The Most Reverend Eugene A. Marino, S. S. J., is Archbishop of Atlanta, Georgia.
THE purpose of this conference is “to challenge the participants to explore the relationship between personal conversion and social transformation.” The two persons we honor today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Father Thomas Merton, personified that relationship. Both men were profoundly concerned about the social transformation needed to make our country faithful to the ideals of liberty and justice for all stamped in our national image. Both men drew their commitment to this cause from their profound Christian faith and spirituality. In these remarks, I will offer to you my reflections on the way to understand the relationship between the change of heart to which Jesus calls us and a strong commitment to the quest for liberation, social justice, and a society worthy of human beings.
Let us begin with conversion. Let us acknowledge that this term designates a profound interior change “in the heart” of men and women. The first words of Jesus in the gospel of Mark are a call to conversion. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand, Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Repentance and conversion are equivalent. They designate a turning away, actually a turning back. It is a matter of turning away from sin. The concept, though, is dynamic. It presupposes that one is walking along the path of sin, getting more and more lost. One is rushing towards a disaster, blindly even, steadily, more and more uncontrollably. Repentance and conversion indicate a halt in this process: a halt and a turning back, back to the situation before one embarked on this course of destruction. Conversion is movement, movement away from sin, a change in course, a complete change in the opposite direction. This takes place in the heart, more precisely, in the conscience of the person. The call to conversion is a call to the human conscience.
Conversion is an ethical, moral event. It is a moral change, of course. The call to conversion is possible because human persons have a moral conscience. In fact, it is this more than anything else that characterizes a human person. The call to conversion is a call for an examination of conscience. “Look into your heart. Find out what is there. In your heart, in the deepest part of yourself, you will discover who you are, what you have become.” What have you become acting this way? Who are you when you act this way? Are you yourself, are you “your own self,” faithful to who and what God made you? This is why the call to conversion is a religious concept, namely, it has to do with our relationship with God. Jesus relates it to the “coming of the Kingdom of God.” This language also is dynamic. God’s sovereign rule is being asserted now, in this “time of fulfillment.” It is God who created you a person. That is His unchanging will. Look into your hearts. Awaken your conscience, which is a consciousness of your personhood. What does it tell you about the direction into which you are moving?
In this “time of fulfillment,” when God’s rule is being affirmed, God’s will, His will that you be who and what He created you, are you being “fulfilled” as a human person, or are you “squandering your identity away” by your immoral behavior? If you are, God is not ruling your heart. You are the slaves of a power that is not God, the power of sin. God did not create you as a slave. Be free! Conquer the power of sin. Let the power of God rule in you so as to be free as He created you, so as to escape enslavement to sin. Conversion therefore is an act of rebellion against sin. It is a protest against the rule of sin. That is how conversion is related to protest. Conversion is moral protest. When we protest against dehumanizing social structures and practices, when we seek to change society by means of our protest against its violations of the dignity of human persons, then we are externalizing the protest originally made in the heart by our moral conscience, more precisely, by our moral conscience enlightened by the impact of God’s rule, of the coming of His kingdom. That is why there is no contradiction between social protest and religious conversion. To be truly authentic and truly effective, social protest must be the external consequence of an interior religious conversion, of a protest against sin in our hearts, a repugnance of rebellion against God’s rule, a turning away, turning back from it with moral disgust. The Christian tradition has linked this rule over sin with the so-called “royal office” of Christ the King in which we share when we are incorporated into him by baptism and faith.
Conversion and protest, therefore, depend on a recognition of the absolute sovereignty of God’s will. They depend on the recognition of God as God, upon the rejection of all forms of idolatry. Was it not the recognition of God as God and the rejection of idolatry that motivated the protest against social evils of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton? Whoever reads their words will admit that this is indeed so. However, as we have seen, conversion and protest flow out of the recognition of God as someone who wishes us to be free. They betoken a recognition of God as good and loving, as radically opposed to our enslavement by any force that would rob us of our dignity as persons. The Second Vatican Council reminded us that man and woman were the only creatures on earth that God created “for their own sakes,” that is, as infinitely valuable in themselves (cf. GS 24). Our value, our worth as human persons cannot be measured by anything. Our existence as human persons is the most valuable thing there is. Everything else should be measured by this norm: how it promotes the development of human personhood.
This leads us to two conclusions. First, the human person is transcendent. The human person cannot be measured or contained (subjugated, enslaved, captured) by any other created reality. We are creatures not limited by space and time. Our radical freedom from being measured or contained by anything means this, betokens this, depends on the truth of our spiritual identity. This is what spiritual really means. To be a spiritual being does not mean that our material dimension does not matter. In the New Testament spiritual is not opposed to material as a different “component” of human beings. Spiritual is an existential reality; it is a way of existing. St. Paul does not hesitate to speak of a “spiritual body” after the resurrection of the flesh. The spiritual body is not a body that has not matter; rather it is a body that exists in a transcendent, divine way. This is what it means to be creatures being valuable “for their own sakes.” Conversion, as we saw, betokens a re-discovery of the value of our personhood and that of others, the transcendent value of human personhood and therefore the protest against sin which always dehumanizes us. To dehumanize means to de-spiritualize, so to speak, as we have just seen. Conversion, therefore, is motivated by spirituality. Conversion and protest against sin, including social evils, are therefore intimately related to spirituality, to a spiritual life. How foolish it is, therefore to oppose spirituality to the quest for social liberation and justice. The two are inseparable. Spirituality is dialogue with God.
Our second conclusion therefore is this: conversion and protest are intimately linked with prayer. Prayer is the highest expression of our spirituality. Prayer is the conscious expression of our spiritual identity, of our transcendent value, of the truth that we were created as having value “for our own sake.” Prayer is the spontaneous response to our apprehension of this truth. This is especially so of the highest form of prayer, prayer of praise, the praise of God. And it is not just a matter of the praise due to the Creator by the creature. It is above all a matter of loving praise. The recognition that we are the only creatures on earth created “for our own sakes” is the recognition that we were created out of pure love. It is God’s boundless love for us, an unconditional, absolute love that makes possible having a value, an infinite value, “for our own sake.” We are infinitely valuable because God loves us. It is not that God loves us because we are infinitely valuable and lovable. God’s love is pre-eminent; it is His love that makes us infinitely valuable and lovable. It is God’s love that makes us persons. The prayer (the expression of this relationship) that best expresses our personhood, therefore, is the prayer of love, of loving praise, of adoration, of loving contemplation of God who is Love. The more “contemplative” we are, the more sensitive we become to the transcendent value of human persons, the more outraged we become by denials or violations of this value, and therefore, the strongest our protest against all forms of offenses against the dignity of human persons.
How absurd it is, therefore, to oppose contemplatives to activists on behalf of liberation of justice! Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr., were two sides of the same coin. The former was an “activist contemplative”; the latter a “contemplative activist.” In a word, they were Christians. They knew Jesus. They were incorporated into him. As the Second Vatican Council also reminded us, it is only in the mystery of Jesus, of the Incarnate Word, that we discover fully what it means to be a human person, and what our supreme destiny and vocation is, our “most high calling” (GS 22). As the One Person who is both fully God and fully human, Jesus is the Priest of the New Covenant. He is the mediator between the divine and the human, the link between God and human beings, and the human world. By faith and baptism, those united to Jesus share in this priestly office of his. That is, they become the link between the human world and God. As such, they exercise this priesthood in two ways: through prayer and through constantly exposing this world to the light of God’s love in order that men and women will offer the good that they do on behalf of the human world as a prayer of love. But isn’t this same exposure to God’s love that lies at the heart of conversion and protest against all forms of injustice and oppression? Behold, then, the link between conversion and protest and prayer. It is based on the link between the royal and Priestly offices of Christ in which the believer shares.
The third and final “office” of Christ in traditional Christian theology is his prophetic office. And this is precisely the third element in our theme for this conference. In his encyclical on The Redeemer of Man, Pope John Paul II reflects on the prophetic office of Christ in the light of His encounter with Pilate when he was condemned to death. Pilate had questioned Jesus about his royal office. He wanted to know if Jesus was a king. Jesus acknowledges that he is a king, but he says that his kingdom is not of this world. This does not mean that his kingdom has nothing to do with what happens in this world. It does not mean that devotion to the kingdom of Jesus betokens an escape from having to struggle for liberation and justice in this world. We have seen that the follower of Jesus is necessarily involved in this struggle. I believe that what Jesus does when he says that his kingdom is not of this world is to proclaim that his kingdom is God’s kingdom; that his authority is God’s authority; that his cause is God’s cause.
We have already seen how closely God’s kingdom and God’s cause are related to the defense of the dignity of the human person. That is why I think Pope John Paul II’s reflection on this episode is so enlightening. He says that at this encounter Jesus shows himself to be a witness to the dignity of human persons, a witness to the truth about human beings in the light of God’s rule. But that is precisely what a prophet does. The prophet is a witness to the truth about God, especially as it is being obscured, forgotten, or denied. That is why the prophet is a critic of human injustice. And that is why, like Jesus, the prophet is so frequently put to death by those who subjugate people and who want to take the place of God in the life of peoples and nations. This is why the prophet is accused, incarcerated, and often killed in an effort to extinguish his or her voice. When Jesus tells Pilate that he has come to give witness to the Truth, he is being a prophet.
This is what Pope John Paul II says. The truth to which he witnesses is that truth about the transcendent dignity of the human person which we have seen to lie at the heart of protest and prayer. This is the truth apprehended through conversion. And so it is that there is a close connection indeed between conversion and social transformation, as we have sought to understand and will reflect upon during this conference.
I hope that these observations have been of some use to you as you begin this time of reflection and dialogue. Perhaps I can summarize my observations this way: personal conversion and social transformation are related because they have their common root in our participation in the three-fold office of Christ: King, Priest, and Prophet. This transformation of our own identity in him and through him by the power of the Holy Spirit expresses itself as protest, prayer, and prophecy in a world where the power of sin — personal sin and sinful behavior institutionalized in oppressive structures and policies — seeks to deny to him his rightful place in our midst and in our world as Messiah, Savior, and Lord.
Alas, I can just offer you words. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton backed their protest, prayer, and prophecy with their lives. Thank God for them. Let us continue their work, following Christ, King, Priest, and Prophet as they lived and died.