Making sense of conversion

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On 31 January 2024 a mother and her children had a highly corrosive chemical substance thrown at them in Clapham, south London, resulting in what have been described as 'life changing injuries.' As I write this article a manhunt is taking place for the chief suspect in the case, a man called Abdul Ezedi.

Mr Ezedi was originally from Afghanistan and in 2018 he was convicted of a charge of sexual assault. It has been reported that he obtained permanent leave to remain in the United Kingdom after saying that he had converted to Christianity and claiming that he would be in danger of persecution due to his conversion were he forced to return to Afghanistan.

It has also been suggested that his claim of conversion was a bogus one, and that his is one of a number of cases in which Christians have been duped into supporting claims for asylum made by those who have pretended to convert to Christianity in order to be allowed to stay in this country.

Another example that has been cited is the case of Emad Swealmeen, originally from Iraq, who went on an Alpha Course and was then baptised and confirmed in March 2017. His application to remain in the United Kingdom was, however, rejected and while waiting to be deported he killed himself by detonating a bomb filled with ball bearings outside the Liverpool Women's hospital in November 2021.

The two questions that are raised by these cases, and by reports of conversions among asylum seekers held on the Bibi Stockholm barge in Portland Harbour are: what does it actually mean for someone to convert to Christianity, and how can it be determined if someone's conversion is genuine?

In response to the first question, it is important to understand that Christian conversion is something more than a single event. It is an extended process which has its origins in a decision made by God before the creation of the world and which finds its conclusion in an individual sharing eternity joyfully with God in the world to come. It is also a process which involves the action of God leading to an appropriate human response.

This point is made very helpfully in the first paragraph of Article XVII of the Church of England's Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. This paragraph, which refers to conversion in terms of 'predestination to life', draws on four New Testament passages, Romans 8:28-30 and 9:23-24 and Ephesians 1:4-5 and 11-12. It runs as follows:

"Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby, before the foundations of the world were laid, He hath constantly decreed by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation as vessels made to honour. Wherefore they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God's purpose by His Spirit working in due season; they through grace obey the calling; they be justified freely; they be made sons of God by adoption; they be made like the image of His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ; they walk religiously in good works; and at length by God's mercy they attain to everlasting felicity."

When we talk about someone being converted, we are therefore talking about someone being eternally chosen by God the Father to share eternal life with him as a result of the saving work of Jesus Christ and that individual being enabled by the action of the Holy Spirit to obey God's call, to be justified, to be adopted as a child of God, to become progressively more like Jesus, to do good works and in the end to attain 'eternal felicity' as a result of God's mercy operating through the whole process.

Furthermore, the action of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual is mediated by the action of other human beings. God's call is made known to them through a process of religious instruction ('catechesis') in which the truth of the Christian message and its implications for them is explained. They become adopted as a child of God through baptism. They receive the strengthening ('confirming') power of the Holy Spirit through the laying on hands with prayer at confirmation or its equivalent. They grow spiritually through participating in worship, and they are fed spiritually by Christ through the Spirit as they receive the body and blood of Christ through the bread and wine at Holy Communion.

If this is what conversion involves, when we ask if someone's conversion is genuine what we are asking is therefore whether or not they are a person in whom the process we have just described is taking place. Obviously, if someone is still alive in this world the process has not yet ended, but what we can meaningfully ask is whether it has begun.

Equally obviously, no human being has the capacity to directly see the action of God. What God is doing spiritually in the life of an individual is invisible to the human eye, just as the wind is invisible (John 3:7). However, just as you can see the result of the wind blowing, so also you can also see the result of the activity of God in the life of a human being.

Someone in whom the process of conversion is taking place will accept the truth of the Christian message when it is explained to them and consequently confess Jesus as their Lord (Romans 10:9). They will get baptised and confirmed when the opportunity is offered to them (unless they have been baptised as an infant in which case confirmation alone will suffice). They will read the Bible, pray, attend Christian worship, and be fed by Christ through bread and wine at Holy Communion. They will manifest the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

These are the criteria which one would normally apply in seeking to discern whether a citizen of this country is genuinely undergoing the process of conversion, whether they have turned 'from darkness to light and the power of Satan to God' (Acts 26:18) and are continuing to walk in God's way in the power of the Spirit. There seems to be no good reason to apply any different criteria in the case of someone who was born somewhere else. People are simply people wherever they have been born and the process of conversion is the same for everyone.

Where things get difficult is in the precise application of these criteria. This is because it is possible for the signs of genuine conversion to be faked.

People can say that they accept the truth of the Christian message and Jesus as their Lord even when this is not the case. They can go through the rites of baptism and confirmation, saying and doing all the right things, but not genuinely seeking to receive a new life as God's child and strength through the Holy Spirit to live this life faithfully. They can appear to be diligent in reading the Bible, praying, coming to church and receiving Holy Communion but it can all be a show put on for the benefit of others - or indeed themselves. They can appear to be living a holy life while being careful to keep their sins hidden.

Conversely it is entirely possible for people who are genuinely undergoing conversion to appear not to be doing so. This is for two reasons.

First, people very often find it difficult to talk fluently about spiritual matters (as anyone who has tried to get someone to give their testimony at their baptism or confirmation will know). This is even more the case when English is not someone's first language.

Secondly, conversion is not a straightforward ascending path of ever-increasing holiness. Rather, it is what Jonathan Grant has called an "oscillating narrative," a story marked by a recurring pattern of sin, repentance, forgiveness and a new start with God. This means that even people who are genuinely undergoing conversion will very often backslide and may commit even serious sins because of addiction, or pressure of circumstances, or unresolved mental health issues. Consequently, we cannot take a single act of wrongdoing, or even a series of acts of wrongdoing, and conclude that that person is not genuinely undergoing Christian conversion.

If we ask what this all means in the case of Christian relations with asylum seekers, the first thing to note is that asylum seekers are not simply an amorphous mass of people. They are all individuals who have been created by God, and who are known and loved by him and have infinite value in his sight. Christians are thus not faced just with 'an asylum seeker,' but with a particular individual, Hector, or Ibrahim, or Marina, or Ji-Ah , or whoever, each of whom is unique and deserves to be taken seriously in their uniqueness. A one size fits all approach is therefore inappropriate.

The second thing to note is that Christians do need to be cautious about claims of conversion. People, including probably asylum seekers, do lie about their religious position in order to gain something from the Church (ask any member of the clergy about the way that the 'respectable middle classes' will try to 'game the system' to get their child into a popular church school, or secure the use of a pretty country church for their wedding). What this means is that Christians need to do what Christians have been doing for thousands of years, which is to take the time and effort to get to know people and on that basis try to assess the genuineness or otherwise of the religion they profess.

The final thing to note, however, is that Christians cannot move to the opposite extreme and refuse to take seriously people's desire to seek to become Christians. In the specific case of asylum seekers, it actually makes good sense that they might genuinely seek to convert to Christianity given that many of them will come from countries where religion is taken seriously and given that it is when they are at their most vulnerable that people will become aware of their need for God and will therefore become receptive to the Christian message.

Cynicism and undue credulity are therefore both inappropriate. Christians need to ignore the current criticism from sections of the press and from politicians and continue to do what they have always been called to do, to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:38) and to make disciples of people from all nations (Matthew 25:18). Of course, on occasion, they may be conned, but that is a risk they simply have to take.

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.