Years later, John the Baptist started preaching in the desert of Judea. He said, “Turn back
to God! The kingdom of heaven will soon be here.” (Mt 3:1-2)
Conversion might well be one of the most familiar words for Christians, yet one of the most misunderstood. What does it tell us today? What is conversion?
I know some people who associate this word with the gloomy and terrifying image of a fundamentalist preacher who threatens humankind with all sorts of divine punishment, should they fail to comply with the divine law. Even John the Baptist uses stern words towards certain groups of people like the Pharisees and the Sadducees! However, I believe the Gospel is trying to teach us an important lesson about God and about our human condition. How many times have we felt stuck in a situation, hopeless and unable to move on? How many times have we thought there was no way out, like we had to fulfill a destiny that could not be changed?
When John proclaims “Turn back!”, it reveals one important truth: we are free. The essence of our human condition is precisely the freedom that allows us to be and to live our life. In every instant of our life we can turn back to God. Even when we feel there’s no hope, that it is too late to change, God opens us for us a new set of possibilities. How we use this freedom and the possibilities that come with it, it is up to us. Sometimes – maybe too many times – we abuse it in an very self-destructive way. But even then, it is never to late, no matter how far we are, no matter who we are, where we are from or what we have done, there is always a chance to turn back. The good news of the Gospel is always about hope and freedom, never about oppression or fear. This is why we need to be aware of our christian witness: are we a force for good in the world?
There is here an important point that needs to be emphasized; many religious groups around the world claim to be wanting a change for the better. Some of their fervor and zeal come from the desire to get people to change into something they reckon it is the best for them. I believe no one can know the inner thoughts and feelings of another human being, not even the ones of those who live closest to us. In my view, it is an act of arrogance and disrespect, and therefore very unchristian, to decide unilaterally what it is best for someone else. How can we presume to know the heart of another human being? Who gives us the right to judge the way of life of our neighbour? The conversion we are talking about only happens when someone realizes by him/herself how important and beautiful he or she is for God and starts living in a way the reflects their own intrinsic value as children of God. This can only happen in the freedom of a personal choice and realization and it is never forced on anyone. An authentic christian church should be a place where people feel free and confident enough to develop their own unique relationship with God within a community that supports and loves them for who they are and respect their freedom, their uniqueness and their dignity.
But this is not happening very often and people note instead an ever increasing gap between what it is preached from the pulpit and what it is really lived out in the community. How can the Church demand conversion if it is not able to unify its preaching and its actions, if it doesn’t become the visible sign of the kingdom of God? The hypocrisy of our own behaviour is the root of our present weakness as disciples of Christ. We preach but we do not practise (Mt 23:3)
Let’s hope this new century will bring a new way of being church. I think the following link can give us some clues for the future: