Saturday, July 26, 2014

In Praise of Divine Caprice (Jonah 3:1-10)

The act of personal repentance neutralizes the forces of our own dark past and opens a new way into the future.

     Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you." 
     Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day's journey into the city, proclaiming, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown." The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest, put on sackcloth.
     When Jonah's warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued to Nineveh:
     "By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from (God's) fierce anger so that we will not perish.."
     When God say what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring them the destruction he had threatened.
Jonah 3:1-10 HCSB


Do our detractors deserve mercy? Are those who pick on and bully sexual and gender diverse children worthy of a second chance? Should we extend forgiveness to the hyper-heterosexual coach, the school principal who turned a blind eye, the teacher who disappeared behind a closed door? Can we show mercy to the minister who proclaimed us vomit in God's mouth, the Sunday school teacher who rejected us, the congregation which condemned us to hell? Can tenderness be spoken to friends who continued the hateful tirade after we came out, to family members who abandoned us, to employers who sabotaged us? Do homophobes and hetersosexists deserve our mercy? 

By giving Jonah a second chance, God also invites Jonah to give the Ninevites a second chance. The Jewish scholar Chaim Lewis writes: "The Assyrians were the Nazi stormtroopers of the ancient world. They were a pitiless power-crazed foe. (U)prooting entire people in their fury for conquest. They extinguished the northern Kingdom of Israel to leave us only with a tender memory of the ... lost ten tribes. For Jonah Nineveh then was no ordinary city; it carried doomladen, tragic memories; it stood as a symbol of evil incarnate." Can the Assyrian's be forgiven for the cruelty of their self-serving foreign policy? Should they be forgiven? We are now caught in the central tension of the parable between the justice we want to befall the evil city and the mercy we hope God will offer Jonah. 

The charge against the city is that they have "violence in their hands." Reconciliation for Nineveh means coming to grips with their past of genocide and brutality and acknowledging their guilt at inflicting wounds on innocent lives. The only thing that can overcome a society rooted in violence is a reorientation from death and decay to life and respect for others - the repentance of the people. 

The quick repentance and reorientation of the Ninevites stands in contrast to the stubborn refusal of Jonah to deliver God's message: a manifestation of the tension of wanting justice brought to Nineveh and mercy to Jonah. Still, the idol-worshiping city attends the ways of God better then Jonah. As a result the Sacred acts mercifully toward the evil city. It seems the lesson - if such a thing exists in this parable - is that the act of personal repentance neutralizes the forces of our own dark past and opens a new way into the future.

Can we who have suffered - some more than others - the violence of anti-gay bigotry lay aside our wounds and indignation, step away from the tension of Jonah, and grasp the power of forgiveness? If we can, then should we? If we should, then will we?