Looking for Jonah

I saw this headline the other day, while scrolling through Facebook. Like so, so, so many things having to do with our President, it made me angry, it offended my sensibilities as an American, a Christian, and a human being, and most of all, it just made me sad.

But it also made me think about the story of Jonah.

Anyone who grew up in Sunday school knows the broad contours of the story. God tells Jonah to do something, Jonah disobeys and runs away from God, a big fish (maybe a whale?) swallows Jonah for three days, during which time Jonah decides he’s sorry for disobeying God, the fish spits him out and Jonah goes and does what we he was told.

In this version of Jonah, the story is all about obedience and disobedience, not just of God, but also of our parents, our teachers, or really, any authority figure. Obedience to authority is a pretty important value for most parents, and this seems like a tailor made tale for teaching such a lesson.

But, this is a really shallow way to read the story of Jonah. There is a lot more going on here. There are a lot of different lessons to learn from this little book, and a lot better contemporary issues to apply those lessons to than whether or not Johnny is listening when Mom tells him no cookies before dinner.

Like, for instance, American imperial hegemony in the Middle East.

Stick with me here.

Jonah is a story that is obliquely about imperial hegemony in the ancient Middle East; in this case, Assyria is the hegemon. God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, Assyria’s capital, to deliver a message of impending judgement and possible redemption to the Assyrians. And Jonah really, really doesn’t want to. Why is that? Because if you imagine Jonah being an American (and that’s a really problematic assumption we’ll return to), then the ancient Assyrians were like Iran, ISIS, or maybe more accurately, like imperial Japan. They had a mission of global conquest, and they were constantly attacking and invading ancient Israel. Over the course of a century, they invaded Israel at least three times, capturing the northern capital of Samaria, carrying it’s people off to captivity, and besieging Jerusalem.

So the Israelites really, really didn’t like the Assyrians. You can open to just about any pre-exilic prophet in the Old Testament and find some condemnation and judgement from God for Assyria.

So, imagine one day, you are chilling on your front porch with your dog and a some really good red wine, and then God goes:

“Hey, you, I want you to go to Tehran, and I want you to tell the Ayatollahs that I’m gonna destroy them.”

I imagine you’d be simultaneously like,

“Hey, great idea, God! Way to show those Iranians who is boss!”

and also “Wait, I can’t go to Tehran and do that, I’ll most definitely be arrested and thrown in an Iranian prison and I really don’t think that sounds great.”

And then God says, “Also, tell them if they repent of their violence, I’ll bless them and make a great nation of them,”

and now I imagine you aren’t thinking this sounds like a good idea at all.

You’d run away too, I imagine. Bless the Iranians? Or ISIS? Or imperial Japan? Make them a great nation? Not cool. They’ve all done some pretty terrible things, invaded places and beheaded people and made life pretty difficult for us. The destruction part sounds good, but the blessing, not so much.

But that’s the point. This story isn’t about obedience and disobedience (at least, not primarily.) Rather, this is a story about the universality of God’s redeeming love. As much as we want to think God’s love is mostly reserved for us good, church-going, tithe-paying Christians, it is simply not. God’s love, as we find in so many places in the Bible, cannot be contained or rationed. It extends to any and all people, no matter their transgressions, no matter their background or creed or problems. God showed love to tax collectors, to persecutors, to murderers, and even to Nineveh. So, chances are good that God also loves ayatollahs and jihadis and kamikaze bombers, just as much as he loves Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists.

And that’s some really good news for us Americans, too. Because we need it.

Remember above, when we imagined Jonah as an American and I said that was a problem and we’d come back to it? Well, we are coming back to it.

Because, as much as we want to read a story like Jonah and imagine ourselves the hero, the fact is, we really aren’t.

In fact, in this case, America is more like Assyria.

Jonah isn’t getting sent from Akron to Aleppo. Most likely, Jonah is getting sent from Jalalabad to Washington, to deliver a warning of destruction and opportunity for repentance to us. In America, we are the ones in need of God’s love and grace. 

And that brings me back to that headline. It’s really gross and disgusting to see an arena full of self-proclaimed followers of the Prince of Peace cheering wildly at the idea of bombing the very part of the world that Prince hailed from. It’s also nothing new; America Christians were the biggest, most fervent supporters of an unprovoked war in Iraq, for death-dealing forays into Central America in the 80s, for the ill-fated effort to combat communism in Vietnam. This news item is only the most recent, and most blatant, example of the American-Christian war machine. And it is so blatant this time because we’ve been taught and conditioned for so long to associate the glory of Christianity with the success of American imperial power.

News flash: that’s not the Gospel. That’s kind of the anti-Gospel.

So, in the book of Jonah, we don’t get to play the part of Jonah. Instead, we are imperial Assyria, conquering Israel and carrying the people off and besieging their capital. We are the ones God’s anger is kindled against, the ones in danger of destruction, the ones in need of redemption.

In the book of Jonah, the Assyrians hear Jonah’s message. They repent. They wear sackcloth and cry out to God and are saved. They shelf their imperial arrogance and hubris, admit that being the biggest, most powerful country on earth, with the biggest, baddest military and the most money and the biggest egos hasn’t served them very well.

Let’s hope our Jonah shows up soon. Let’s hope we pay attention.

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6 thoughts on “Looking for Jonah

  1. Or you could view the response of those Christians as applauding the president for using a measured attack (the bombing of a single air base) to stand up against an evil act (a ruler using chemical weapons on his own people).

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    1. I understand where you are coming from. But even in the case of a just use of violence, I think as Christians, our proper response is an attitude of solemnity and sadness that violence must be used. Wildly cheering of brags about “bombing the Middle East” are pretty gross.

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    1. That’s a whole different issue. But I would hope, if we do have to use force, that we wouldn’t do it with an attitude of triviality and glee, but instead, understanding the solemnity and gravity of that kind of action. And this really gets at the line the church has to walk: between a Niebuhrian Christian realism, that embraces just war and state action, and more Anabaptist-style pacifism and prophetic critique. I plan on writing about this more in the future.

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  2. Pingback: America First, God Second? – Justin DaMetz

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