Thursday, July 31, 2014

Haters (Jonah 3:10-4:3)

Should we forgive God for not hating the same people we hate?

    When God saw what (the Ninevites) did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring them the destruction he had threatened. 
     But Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious. He prayed to the Lord: "Please, Lord, isn't this what I said while I was still in my own country? That's why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster. And now, Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Jonah 3:10-4:3 HCSB

Angry Jonah

The root of Jonah's anger is an inability to forgive God for not hating the same people Jonah hates. Jonah's point is good: justice demands retribution on those that liquidated ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. But God did not choose justice by retribution. God chose forgiveness, that is justice by reconciliation. Here's the knot: Jonah believes retribution is the higher value, God believes reconciliation is the higher value. We discover that God is the one who is willing to take the risk and break the rules of tit-for-tat retaliation. God smashes they cycle of retribution by introducing into human communities all that God is: gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishment. It is little wonder that Jonah leaves the city, the arena of God's mercy and tenderness. East of Nineveh Jonah sulks for life has been chosen over destruction.

The Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, shares his story of being in a concentration camp. While there he was taken to visit a severely wounded young German SS officer. The officer, within hours of death, wanted to confess his mistreatment of Jews and his entanglement in the policies of the Nazis. When the officer asked for Wiesenthal's forgiveness, Wiesenthal got up and walked out of the room. Wiesenthal wrote about this incident in his memoir The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, asking the question, did he do the right thing?

Subsequent editions of the book included responses from leading thinkers around the world. The majority responded that they would not have forgiven the SS officer and the officer had no right to expect such forgiveness. Some pointed out that bitter resentment helps victims hold onto a sense of self-worth and resist future attacks. The renowned Catholic priest John Pawlikowski stated that Wiesenthal was correct in not administering "cheap grace" to the dying soldier. Jewish author Dennis Prager maintains that while God may forgive a murderer, living people cannot for the only person empowered to forgive the killer is dead. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and minister of armaments, wrote that he can never forgive himself, nor can anyone else remove his guilt. 

A minority responded yes, they would forgive. The Dalai Lama noted that one should forgive those who harm us, but one shouldn't forget the harm in order for future safe guards to be developed. Dith Pran, victim of the Khmer Rouge, wrote that he could not forgive Hitler and his cronies. Yet, he could understand and, therefore, forgive the soldiers, ordinary men and boys, who were brainwashed into committing the actual atrocities. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame declared that he would forgive "because God forgives."

Among those that provided an ambiguous "yes, but" response is Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner acknowledges that in the Jewish tradition Wiesenthal had neither the power nor the right to forgive the German soldier. In general, however, Rabbi Kushner recommends forgiveness because continued resentment causes too much harm to the victim.

In another setting the Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner wrote: "Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back - in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback, " say Buechner, "is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you." 

Which returns us to our haunting questions: 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? Should we forgive God for not hating the same people we hate?

How do you answer?

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? 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Our Own Sacred Identity (Jonah 1:17-2:2, 10)

Now the Lord had appointed a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the fish three days and three nights.
   Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish:
   "I called to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me.
   I cried out for help in the belly of Sheol (land of the dead);
   You heard my voice…

Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah 1:17-2:2, 10

Says Pieper of his artwork, "I created this three dimensional encaustic/mixed media piece to spotlight God's love for all humankind…" Jonah's perplexity is that of a person who cannot forgive and therefore rejects the God of mercy and forgiveness. As a consequence of this rejection Jonah devolves from a child of God into a tortuous creature of revenge and retribution.

Scholars are eager to note that the verb "to swallow up" never has a positive connotation in the Hebrew Scriptures. Pharaoh and his chariots were swallowed up by the waters of the Reed Sea (Ex. 15:12) and the rebellious Korah was swallowed up by the earth (Nu. 16:28-34). The threat of being swallowed up is always a possibility for those who self-identify as a sexual minority (or for any minority group). The pressure to "confirm" to sexual expectations has included legal, social, and religious sanctions. This is nothing new for those who are forced to deny our inner compass and to see ourselves as something less than whole.

Yet this swallowing into oblivion is not what Jonah's story points us to. Jonah's swallowing is transformational. The literary critic Janet Howe Gaines notes, "The fish is … awesome but not horrific. It represents our internal struggles, our daily battles that we are capable of overcoming." Gaines' insight helps us understand that the fish does not annihilate the prophet, but rather serves as a holy place where the prophet is reestablished. 

To be reestablished Jonah surrenders an extremely valuable commodity - his wounds and his righteous indignation. Many of us can talk of the wounds we receive because we are queer. Everyone has a story of their journey. Sometimes this story becomes so strong that we begin to identify ourselves not by our skills or passions or loves, but by our wounds. We encrust ourselves in the scabs that we, in part, will not let heal, for we pick them afresh each day. 

The heart of Jonah's prayer is verse 7: "As my life was ebbing away / I remembered Our God / and my prayer came to you / in your holy temple." What is being alluded to is what the anthropologist and philosopher Madronna Holden has noted - what determines the outcome of our lives is not our physical power, but our spiritual alliance. Jonah's story at this junction implies that the path to wholeness/reestablishment leads us into the belly of our own beasts so we may discover, or rediscover, our own sacred and God-given identity. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Naked In Public (Jonah 1:4-12)

     Then the Lord hurled a violent wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break apart. The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his god. They threw the ship's cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep.
     The captain approached him and said, "What are our doing sound asleep? Get up! Call to your god. Maybe this god will consider us, and we won't perish."
     "Come on!" the sailors said to each other. "Let's cast lots. Then we'll know who is to blame for this trouble we're in." So they cast lots, and the lot singled out Jonah. Then they said to him, "Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we're in. What is our business and where are you from? What is your country and what people are you from?
     He answered them, "I'm a Hebrew. I worship Adoniah, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land."
     Then the men were even more afraid and said to him, "What is this you've done?" The men knew he was fleeing from the Lord's presence, because he had told them. So they said to him,"What should we do to you to calm this sea that's against us?" For the sea was getting worse and worse.
     He answered them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea so it may quiet down for you, for I know that I'm to blame for this violent storm that is against you."   
Jonah 1:4-12 HCSB

The American Jewish literary scholar, Janet Howe Gaines says, "The book of Jonah is a gateway to solving the perplexing dilemma of how to forgive our enemies." With Gaines' insight on the theme of Jonah we begin to understand that the request to forgive shakes us out of our status quo and into a new challenge and undertaking. 

At this early point in the narrative Jonah has chosen to refuse the request to forgive. Instead he has made the choice to hang onto his anger, jealousy, and hatred. He will not forgive the Assyrians for their liquidation of the ten northern tribes of Israel. And why should he? They have neither shown contrition nor asked for reconciliation. It is only the Sacred that seeks to grant what has not been sought after by these perpetrators of degradation and death. Even by our standards today, Jonah has every right to wish his foes ill and work for their undoing.

Part of the "perplexing dilemma" is that by holding onto his sense of righteous outrage Jonah denys who he is. With the storm threatening to sink the ship he finally speaks up and says, "I'm a Hebrew. I worship Adoniah, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land." Which is Hebrew Scripture speak for "I am connected to the source of life." Even then, he holds back his identity as a prophet of God. 

Jonah's determination to run from who he is and to suppress his self-identity has made its way into modern psychology parlance as the Jonah Complex or Jonah Syndrome. Abraham Maslow defines the complex as a fear of success which prevents self-actualization and the realization of our potential. The complex is aroused by the dread of taking on the responsibility that attends self-understanding. Maslow believes that knowing ourselves might force us to make fundamental, unwanted changes in the way we view our lives. It is like being stripped naked in public, but instead of fearing the faults in our bodies, we fear the intensity of our beauty.

There is a correlation here between Jonah's perplexing dilemma and the lives of queer folk. To name ourselves as "queer" or some other term within sexual and gender diversity is also to take on the responsibility which attends this naming. Once we name ourselves publicly we open our lives up to the full onslaught of the queer experience from hate and rejection to love and acceptance and all the nuances in between while still to negotiating the experiences common to all humanity. 

Here's the enigma: until Jonah owns up to who he is and what he can accomplish then his life, the life of the crew, and by implications the lives of all those in Nineveh are in jeopardy. Honesty in this story is rewarded. For queer folk it is often honesty around our sexual orientation which leads us into jeopardy, not away from it. Hence like Jonah we may be tempted to bury deep down our core self-understanding. 

Jonah owns up to who he is, yet still seeks to keep distant from the responsibility that attends his self-understanding. Without a connection to his core being, and the God who placed that core within him, Jonah is doomed. The passage ends with Jonah's body slipping beneath the waves, plunging into the abyss.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Nothing Runs Like a Queer (Jonah 1:1-3)

     The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their wickedness has confronted Me." However, Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the Lord's presence. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, from the Lord's presence.
Jonah 1:1-3 (HCSB)

Exploring the image above we can begin to dissect hatred toward those who are sexually or gender diverse. The queer (I am assuming a male) is portrayed in stylized stereotype with limp wrists, a more effeminate prancing, and clothes that are form fitting. His head is turned to those who are chasing him. Apparently only queers run in this fashion - that is the sting of the tag line. For those outside the US this image is a parody of a well known farm and lawn equipment manufacturer whose tag line is "Nothing runs like a John Deere."

Those chasing the queer are more masculine looking. Their clothes look more acceptable, even jean like, their bodies a bit more muscular, their shoes present as more sturdy. Most importantly they carry weapons - apparently a viral male is never without a weapon. The image also heightens another quality of homophobia - the straight boys are numerous while the queer is solitary. 

The image is inflammatory. It provokes homophobic anger by promoting that might and right are on the side of anti-gay attitudes. It also promotes a sense of isolation for the queer youth who might be looking for community with other sexually and gender diverse persons. It builds on stereotypes between the feminine and the masculine indicating that queers are less than or other than because "nothing" runs like a queer. The image is demeaning and seeks to rob les-bi-trans-gay-asexual-intersexed-queer identifying persons of our dignity and humanity. 

This is the horn of the dilemma for Jonah. As a prophet of the God of Israel he is called upon to "cry against" the city of Nineveh - the dark heart of the Assyrian Empire. But he does not. Instead he seeks to run in the opposite direction to the other end of the world. Tarshish was a settlement in what is now the cost of Spain, the last known town before entering the Atlantic Ocean and the end of the world. Jonah's actions leaves us a little perplexed. God is ready to condemn Nineveh. It seems that Jonah would jump on the bandwagon even as we would jump at the chance to condemn whomever produced the image above. So why did he run?

Jonah's motivation comes to light toward the end of his story. After waiting on God to make good on the edict of judgement, Jonah cries out: "O God! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshis 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" (4:2). Jonah's concern is that to speak God's protest against Nineveh is also to invoke God's grace and forgiveness should Nineveh heed the protest. 

To forgive someone the wrongs they have done to us is to restore that person to community, whether that community be a family, a circle of friends, or the relationship between you and the person. Forgiveness also requires that the one forgiving relinquish the desire of revenge and risk the chance that the perpetrator will get away without being held accountable for his/her actions. These are high stakes not only for God's prophet but also for us. 

There is more to Jonah's story, but let us pause here. Are we who are "faggots" and "dykes" and "trannies" and allies willing to pay the price of restoring our detractors to community? Can we, or more personal, can I forgive the person who developed the tag line "nothing runs like a queer"?