter two takes up the work of James Alison who, relying on the mimetic theory advanced by René Girard, offers a communal anthropology that reveals original sin to be our participation in a system of mimetic rivalry, scapegoating and exclusionary violence, and death. The experience of the resurrection reveals both our participation in this system and that God has nothing to do with this violence and death. Alison directs us to ecclesial participation in the liturgy, wherein we experience the risen Jesus, as a communal process of conversion in which we relax into being recreated into who God intends for us to be and whose desires are realigned toward God’s. In chapter three, I turn to the complementary, though distinct, work of Thomas Merton. Merton offers a process of personal conversion rooted in a practice of contemplative spirituality. This process initiates in response to the realization of our participation in “mass society,” which uncritically accepts technological progress to the point of rendering us “moral infants” and atomized cogs in the machine of that same progress. This spirituality practice wrests our egos from this false logic and reveals our interconnectedness to and responsibility for our neighbor. In chapter four, I synthesize the thought of Alison and Merton and offer a framework for an ecclesiology and a spirituality of humble discovery and prophetic accompaniment that work to open us to God’s grace and the resulting conversion. I apply this framework to rural, working-class, and White communities—focusing especially on my own hometown—offering a reflection on how the application of these might facilitate a conversion within these communities and counter the racial resentment and polarization that uniquely impacts these communities.