Jonah is one of the most interesting, yet one of the most trivialized, books of the Bible. Tonight, Sanctuary entered an imaginative space: What if Jonah was a Peek Wurrung person from the Eastern Maar nation, and told by God to speak to white settler colonials? What follows are notes on the text, and the congregation’s responses.
Jonah is so often trivialized, so let’s name it. What do we already know about Jonah?
- The big fish / the whale!
- He’s a naughty boy, don’t be like him: Don’t run away from God ‘cos God’ll getcha anyway!
- A teenager (wow!) remembered that Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days … just like Jesus was dead for three days. Jonah slept in a boat; Jesus slept in a boat. There’s a storm with Jonah, and with Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says the only sign he’ll give is the sign of Jonah. Do we usually think of Jonah as being like Jesus? Why not?
- Someone remembered Jonah’s confession in the storm, which meant he was thrown overboard.
Part 1: God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah sails in the opposite direction! God sends a storm; sailors try to save him; he ends up overboard; a big fish swallows him. Jonah prays from the belly of the beast.
Place matters. The Ninevites were brutal invaders and empire builders. They took control of many lands, brutally killing whomever they did not enslave. Sadly, this describes the habits of many settler colonials in Australia. Massacres were common in our region, as was the enslavement (both sexual and otherwise) of many. Children who weren’t killed were removed from their families, and continue to be removed today. Where the local high school is now, and some local houses on high grounds, were known as good sites to sit with friends after church on a Sunday and shoot Indigenous folk walking through the swampland below. In living memory, our city banned Indigenous folk from entering the downtown. It is to people like this to whom Jonah, whose nation was a victim of such horrific violence, was sent. So, does God’s request seem reasonable? Does Jonah’s flight seem understandable?
- This seems ‘very God’ – asking someone to do something they really don’t want to do and don’t feel able to do
- It raises the question: Was this a specific call to Jonah, or was this a general call and Jonah was the one person who responded? It’s like when we say, ‘Someone should do something about that!’ and God says, ‘Okay, you do it!’ (Someone once thought someone should plant a church in Warrnambool … )
- Does God just order people about? Or was there something in Jonah’s life which opened him to this command?
- OF COURSE JONAH RAN AWAY! He’d probably be killed by the Ninevites!
Part 2: After three days and nights in the big fish, Jonah is vomited up onto dry land. He stumps into Nineveh, proclaims, and the people of Nineveh change. God sees, God changes God’s mind and God does not overthrow the city.
More precisely, God ‘repents’ of the evil planned for Nineveh, and does not do it. Are you surprised? And is it right for Jonah to be angry?
- Everyone repents – people and animals! as well as God: God is responsive to people
- We remembered Noah and the flood, and how God decided not to ever do that again
- We noted that these are stories interpreting God, and how God is interpreted changes in new contexts and generations
- We noted that, when we are really angry with someone, their true humility and contrition, their repentance, indeed softens our hearts and we, too, often repent of the serious consequences we had planned for those people.
- We think it is reasonable and understandable for Jonah to be angry: he’s honest, and he’s seeing with human eyes. Of course he’s angry at injustice and the lack of vengeance, and he doesn’t have God’s long view.
- Someone observed how difficult it is NOT to get angry when good Christian folk just don’t care about or act for justice. They noted that they could not do their justice work without passion, but this passion often turned to frustration and anger … so difficult to hold onto the passion without becoming angry.
- Someone asked, What does anger enable? What does it open up? How do we move on?
- Someone noted that being ‘an angry woman’ or, worse, ‘an angry black woman’, is a common criticism and intended to silence people for whom yes, it is indeed right to be angry! So Michelle Obama in her recently published autobiography, and so also for Jonah, who said to God, ‘It is indeed right for me to be angry, even unto death!’
- Someone suggested whether Jonah’s anger might have been ego-driven: When God changed God’s mind, and didn’t destroy Nineveh, Jonah was made to look like a liar or false prophet for his proclamation was not fulfilled.
If we read this story as Ninevites, how do we relate?
- Someone observed that, with COVID, we knew it was serious and there was a high level of cooperation with public health directives. We ALL wore sackcloth, or at least face masks, and stayed home to avert the destruction coming upon us … and so it has barely come upon us at all (contra the UK, the USA etc.).
- Someone remembered the federal response to the Port Arthur massacre, when guns laws were changed and the government bought back and destroyed countless guns. Again, the people cooperated to avert further destruction coming upon us … and so mass gun violence is not a feature of Australian life (contra e.g. the USA).
- We wonder why we do not see massive system change regarding fossil fuels and climate: Is it too abstract? Not seen as sufficiently urgent?
- Someone wondered what happened next. Were the Ninevites wearing sackcloth the way people wear an Aboriginal flag during NAIDOC week but do nothing about systemic injustice all year? Or was there a true change of heart?
- We noted how we can see the injustice around us, and from which we benefit, and yet how difficult it is to identify specific concrete ways to work towards change.
- Someone asked about Nineveh now: and yes, it is again the heart of violence. That is, it is the modern-day Mosul. They said, If nothing ever changes, then what’s the point? So we remembered and named many changes that have been significant and good in our own situation. Yes, Aboriginal children continue to be removed at terrible rates; yes, Aboriginal people are imprisoned and die in prison at terrible rates; yes, Aboriginal people have a much lower life expectancy than other Australians; and we lament and seek to change these and so many other travesties of justice. But let us not forget that massacres are no longer Sunday sport, that Indigenous people can now enter the city limits, that our children all go to the same schools, and that Senator Lidia Thorpe is from the Eastern Maar Nation. Justice is slow, but it is happening; we asked God to show us the next step where we live.
If we read this story as Jonah, how do we relate? That is, about whom do we feel a righteous indignation? With whom do we feel we have no chance of being heard? Are we being called to witness to these people? How?
- Most of us struggle to relate to ‘fundamentalists, right wing pigs, fascists with mustaches who hate everything’ to quote David Benjamin Blower’s wonderful musical interpretation and re-telling of Jonah (here).
- Someone said that they just can’t muster up even a shred of sympathy for pedophiles: witnessing to them has to be somebody else’s job.
- Someone asked whether, when we witness to, say, fundamentalists, we’re just wasting our breath? What about not casting pearls before swine? What about Jesus, who just sadly shook his head and walked away? We noted that arguments are useless, but relationships can be fruitful and surprising.
- Someone noted that sometimes they engage e.g. on Facebook, not because of the person themself, but for any ‘secondary ears’ who might hear the truth.
We ended our conversation here not because we were out of challenges and ideas, but out of time. A conversation about Jonah on Aboriginal Sunday held at Sanctuary, 24 January 2021 © Sanctuary 2021. Image from the cover of Sympathy for Jonah, by David Benjamin Blower, the theological grounding behind his album The Book of Jonah. To learn more about the history behind Aboriginal Sunday, go here.
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