We Won’t Go (Jonah 3)
by Chris Burton
Leadership can be weary you know. You feel a conviction and move on it. Unsure if you’ll be headed up the mountain by yourself but you just know you have to go. There are other times where you feel provoked to move, not by gumption or a still small voice. No this provocation is from external pressure. And in spite of its weight, this pressure to keep up is unsuccessful in getting you to move. Something about it just does not seem right, so you stand still. Leadership, in every permutation, requires a willingness to listen. And even in listening there must be a discipline to listen for the right voice. Dr. King noted the multitude of voices; how many forces are at the proverbial table ready to speak up when decisions must be made. Cowardice asks, “is it safe?” Expediency, “is it politic?” Vanity, “is it popular?” But conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” Dr. King understood that “there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”
Jonah fascinates me. This brother hears that he has to go to Nineveh and speak against the wickedness in that city and refuses to go. Jonah flees for Tarshish and from the Lord’s presence (Jonah 1:3). The ship he is in is met with a storm and Jonah is eventually thrown into the sea and takes up residency in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights. After being thrown overboard and living in the belly of a fish, Jonah makes his way to Nineveh where the people repent and God does not destroy their city. This tale contains characters whose behavior is unexpected. Jonah, being the prophet after all, is the one we expect to model right behavior. And seeing that Nineveh was about to be destroyed for their iniquity, one would not be out of pocket to expect some reckless behavior once the story reaches Nineveh. But surprisingly we see a king who models humility for his people. The king joins his people in mourning; he rises from his throne, removes his royal attire and covers himself in sackcloth and ashes (Jonah 3:6). Furthermore, the king of Nineveh declares that all in Nineveh, human and animal alike, will participate in this solemn assembly. All must participate in this act of repentance.
You’d think that this incredible act of contrition–a whole city destined for destruction repenting!–would soften Jonah’s heart toward Nineveh but he is disinterested. The story ends with Jonah not feeling needed. He knew God was compassionate and abounding in love so he figured this outcome could have happened with or without him (Jonah 4:2). Jonah sets up shop to the east of the city and waits to see what will happen. Jonah wants the Lord to take his life but God makes a bush for him. A bush that gives him shade, a bush that saves him from his discomfort (Jonah 4:6). For the first time in the book, Jonah is actually happy. This happiness is shortlived as a worm attacks the bush and it withers. The elements of wind and heat over take the prophet and once again Jonah says to the Lord, “It is better for me to die than to live,” (Jonah 4:8, NRSV).
God calls Jonah out. Jonah is furious about the outcome, no longer wants to live and is mourning over a bush. God says to him if he is going to be outraged about these matters, then shouldn’t God be “concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11, NRSV).
Now before we get comfortable in our seats of judgment, let us not forget that we are not far removed from such obstinance. How many times do we ignore the right voice? We let the phone ring. We take another aisle at the supermarket. We cross the street. We play the perverse game of “I hope they didn’t see me.” We find ourselves unwilling in moments to extend any kind of hospitality. We will not go.
I believe that we leaders today have a lot to learn from the book of Jonah. In light of the difficult times we currently inhabit in the United States, I have grown weary of leaders’ inability and unwillingness to address systemic racism. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has birthed two understandings in my soul. Some matters are suprapolitical. Issues of human dignity, providing security and sustenance for our children, and how we treat the “least of these” should not be political matters. It should not be politically expedient to further marginalize people. It should not be beneficial to maintain status quo if people are dying as a result. I have come to a place where politics pales to prophecy; where truth telling is all that matters because it is the only thing that sets us free.
Secondly, I view #BlackLivesMatter as a call to participate in God’s life. I hear the Christ of Revelation standing at the door and knocking (Revelation 3:20), bidding us to follow, compelling us to carry our crosses.
Doing this work, “the work our souls must have” (allusion to title of Emilie Townes’ chapter “Ethics as an Art of Doing the Work Our Souls Must Have” in the Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader, eds. Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie Maureen Townes, Angela D. Sims) is costly. Taxing. Exhausting. We walk with hope and despair tightening around us making it difficult to breathe. But we press on because we know the talents we have received and we refuse to call God a liar. Refuse to live as if we are less. Refuse to live as if the deaths of our children and loved ones is an acceptable lot in life.
It is time for us as followers of Christ to take love and hospitality seriously. I love the image given in Revelation 3:20 where Jesus says “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me,” (Revelation 3:20, NIV). What does our world look like when the voice we listen to harkens us to show hospitality? What does the church become when we disrupt oppression and take up the pursuit of justice? What happens when our unreadiness subsides, we no longer fear ostracism or irrelevancy and outrightly refuse to impede justice? Friends, we are all called to participate in God’s life. Restorative justice is a significant aspect of this participation.
I pray for a radical redefining that buffers our stubborn ways into steadfastness. So many avenues where we are the Jonahs, unwilling instruments of God’s mercy, surly ambassadors of God’s everlasting love. Our actions articulate our understanding of the gospel far more than our words ever will. While our words drip honey, our treatment of one another–particularly the least of these–is a lemon juice gospel. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up,” (Galatians 6:9, NRSV). We cannot have reconciliation without repentance. A repentance reflective of our trust in the God whose love is unstoppable. A trust that compels us to embodied worship. No more disjointed understandings; a full infatuation with God. The God who compels us to participate in God’s life. The God who compels us to focus on the least of these. Comfort the afflicted, speak truth to power, and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).
May we be changed and cease our rebellion against God and be so filled with God’s love that we, even we, become instruments of hospitality, ministers of presence in the most unexpected of places. May our understanding of who our neighbors are be broadened and may all of God’s children know us by our love, our commitment to being who we say we are, and no matter how difficult the situation or tempting desertion is, hold fast to our God and our neighbor and lovingly say, “We won’t go.”