Jonah’s avoidant deathwish: an unsatisfied sense of justice and inability to take yes for an answer

I’ve been enjoying spending time with biblical narratives this season. In preparing to get our church exploring the Jonah story (Omni-megashambles audio here) a whole bunch of other stuff has been coming up for me that didn’t fit into the talk about anger; Jonah’s apparent obsession with his own demise, his inability to say yes, and what to do when God seemingly violates his sense of justice. If you’re not familiar with the four short chapters, you may want to refresh yourself here. I’m exploring some of my internal processes here – mostly trying to let God into my unwashed instincts. I apologize if this reads as overly candid or self effacing, Jesus has been active in my healing process so I don’t mind sharing some of my immature instincts as they are going somewhere healthier.

Why does Jonah run from God’s direction? Seemingly Ninvevah, which may have been the largest city in the world at the time, was the seat of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. They were a threat, and would soon invade Jonah’s homeland – the Northern Kingdom of Israel. To go there to get them to repent from their prideful warlike ways was to fail (Jonah dies) or to succeed (a threatening enemy gets wiped out). If the options of following God’s direction are “death or death” you can probably sympathize with fleeing your calling.

In the last chapter, however, Jonah says he fled because he knew God was compassionate and would spare the city (and animals) from destruction. Was he coming up against his ability to take yes for an answer? Would a person or a regional power be so unable to change?

What’s up with Jonah’s death wish? His reaction to God’s compassion at Ninevah’s repentance is kind of shocking. He wants to die. Then there is too much sun on his head and he wants to die. During the storm on the boat, he wanted the sailors to throw him overboard- which could have been a heroic attempt at cleaning up the mess he made, but could have been further avoidance.

I can imagine his heart being hard toward his enemies. It might seem to you like Klingon honor or

Note the Klingon Jedi on the left!

something, but to desire suffering (or even death) rather than to see God move the hearts of others into restoration and harmony is pretty tiny. And it totally resonates with the tiny parts of me.

And when God violates my sense of justice I’m not thrilled right away. Loving my enemies (recent post by Rod on the topic) has been hard every time. Even though I may say I want them to repent, my wounds tell me there shouldn’t be reconciliation or harmony again – at least not for a while. I’m talking more about conflict with my intimates with friends but it’s also kind of like that with neighbors and kings and such. My spirituality or process of transformation includes allowing Jesus to hold those wounds with me and to try to move with Jesus who restores harmony.

I’m an ENFJ on the MBTI, and my “J” while not as strong as it used to be in its need for judging/justice still can dominate. I think I know what justice is – and God’s Shalom is often too big for me to fit into my category so I feel the violation. The offender needs to be sorry, change, and then I’ll consider what it might mean for me in the future.

Mt. Huashan (China). Be careful.

One of the deadliest missteps of people in the church during a dangerous situation is to hold on to the hurt (or anger in Jonah’s case) and avoid participation in the Redemption Project. Our woundedness often provides an unfortunate sense of moral superiority over others. I hear God loud and clear expanding my concern and compassion beyond my own business. At the end of chapter 4, when Jonah is losing his mind over the sun shining on his head again and God says…

“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

When God said poop: prophetic theater and suffering through our collective sins

I’m not totally sure how I got on an Ezekiel kick, but I’m on one. While talking to a couple of cool pastors the other day at the Urban Anabaptist Ministry Symposium in Philadelphia we got on the topic. They told me that they stick to Ezekiel’s “greatest hit” – the Valley of Dry Bones. The other week I dipped into this prophet while going through the story about the destruction of the cities Sodom & Gomorrah. God, through Ezekiel explains the sin of Sodom was that “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” If there ever was an Old Testament prophet with a one-hit wonder for pastors – it’s Ezekiel with Valley of the Dry Bones and its “B-side” about Sodom.

The prophet Ezekiel

Since got into chapter 4 the other week, I haven’t been able to leave it alone. The big WOW is after God explained that he was to suffer for the collective sins of the covenant people through a 390 then 40 day session of laying on the ground while eating meager food & water and “playing dolls” version of a siege playset. “Eat the food as you would a loaf of barley bread; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.” That’s pretty amazing. God says poop.

We could act like four year olds and stop there, but then we would miss out what is happening in the longer arc. Ezekiel, beginning his prophetic ministry in his early 30s is both re-enacting the sins of God’s covenant people and showing the future destruction of the city while he and his 2,999 other Jewish elites are in Babylonian exile. Through a very colorful display, God is trying to get his covenant people to deal with their collective sin – turning away from God as their king, moving out of being one people, and losing hope about their future. I think this is an engaging liturgical theater rife with politics, certainly causing problems but useful to God’s cause of restoring the covenant people back to the path of God’s harmony. Then comes a lot more preparation before the more popular word about Sodom and finally the dead dead dead things being made alive again.

I can’t help but wonder what God might be calling the covenant people in Jesus to do about our

One artist’s rendition of what Columbus Day is really celebrating

collective sins in North America. For starters, I’m concerned with the systems that benefit a small group to the exclusion of many trough the land theft/abuse and genocide of the people God made a covenant with about taking care of this land thousands of years ago and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and generations of rape and forced unfree labor of Africans. How long will our sisters and brothers in Christ shrug off dealing with this set of unreconciled brokenness with “you still talking about that?” “shouldn’t you just get over it?” or “it’s really not racial injustice any more – it’s really a class issue.”

I don’t think Jesus is laying more guilt trips, I think Jesus is empowering us to do something substantive about it. Through the work of the Creator of the universe, we are capable of experiencing a oneness with God/creation/one another that unravels these systems and forms a healing balm to the atrocities bringing us back to Shalom. Our question is less about whether we have the responsibility to deal with our collective sins. Our question has more to do with what we’ll do with our Spirit-filled imagination in the restoration of God’s Shalom.

Theatrics have been part of good protests as well as worship for a long time. I don’t have a high tolerance for regular worship to be overly theatrical, but I do love the occasional Christ-centered demonstration. Can using some symbolic acts – even costumes – help make a deeper point to people who might not otherwise pay attention or be interested?

I think for many of us, like Ezekiel, the process will include suffering – but not as much as those who already suffered. If we use our prophetic imaginations, at least the suffering will be productive and the theater fun. Since around two billion people use dung for fuel (including our boy Ezekiel) can we not also use the proverbial excrement of life (our collective sins, personal failures,  etc) to fuel the daily bread of change?