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The road to Damascus: Where Paul was not converted

7.22. 2019 Written By: John K. Stoner 1,021 read

This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “The Breath of God restores us.” For more stories on this theme, see the July issue of The Mennonite.

Some Christians may be disappointed to hear that Saul (later Paul) was not converted on the road to Damascus, but he was not.

The story is plain enough. On the road to Damascus, Saul was struck by a brilliant light, fell to the ground, heard a voice from heaven identified as the voice of Jesus asking, “Why are you using violence against me?” and ended up blind being led by his companions toward Damascus (Acts 9). That’s it.

Saul was blinded on the road to Damascus, but the traditional telling of the story would have you believe he was enlightened, converted and born again on the road to Damascus. So a story of blinding has been essentially turned into a story of enlightenment, and the loss to the church over two millennia in that disabled telling has been disastrously costly.

Yet the themes of conversion and transformation continue strong in Christendom and the church, and the Spirit of God still breathes new life into individuals and communities. A better telling of Saul’s conversion could help the church immensely to address our human and global problem of violence, in a fashion much closer to the Bible’s own way of addressing this problem. The breath of God restored Saul, and it yearns to restore our world, indeed to save the whole cosmos (John 3:17).

The context in Luke’s gospel account

The first imperative on the lips of Jesus in Luke’s account of the gospel story is “love your enemies” (6:27). This is not the case in Matthew, where it is “follow me” (4:19), in Mark “repent” (1:15) and John “come and see” (1:39).

“Love your enemies” is an imperative that addresses the fundamental human problem since Cain killed Abel, Lamech vowed 77-fold vengeance for an injury (Genesis 4) and God, the story goes, drowned virtually every human being “for the earth is filled with violence because of them” (Genesis 6). Missed in most tellings of the flood story is that the story ends with God saying, “I will never do this again” (Genesis 8), apparently having learned, or decided, that a really big homicidal retribution would not solve the problem of violence and sin. The rest of the Bible can be read as a very human, and divine, search for a better way to deal with pervasive violence.

In Luke’s account, when Jesus sent out his missionary disciples, he instructed that their first word upon entering a house should be “peace to this house” (Luke 10), and they were to stay or leave according to whether they found a peace-seeking response in their hearers. Luke describes Jesus as seeing this human hunger for peace as the fundamental sign of readiness for his good news.

There were plenty of people and powers in Luke’s time who believed superior violence would solve the world’s problems. Jesus exposes political powers as deluded with their trust in “redemptive” violence when he dismissed Herod as a “fox,” a repulsive, scavenging animal, when he was warned to flee from Herod’s threats (Luke 13). Then he proceeded to say, with supreme irony, “I must be on my way, for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,” the home of the religious powers. How bad is the violence of political powers, we ask? How much worse is that of the religious powers, Jesus asks?

Jesus’ own disciples faltered and stumbled over his teaching to love their enemies in all the gospel accounts, and dramatically so according to Luke. Peter, especially, with his denial of Jesus, showed his bias toward violent methods of bringing in the kingdom of God. But the church has misunderstood Peter as badly as Paul, for dark and telling centuries of disastrous complicity with homicidal violence. Peter, who by his own words and the evidence of his behavior, was at least as courageous for violent conflict as a General Patton or modern SWAT team, is portrayed for his denial as fearful and self-preserving, despite his own words and Jesus’ acknowledgement that he would bravely use the sword to defend his comrades and their community (Luke 22). Peter was ready to do something about enemies, but it was not to love them. The courage Peter lacked was the courage to follow Jesus’ way of loving his enemies, and he was fatally embarrassed when Jesus refused to join him in using the sword to defend their threatened community. So he denied being identified with Jesus. It was embarrassment, not fear.

Nearing the final confrontation with his violence-embracing opponents, Jesus devised a test to see if his disciples understood his teaching. In Luke 22, he reminds them that they had lacked nothing when he sent them out carrying no purse, bag or sandals. They agree. “But now,” he says, “you must take a purse, bag and a sword too.” They do not protest this strange command, as he hoped they would, as they did once when he told them to feed 5,000 men (Luke 9). No, they respond, “here are two swords.” And Jesus says, “Enough of this talk. You obviously are not understanding my message.” (That’s the meaning of the Greek idiom “it is enough.”) They have failed the test. They are transgressors of God’s nonviolent will, and Jesus is numbered with them.

Ananias: “Brother Saul”

Saul entered Damascus a blind man, fasting and seeking light and vision. God had gotten his attention, but the way forward was dark and unknown.

However, there is another character, and another act, to the story. Our point here being that this character and act has been so downplayed and ignored by the church’s traditional telling as a “road to Damascus” event for nearly 2,000 years, let us now have Luke tell it in his own words:

10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 11The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision* a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ 13But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 15But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul* and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

When Saul heard the astounding words “Brother Saul” from his enemy, Ananias, “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.” It happened then, and not until then.

Saul was converted from the idea that the integrity and defense of God’s people is secured by homicidal violence to the idea that it is secured by overcoming evil with good (Romans 12). He was as much an ethnic and cultural Jew after his conversion as before. His project had not changed. It always was to secure the integrity of the community dedicated to doing God’s will on earth as it was done in heaven, but his method and form of power for that project had changed radically, from violence to nonviolence, from retaliation to repentance. In Paul’s telling of this story (Acts 22), he gives Ananias due credit for saying the words “Brother Saul,” leading to his conversion; he would follow Jesus, make peace and live a transformed life.

In Romans 15, Paul summarized his message this way: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Still waiting for Ananias

Our world today has been struck by a bright light, fallen to the ground and blinded. What is next? We have utterly exhausted the possibilities of superior violence; we can no longer convince ourselves it is redemptive.

The question for the church is, can we enter the room and say, “Brother Saul?” Will we do that? Can we enter the room and say, “Peace to this house. Brother Saul?”

John K. Stoner is a retired pastor, teacher, parent and Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Peace Section administrator. He lives with his wife, Janet, in Akron, Pennsylsvania, where they are members of Akron Mennonite Church. 

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