Wednesday Scripture - Jonah 3: 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
On Sunday I suggested that the story of Jonah challenges us to not only accept the challenge of interpersonal forgiveness ( a challenging enough task for sure) but also to accept the role of reconciling and creating peace on a larger scale. In Sunday's story, God is creating a situation in which Israel and Assyria can move toward reconciliation after a time of great conflict and cruel exploitation. In Jesus's life, we often see Jesus among the Samaritans and even at times the Romans. The book of Acts has the early church as a place where jews and gentiles formed a community, and where disciples were sent far from home to make community among a great variety of people. Philip is sent to an Ethiopian (eunuch) and Peter is challenged to have dinner with a Roman centurion and his family. Paul will do the same thing and finally proclaim that in Jesus 'there is no longer any jew nor greek, slave nor free, male for female.' New communities are being created in all these stories, among vastly different people.
I ran across a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while reading the other day. King said, 'If physical death is the price I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive, (quoted in James Cone, 'The Cross and the Lynching Tree.') I'm hesitant to say much about this. After all, it feels fraught with danger. Not only the danger to his life, which is what Dr. King is reflecting on. But also the danger to exploited and oppressed communities. The possibility of triggering further pain. The possibility that the oppressor will continue on in blissful irresponsibility while the oppressed continue to carry the weight, not only of suffering but healing? Why should it be their duty to offer redemption to their oppressors? This is surely what Jonah is struggling with. Why should it be his responsibility to offer a second chance to Assyria?
These are important questions and issues that must not be rushed past. But we have little space in our devotional to unpack it all. But I also wonder if Jonah's crying out and Jesus's lesson on turning the other cheek do not offer some wisdom to these questions. Jesus's insistence that the oppressed and abused turn the other cheek is too often interpreted as inaction, as a weak and defeated acceptance of their fate. But that isn't what Jesus is suggesting. To turn the other cheek, many have commented including N.T. Wright is to stand with dignity demanding respect. It is a confrontation of abuse and oppression that both brings attention to injustice and further is a refusal of the abused to become the abuser and oppressed to become the oppressor. Dr. King called it 'Soul Force,' influenced not only by Jesus but the teaching and actions of Gandhi. It is natural to respond with an eye for eye, anger for anger, cruelty for cruelty. But this, Jesus, teaches time and again, is a death spiral. The system of oppression is not interrupted or changed. Anger, fear, violence, simply gains power and force as more and more people are drawn into them. As for Jonah, he does get to cry out. Ninevah is not left insulated from the anger and pain that they have caused to Israel. Jonah confronts them with it. And that is important. Reconciliation is a complex process where the oppressed, who are ignored and silenced, are given a chance to be heard, their perspective honored and dignified.
Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5, 'From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation...' Jonah reminds us of the complexity of such things. In Jonah we experience God's insistence that we become a community engaged in the complex but vital work of reconciliation, insisting on dignity for all the Jonah's and mercy for the Ninevah's. But Jonah's vocal resistance reminds us to be prayerful and thoughtful in this reconciliation, that we not further silence the Jonah's in our rush to a new community of grace.