Rereading Jonah

“Jonah and the Whale” by Pieter Lastman, 1621

Jonah is an asparagus – at least according to the popular 2002 Christian film, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie. Moviegoers were introduced to a Jonah that proclaimed God’s word: specifically, “to play nice, do good, and to wash their hands.” However, when God told Jonah the asparagus to go to the city of Nineveh, a dirty city characterized by vegetables that slap each other across the face with raw fish, Jonah ran in the opposite direction. He wanted nothing to do with a people that participated in such filthy habits. Although Jonah wanted to see them pulverized, the prophet Jonah, along with moviegoers, learned the important message of the story of Jonah: “God gives second chances.”

With presentations like this, is it any wonder that many consider Jonah to be some type of fairy tale? After all, wasn’t Pinocchio also swallowed by a whale? Reducing Jonah to a child’s story that emphasizes the whale incident does a disservice to the rich message found within this biblical text, a message especially relevant to those on the margins of the dominant culture. Yet, surprisingly, few religious scholars of color have spent much time considering the text of Jonah. For me, the text provides insight into a question with which the oppressed of the earth must wrestle, lest they end up being as spiritually deaf as their oppressors. Like Jonah, they must ask: How can we relate to those who bring subjugation, misery, and death to our people, our loved ones, and ourselves? Jonah’s response was to seek revenge through what ethicists call retributive justice, the approach of “an eye for an eye.” Jonah, along with many others, failed to recognize the important biblical message of God’s challenging call for reconciliation. This call may be as distasteful to people today, especially the marginalized, as it was to the prophet Jonah.

Could the Jewish mother who witnessed her son sadistically tortured by the Assyrian armies offer forgiveness, even if the Assyrians did not ask for it? Could the hungry Jewish girl who turned to prostitution because she was orphaned by the Assyrian invasion break bread in peace with those responsible? Can the consequences of oppression ever be remedied? After all, how can the marginalized come together with those who see no need, or have little desire for reconciliation? What motivation exists for those with privilege to create a more just situation, a situation that would require forsaking their power? Is God asking something from the marginalized, as God asked something of Jonah?

At the beginning, it is crucial to define “reconciliation” and to determine who should do the defining. It is important to recognize that those who benefit from the present power structures cannot be relied upon to define reconciliation, or to determine how to go about achieving it. Embedded within the social structures that have endowed them with power and privilege at the expense of the marginalized, those “at the top” cannot remain neutral about the nature of domination and oppression. Because their social location legitimizes unjust social structures as normative, members of the dominant culture are usually unable to be objective about the reality of their privileged positions.

Reconciliation is not difficult to define in a general way. Reconciliation usually connotes congruency or harmony. It is often used in managing personal finances: “I need to reconcile my bank statement.” Reconciliation in this sense is understood as the process of checking one financial account against another to ensure accuracy. The term is also used in connection with interpersonal conflicts; for example, “My wife and I are attempting reconciliation with a marriage counselor.” In either case, reconciliation is understood as restoring harmony to a situation that is disjointed or in conflict.

But how can we restore congruency to a situation that never, at least in our lifetimes, experienced harmony? In such a case, reconciliation defined solely as an act of restoring a lost quality is insufficient. Rather than a process of restoration, reconciliation must be understood as a process of arriving at a new state of being, one perhaps that neither party has ever experienced. As a human process, reconciliation is then focused on becoming something new instead of achieving a congenial environment. And this new state of being through reconciliation can be called salvation.

When the Pharisees sought to trap Jesus by asking him to name the greatest commandment of the Law for humans, Jesus responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind. This is the first and great commandment; the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. In these two commandments all the Laws and the Prophets hang (Mt. 22:37-40).” Jesus made it clear that these two commandments are interconnected and cannot be separated. To be faithful to one requires obedience to both. Simply stated, one cannot love God while hating one’s neighbor. As the first letter of John reminds us, “Anyone stating to be in the light, yet hating [another] is still in darkness. The one loving [the other] rests in the light, and no offense is in them” (2:9-10).

If salvation is manifested as love for both our God and our neighbor, and if a tree is known by its fruits, then those who dominate or oppress others – in the U.S. most often members of the dominant Eurocentric culture – are falling short because they “do not love their neighbors (specifically their neighbors of color or a lower socio-economic class) as themselves.” Domination by members of a Euroamerican culture has created a history marked by the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and dispossession of Hispanics throughout the Western Hemisphere. And this history thrives today in a global political strategy that continues to ensure the economic privilege of the empire of one nation at the expense of the Two-Thirds World nations whose raw material and cheap labor are exploited for capital gain.

How then do we achieve salvation? How do we arrive at liberation? I maintain that reconciliation is absolutely key. To be saved or liberated is to be reconciled, both with God and with one’s neighbor. If we define salvation as reconciliation with God and one’s neighbor, then salvation can occur only if reconciliation has taken place. To refuse to reconcile, as in the case of Jonah, is to live in sin. Estrangement among neighbors becomes a collective “unpardonable” sin, for separation from neighbors brings about separation from God.

Still, any quest for reconciliation cannot advocate premature peace. A desire to “forgive and forget,” can only bring about a cheap reconciliation that sacrifices justice for the sake of serenity. Any refusal to dismantle the very structures responsible for oppression allows those with power and privilege to avoid addressing the causes of oppression. Nor can reconciliation be reduced to a bargaining process between adversaries learning to accept and live under repressive systems. Reconciliation is not a political strategy but a process of spiritual healing. It must end human bondage and it must heal rather than suppress unresolved pain. It must lead to justice, not be a substitute.

Reconciliation must have a spiritual dimension as reconciliation seeks to reconcile humans with their God and with each other, an essential concept of the gospel. Without reconciliation, the good news of Jesus Christ loses its reason and purpose. Christian churches throughout the United States preach salvation from their pulpits but often remain sadly complicit with the overall social and political structures of the land that sustain ethnic, racial, and class divisions. Churches that represent the values of the dominant culture all too often fail as agents of peacemaking and reconciliation as it witnessed by their complicity with and/or silence about the violence visited upon U.S. historically marginalized communities.

Sadly, when racial, ethnic, and class reconciliation in this country is examined, it is usually done from the perspective of those privileged by the present power structures. Virtually every Christian faith tradition within the United States has issued some repudiation of its racist past, asking for forgiveness, and encouraging some sort of reconciliation. The question is usually formulated as “What must we (who benefit from the present structure) do” as a Christian duty or obligation for those who are “beneath” us, those who are at the margins of our power and privilege. When this type of question is asked, reconciliation becomes charity, pity, or paternalism and justice becomes political correctness.

What must “we” do for “them” places all hope the disenfranchise might have for justice on the actions of those who are most likely to suffer a loss of power and privilege if real and substantive progress toward reconciliation is made. If those who benefit from the prevailing social structures refuse to repent, to yield their privilege, or at least some of it, and ignore that a need for justice exists, what hope do those who are marginalized have? Also, how do the marginalized seek reconciliation with those who are privileged, those who prefer a social structure that assures their power within society?

Because of a lack of willingness to give up power, any hope for reconciliation must rest with those living on the underside of society. These are the people who yearn for justice. Their struggle for justice in a nation dominated by race and class oppression becomes the primary context for initiating any discussion of reconciliation. I maintain that the disenfranchised can define and forge a reconciliation that can lead to their own liberation and salvation, as well as the salvation and liberation of those who benefit from the present structures of domination. And what roles then will members of the dominant culture play? They can accompany the marginalized in their struggle toward reconciliation and justice. Instead of paternalistically leading those who are “less fortunate” toward a reconciliation that is non-threatening for those in power, they are to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, even at the cost of their own power and privilege.

To liberate Jonah becomes a process for U.S. marginalized communities to seek and find their, and their oppressors’ salvation through a reconciliation to be worked out in “fear and trembling.” Jonah becomes a possible paradigm for disenfranchised communities who are committed to the work of justice. Consequently, the biblical book of Jonah becomes more than a children’s fairy tale. Instead it becomes a key text for marginalized communities seeking praxis to implement. For this reason we now turn our attention to the biblical story, hoping to read it with new eyes.

This essay is based on my book: Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation

Miguel A. De La Torre

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