Thursday Scripture - Jonah 3:6 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
It is tempting to read the story of Jonah from the perspective of Jonah. By that I mean, we imagine ourselves to be like Jonah. But as I said on Sunday, we also need to entertain the idea, uncomfortable as it may be, that there is wisdom for us in this story when we accept the challenge of reading it as the Assyrians. After all, as the majority of us (at Berean Baptist Church) are of European heritage, we are the privileged in American history and in the world today. This isn't to deny that we too have struggled, face challenges, some still struggling to make ends meet. But compared to the rest of the world we are well off. And there is no way to deny that in our nation we have benefited from the process of racialization while others have suffered.
In large part, the story of Jonah teaches us about reconciliation from above by the example of the King. When he hears Jonah's testimony, he does not deny, dismiss or ignore. His immediate response is to listen to the truth, however, uncomfortable about the actions of his nation and its horrible impact on the life of Israel. We began to rehearse that on Sunday by recalling white American history of lynching and the burning of black churches. And we confronted the fact that it isn't just history. Although blessedly less common, these cruel and violent acts continue. In so doing, we enter the belly of the whale. We inhabit, even for a moment, the darkness of our history and our story. If we question how history has impact on us today, let's remember that the church burning in Mississippi from this week is now official being labeled 'voter intimidation.' Decades of voter suppression, intimidation, and exclusion, as well as the stress of violence or its threat, do not disappear quickly. We dare not dismiss this history because we are living it today. It cannot be denied. It is tempting to dismiss, if not the history, then its continued influence on the present day. The King offers an example by not dismissing Jonah's testimony. Let's remember both that Jonah cried out to God while in his belly of despair and was rescued. Let's also remember the metaphor of the pottery. While it may be shattered, it can still be reformed. I say this not so that we can rush past and out of the discomfort of our privilege, but so that we can confront and acknowledge it with the courage of knowing we are being loved and shaped while in the whale's belly.
Second, the King sits in sackcloth and ashes. In other words, he doesn't just listen, he responds, he acts. Sackcloth is particularly itchy and uncomfortable. It is a ritual in which the pain one has caused is taken upon one's self. It is an acknowledgment of pain and that the pain of others effect's 'me.' Ashes are a symbolic representation of being unclean. In a sense, they are a way of saying, 'I've made a mess for you, and now I have to experience that mess myself.' The King places himself in the experience of Jonah and Israel and does so in a real way. Yes, it is symbolic. But he takes action as opposed to simply acknowledging the pain and distortion of life conceptually. There is, symbolically, a connection made between Jonah and the King, Assyria, and Israel. In attempting to practice reconciliation from a place of privilege, it is important for the privileged to work to establish a connection.
Today's devotional consideration of the King of Assyria helps us to image what confession and repentance look like in real life. Confession is not merely a church ritual. It is a way of living in a community or maintaining healthy relationships by admitting when we have wronged another. Repentance, much the same, is more than an apology. It is the difficult but important work of creating a new way of being in a relationship with others, a way that is healing and wholesome. Today's devotion shapes us by encouraging us to think about confession and repentance as ways in which to create and maintain healthy personal and communal relationships. Neither are about shame and guilt as such, but instead about accepting the gift of grace and imagining a new way of being a community together.