The main thing that I remember learning about St. Paul when I was young is that he once persecuted Christians, had a moment of conversion, and went on to spread the Church. Considering Paul's conversion in the reading for today, however, I wonder if we are too easy on ourselves in this account. Do we look at this story and say, "He hated our way, then came to his senses and realized that we are right"? Or do we recognize the challenge that this story presents to us, especially in our own moments of righteous certitude? Do we dare to realize that it was God's way, not our own, that Saul hated?
Before his conversion, Saul is not setting out to make the world a worse place. He describes himself as having been "zealous for God" and says that he "persecuted this Way to death." Saul was a man of conviction, a man believing that he was on a righteous mission. And, in that sense of righteousness, he became blind to the ways of God - ways of love and not fear, ways of creation and not destruction.
In traveling to Damascus to punish those of whom he disapproved, he encounters Jesus. What strikes me about this encounter is that Jesus, whom Paul had never met, does not ask him, "Why are you persecuting Christians?" but rather, "Why are you persecuting me?" As Christians, we are taught to believe that Christ is present in our brothers and sisters, and that our brothers and sisters are all people. The question that we have to ask ourselves is, "If Saul had been persecuting others besides Christians, would he still have been persecuting Christ?"
This is the challenge laid out before us today. We see where the Kingdom of God is not breaking through, and many of us feel called to defend certain members of our human family. We may feel called in a particular way to defend the poor, the ill, the unborn, the victim of abuse, the victim of war, the homeless in the US, the migrant, the trafficked and exploited, or those living in struggling countries and communities across the globe. As Christians, we understand that all of these people ought to be treated as brothers and sisters according to Christ.
The harder truth to embrace is that only the Way of God can enact the will of God. And the Way of God is love. If we persecute those that oppress, if we commit violence in action, word, or thought against those that we see as rejecting God's will, then we reject God's will ourselves. We begin to focus on our own mission, a mission of tearing down enemies, whom Jesus told us to love. Like Saul, we often find ourselves on a road to Damascus - a road of self-righteousness rather than righteousness, a road of destruction rather than creation, of division rather than unity. Like Paul, we need to regain our sight and see Him, especially in those we find it most difficult to love.