My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 2: The God of my Enemies

jonahvtI don’t have a specific verse or set of verses today. Instead, I commend to you the entire book of Jonah.

Jonah is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. We all know it, heard it growing up. I am particularly fond of the Veggie Tales film Jonah. Those are some catchy songs.

But it’s what comes at the end of Jonah that I love. After being called by God and running, after being thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish and spit out on dry land, after a long and arduous journey across the desert of Syria to the enemy city of Nineveh, Jonah delivers his message to the Assyrians: repent, or perish at the hand of Israel’s God.

Message successfully delivered, Jonah leaves Nineveh, and camps out on a nearby hill to watch God rain down holy fire on the unrepentant barbarians. Why shouldn’t he enjoy a good show and well-deserved comeuppance for his enemies after everything he’s been through? And what a satisfying show it will be! Nineveh, after all, is the capitol of Assyria, Israel’s worst enemy, who had threatened them and attacked them and made their lives generally miserable. Finally, Jonah thought, justice will be served! God will save God’s people, by killing these others!

Only, it never happens. The king of Nineveh repents, and decrees a fast in the whole city, in order to appease God and avert destruction. God relents. The people of Nineveh, God’s very own children, are saved.

Jonah is pissed. Not only because Nineveh was saved, but because he knew this would happen. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah knew God would spare Israel’s greatest enemy, and he can’t stand it. He wanted justice. He wanted the very people who plagued Israel, who destroyed their land, to be wiped from the earth.

And instead, he got a God of mercy, and compassion, and love. He got a God who is not just his God, not just his people’s God, not merely a divine strongman protecting just the Israelites. He got a God of all people. A God who protects God’s own, be they Israeli or Assyrian or Greek or Roman.

I love this story, because it reminds me today that God is the God of America, of Christians, of the West. God is the God of all. God does not support our side against theirs. God does not ride into battle with us, to protect us and avenge us. God instead stands with all of humanity, on both sides, no matter the wrongs committed by either side. God’s justice is bigger than our justice. God’s mercy is more bountiful than our mercy. Indeed, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah reminds me that, when my country gets into a war fever, or descends into tribalism, that God does not condone such things. God loves all of humanity, be they American, Israeli, British, Palestinian, Iranian, Mexican, Chinese, Russian, French – all of us.

And if we expect God to vanquish our enemies, well, we will be very surprised to find that our God is not just our God, but is the God of our enemies as well.


The Immanence of God

For a long time, I’ve seen God as a transcendent presence in the universe. I assumed God to be outside of our present reality, as a distant observer. I wrote about this in a post a couple of years ago, wrestling with deism and using the Clockmaker metaphor for my understanding of God.

But this conception of the Divine has never set totally well with me. Something seemed to be off about it, about a distant God. Because I have also always believed in the idea of God as in all things, in all of us and all of Creation. But I could never reconcile these two competing ideas.

immanenceRecently, that has all begun to change. It began with my reading of The Divine Relativity by Charles Hartsthorne. This work, a seminal text in the canon of process theology, posits God not as wholly supreme and dominant, but as relative and personal. Hartsthorne’s conception of God is one defined by its relation to Creation, and to us. God is not an omnipotent king, looking over the world with perfect foreknowledge and control over our actions, completely absolute and thus unable to be affected by us. Instead, God grows and changes in relation to us, based on our own actions. Now, this necessarily implies some sense of limitation on God, but that is an acceptable thought if you think of God choosing to limit God’s self in order to more perfectly be in communion with us.

Although the text was dense and highly academic, I really feel drawn to this conception of God. This still doesn’t mean I believe in a God who works active miracles and changes in the world; Harthsthorne thoroughly dismantles this idea as tyrannical and illogical, which I completely agree with. However, I do think God is relatable, and is affected by our ability to act and interact with the Divine Being.

My thoughts of this have continued to expand on this subject recently as a result of Richard Beck’s series on immanence and transcendence over at Experimental Theology. Beck dismantles the idea of a wholly transcendent God and really sums out my feelings:

The irony of transcendence, often celebrated in praise music as the “awesomeness” of God, is how it tends toward disenchantment. With God exalted as King ruling over and above creation, God is subtly pulled out of creation. Rather than indwelling God evacuates creation.

Transcendence also tends toward deism, furthering our disenchantment. When transcendence is emphasized, highlighting God’s separateness and Otherness from creation, God’s actions in the world are conceptualized as intrusions, miraculous suspensions of the daily flux of cause and effect. But as science has progressed these miraculous intrusions are harder to believe in. And when you starting doubting the miracles of the transcendent God you, by default, find yourself in deism. A God who is out there, somewhere, but a God who doesn’t miraculously intrude upon creation.


Transcendence + Doubt (mainly in miracles) = Deism

I love this. This is exactly the dissonance and problem I’ve been struggling with in my understanding of God. And in his next post, Beck provides an answer to this problem: immanence. Or as he calls it here, a sacramental ontology:

In a sacramental ontology there is an overlap between God and creation–an intermingling of the earthly and the heavenly, the human and the divine, the mundane and the holy, the secular and the sacred, the natural and supernatural, the material and the spiritual.

With a sacramental ontology the world is “haunted” by God continuously from the insiderather than through episodic and miraculous intrusions from the outside. Creation itself, because it is “charged with the grandeur of God,” is miraculous, sacred and holy. Creation is an ongoing and unfolding miracle rather than a disenchanted machine occasionally interrupted–if God answers our prayers–by an external miraculous force.

To rethink a famous metaphor, creation isn’t a mechanism, a watch separate from the Watchmaker. Creation isn’t a machine. Creation is alive.

God exists in all things; not in the sense that all things are God, but in the sense that God is all-enveloping. Hartsthorne makes this distinction by replacing the term pantheism (all things are God) with panentheism (all things are in God.) God is not separate or distant; God is near, one with us and all of creation. God is personal and loving, not impersonal and dominant.

I’m still working this out in my personal theology, and how it affects everything. But I do know this: it reaffirms my commitments to liberation theology, universalism, social justice and environmental justice. It adds a layer of depth and sacredness to all Creation and all human beings. Sacred worth is all around us; we must do our best to preserve it where it is and revive it where it is fading. The Immanence of God deserves no less.