Sep 7, 2011

Conversion as realization

If you stop at a stoplight on parts of Atlanta's MLK Blvd. -- say you come off of 20 and go up Joseph E. Lowery, looking for parking near one of the campuses of the trinity of historic black colleges, Moorehouse, Spellman, and Clark -- you might see one of the proselytizers of the Nation of Islam. They wear dark suits and spotless shirts and bow ties, stationed at the corners of the streets named for Civil Rights ministers, passing out bags of fresh fruit and literature.

If you stop at a stop light they'll walk up the street, looking into the cars, looking for their people.

If you're white, like I am, they pass you by. They don't sustain eye contact or return a smile, don't say anything into the open window of the idling car, but keep on going. Instead a minister stops at the car behind you, giving fruit to the woman in the bondo-colored Chevy Caprice with the muffler and the kids in back. A woman who is black. Another passes pamphlets into the window of and SUV in the next lane. And maybe you can't see who the man is talking to. It's not a white guy, though. It's not an Asian or a Hispanic. The ministers are proselytizing and won't talk to just anyone. They use the time -- just the length of a red light -- to try to convert those who can convert. They look, in a sense, for those who already have, dormant within them, that which the Nation of Islam brothers would wish them to be.

They look for those who are in some way already within the circle, already a part of the thing, to make them aware of what they believe is already the case. It's not a conversion they're after, in the sense of a conversion as a change. They don't want a move, but an awakening, a conversion in the sense of a realization. They want people -- certain people -- to become what they already are, to stop, as they see it, denying the truth, and come into the knowledge of what they already know, but suppress within themselves.

American culture tends to be dominated by a universalist rhetoric. All are created equal, and so forth. Most evangelizing takes the same form as voter registration drives, attempting to get everyone signed up. Universal suffrage. The truth available to everyone. The Jehovah's Witnesses hit every door, e.g. The Bible church invites everyone to the hell house. That's pretty much the model.

There are these other types of proselytization, though, which might provide side way into thinking about conversions aren't experienced as being a choice.

How do the Rebbe's Riders, for example, identify the non-religious and not-very-religious Jews on motorcycles they're trying to evangelize with the Lubavitcher message?

They have to ask, presumably.

The Jews they're trying to reach are not wearing any outward signs of their faith, and may not, either, be identifiable by ethnic-genetic traits. They have to say "are you Jewish?" At least in some cases. Even if they're pretty sure of the answer and think they know, yes this person is Jewish, there's the question, which serves as the start of the proselytizing. The question also has a second function beyond the initial interrogative act.

First, of course, it's a query meant to open up an evangelical spiel, but, second, it makes a claim about what it is to be Jewish. An affirmative answer ends up implicitly accepting some idea about what being Jewish entails, some implicit demands about certain things are expected if one answers "yes."* To say "yes" is to stand accused of something -- in the same way that to say "no" is to be off the hook, to say that certain things don't apply to you. A charge is leveled with the question about responsibilities and obligations that a "yes" answer supposedly necessarily involves.

The claim perhaps becomes clearer if a third answer is imagined, not "yes I am Jewish," or "no," but, "why?"
"Are you Jewish?"
"Because if you are, what I'm about to say is relevant to you, important for you, applies to you ... " etc. "because if you are Jewish you have already been chosen ..."

Asking "why" asks for the implications of the Rebbe's Riders' question to be spelled out. And the implication is a claim about what is really true inside a Jew, even if it's not being acted out. It's saying, in a sense, that you (the Jew) are already what the Lubavitcher wants you to become, but which you have suppressed or denied. You are already converted, if conversion means being X (in this case a Jew) rather than not being X..

You're not being asked to make a choice, but simply to recognize the reality.

The evangelical Lubavitcher is essentially starting a conversation by saying "you have denied the truth within you. You know it, but you close your eyes, stop your ears, shout down your soul. But you know it's true: you have been chosen." There's a sense in which the question isn't about conversion -- though this is an evangelical act, here -- but about acknowledging one is one of the converted (if we can misuse the language, here).

The same can be said about the Nation of Islam's tactic on MLK. They're not asking "are you black?" obviously, but by giving their literature and their food only to certain people, they are identifying those people as already being within the fold, even if they themselves wouldn't identify themselves that way. The claim is, "you're one of us. You can deny it, which is to essentially participate in your own oppression, siding with those who would keep you down."

It's interesting to think about this moment from both sides: from outside of the Nation of Islam, it would appear that those within have chosen this faith, these practices, and this identity. It would look like they saying to other black people, you should choose this too. Make this change. Choose this, because it's better.

But, from within, the Nation of Islam proselytizers don't experience themselves as having chosen. The Nation of Islam's naming would be an example -- it's not a new name, as understood by those who take it, but the original one. For this reason, the act of proselytizing is more aggressive** than simply offering someone something as a choice. It's a claim, actually, that you (the person they hand this literature to) are in denial about the truth of yourself.

The claim being made, when a piece of literature is passed through a window, is something like, "will you recognize your true nature, your true name, who you really are? Or will you continue in your ignorance?"

We tend to think of conversions as changes. That is, after all, the definition of "conversion." If we look a little closer at proselytizations that eschew the universal that's so dominant in American culture, it's evident there's an aspect of conversion, though, that's not framed as a choice, and not experienced as such either.

Conversion, as an experience, as described from within, is not the experience of a choice, but the experience of realizing one has been chosen.

This, it turns out, isn't unique to those religions that are only available to a few, with a shape predetermined by race, though. It's actually part of the logic of conversion itself, that it's something that looks like a choice, is preformed as a choice, but not experienced that way.

*One can see a secular version of this "Jewishness as implicit demand" in the Larry David sketch where he whistles Wagner
**The Wire (of course) depicts this aggression of the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Islam's position towards black people who aren't members of the Nation amazingly well with the NOI assassin Brother Mouzone. E.g., in the famous "most dangerous thing in America" line.