The Wrath of Jonah: A reflection on anger, forgiveness, and letting go

There are many Bible stories that many who have never read the Bible know.

Or think they know.

Jonah and the whale is one of them. Many seem to be familiar with the hapless Jonah who gets swallowed by a whale, in whose belly he lives for three days. Some might even know that he was running away from an assignment given to him by God.

What many might not appreciate, even those who know the story, is that Jonah is not really the hero of the story, in the sense that he is meant to be an exemplar of behaviour, a model to be emulated. Rather, he is an angry, judgmental, small-minded man who bitterly opposes God’s compassion and God’s mercy on those who don’t follow the rules. He’s kind of a proto-­fundamentalist.

And what’s more, the story is told about him in the Bible in a way that intends for listeners or readers of the story to laugh at Jonah. It’s a funny story. It’s a comedy. Which is another surprise to those who think of the Bible as being dreadfully boring or humourless. The story of Jonah is a bit of a caricature of religious and ethnic intolerance, a parody of small-­mindedness which lampoons those who would not be gracious or forgiving.

The word of God comes to Jonah, the way that it comes to all of the Jewish prophets. Prophets receive word from God usually to proclaim that God’s justice cannot be ignored, and that judgment will fall on those who oppress the poor, cheat their workers, or ignore the needs of the most vulnerable. A major theme for the Jewish prophets is the tendency of the Hebrews to worship other gods and goddesses, and how mad God, the God of the Hebrew people, gets when this happens.

So Jonah receives word from the God of Israel to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it. The wickedness of its people has come to the attention of God and God wants Jonah to go tell them about it. (Jonah 1:1-­2) Nineveh was the flourishing capital of the Assyrian empire, at the time of this story, the largest city in the ancient world. In other words, the seat of an imperial power amassing wealth through the domination of other lands. And one that is not Jewish. The Assyrians were pagan, after all.

So God is sending Jonah there to preach against Nineveh. What does he do?

He gets on the next ship out of there and goes—in the opposite direction.

He heads for Tarshish, a fabled name for a place probably on the Iberian peninsula, pretty much the outer edge of the known world. Jonah wants to get as far away as possible. If we were telling this story today, we might say something like, “Jonah got on the next plane to Timbuktu.”

God stirs up a violent storm that tosses and pounds the ship that Jonah is on. Everyone aboard starts praying to their own god while Jonah, incredibly, is asleep below deck.

The sailors wake him up and say, “What are you doing? Get up and call on your God to save us!” (1:6)

The sailors also cast lots to find out who is responsible for the calamity that has befallen them, which they discover is Jonah.

“Who are you? Where are you from? Do you know who’s responsible for the trouble we’re in?”

Jonah replies that he is a Hebrew and that he has angered his God by running away from him.

“What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” they ask.

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” is the answer Jonah gives. (1:11-­12)

That is when a huge fish (not a whale but a “huge fish”) swallows Jonah and carries Jonah in its belly for three days and three nights and spits him up onto dry land.

There, God again commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim there the message God gave Jonah. Reluctantly, Jonah goes.

Now much of the Hebrew Bible devoted to the prophets is full of threats, all of the things that God will do to the wicked. The prophets give long lists of what has made God angry: oppression of the poor, unfaithfulness, chasing after ostentatious wealth. They give long lists of punishments and tribulations: famines and droughts (economic losses) and military invasions.

Jonah, on the other hand, walks into the city of Nineveh and says, “You have forty days.” (3:4)

That’s it.

That’s all he says.

No “Woe to you,” no explanation of the wickedness that God has seen, no long lists of things to repent from.

Jonah is doing his best to make sure they don’t repent and that God punishes them.

“You have forty days.”

And then, to Jonah’s great dismay, that’s all it takes for the Ninevites to be sorry and repent.

He’s not even working that hard at prophesying, and they all are sorry for what they’ve done and immediately begin to fast and ask forgiveness. Including the king who proclaims a fast and urges everybody to “give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows,” the king says, “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (3:8-­9)

“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10)

Well. Jonah is angry! He is so angry! 

He storms out of the city. “I knew you were going to this! I knew it!” he rails at God.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:3)

God acts like a soothing parent. “Oh, honey you don’t mean that.”

“Yes I do! I’d rather be dead than glad that you didn’t destroy them!”

“Is it right for you to be angry?” God asks repeatedly.

“I’m going to sit right here and watch the city and wait and see what happens to them.” (4:5)

And that’s pretty much how the story ends. (Although we also get this comic situation where God shelters Jonah out there in the desert with a tree that grows up where he is sulking, after which God takes it away and Jonah blows up again).

But that is pretty much how the story ends. Jonah sulking and a soothing parental God saying, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Is it right for you to be angry?

Sometimes it is right to be angry. Anger at an injustice is a sign of an active moral conscience. Getting mad when something unfair happens is a good sign. It can be the energy that gets us to move toward making justice, toward righting the wrong. Anger can be the motivation for action.

But Jonah is mad because the people of Nineveh have been spared. The compassion—the mercy—of the God he reveres is greater than Jonah’s petty need for revenge and retribution. Jonah is angry because he didn’t get what he wanted— God smiting the people he doesn’t like.

The citizens of Nineveh, remember, are not even Jews. The story plays on the distinction that the Hebrews made between themselves and other nations, that they had been chosen out of all the nations of the world in a special covenant with God. That God’s covenant could be universal, and could include all peoples, was anathema to those who claimed the superiority of their ethnic and national group over all others.

I myself have known people like Jonah, given to jingoistic sloganeering about their nation being the best nation on Earth, given to confirming their prejudices by quoting a scripture chapter and verse, and who refuse to acknowledge goodness in people different from them or deemed enemies to themselves.

I see in the character of Jonah something I see all the time. When you’re really mad at somebody who has wronged you in some way. They’ve really done something unskillful and hurtful and you just can’t wait until you see them because you are going to let them have it. You are going to tell them what they did and how it made you feel and what you’re going to do about it and what they should do about it and the kind of person you think they are.

You rehearse what you’re going to say in your mind, making all kinds of brilliant points about this other person’s shortcomings and failures.

And then.

When you see them, before you can even get a word out, they apologize.

Without your explaining it, they acknowledge what they’ve done. They say they realize what they did and see how unskillful and hurtful it was toward you, and they are sorry. And they ask you to accept their apology.

You don’t want them to be sorry!

You want to have the fight you’ve been rehearsing in your head!

You don’t want to accept their apology, you want to enumerate the ways in which they are wrong, and now you’re even angrier because they’ve taken that away from you.

They’ve done it themselves and apologized for it.

Sometimes we don’t want reconciliation or resolution. We want to be proven right. We want to triumph in victory over another. We ourselves can be vengeful or spiteful and in so doing, perpetuate a conflict, continue a difference we have with another.

Maybe you have known people like Jonah, who refuse to give up their resentments, refuse to let go of a justified anger or a grudge, who seethe with bitterness at the perceived or actual wrongdoing of others.

Some people collect grievances.

There was a woman in a church I once served who was known to take people to task for not following rules or procedures, or for being sloppy or incorrect. She’d phone you and go on and on about everything you had done wrong, some of them quite petty, and if you hung up on her, she’d call right back and continue.

Just wait, I was told when I arrived in this church, you’ll see. When I asked about the covenant of right-­relation this congregation had, people scoffed. “You try holding her to that!”

Sure enough, in due time, this woman called me on the phone and lay into me everything that I had done wrong since I had arrived at this church, on and on with great vehemence.

I had been there three weeks.

She collected grievances. She derived some benefit to always feeling wronged. She needed to always be right.

I have known people who always have to win, whether it’s a game or an argument. They have to be right. A wall of righteousness and arrogance and ego blocks them from acknowledging they could be wrong, their knowledge could be partial, that there could be goodness and thoughtfulness in a person or people they designate their opponent.

I think we all know somebody who is like Jonah and I think that we all, in one way or another, are ourselves quite like him.

We don’t need to look very far to find smug and self-­righteous people. We’re right here.

We don’t need to look to other groups of people in other religions or with different politics from us to find people who are convinced that they are right. We’re right here.

Some of the most smug and self-­righteous people I’ve ever known I met in supposedly liberal circles. Tell such people that you eat meat, or can’t stand listening to NPR, or that you own a gun, or vote Republican—and just see what happens.

Jonah needed to be right. There are rules and if you don’t follow them, you are to be punished. That is the correct way of running an ordered and predictable world. There is a moral and good way to act and an immoral and evil way to act. The good are rewarded. Wrongdoers are punished. God is on the side of those who are right, moral and good. God is on our side and against them.

This either-­or, black-­and-­white way of ordering people and the world can’t handle compassion and forgiveness. The idea that wrong can go unpunished is unbearable and upsetting.

Anger can, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes, form a kind of knot within us, a formation that is difficult to undo. When that knot has formed within us, the person with whom we disagree or who has wronged us is all wrong, all the time.

We cannot see anything else about that person.

We hold on to that anger, as resentment, because we think that doing so is going to punish them for what they did wrong. It’s like swallowing a burning poison to hurt somebody else. We are only hurting ourselves.

Physically, even, when we carry anger and resentment around within us, our bodies are affected negatively—ulcers, headaches, muscle pain. If we choose to be free of suffering, it will be because we let go of the resentment we are holding on to.

We need to ask ourselves, Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be free?

And we can choose freedom. In living a compassionate life, practicing forgiveness, we do the hard spiritual work of giving up the demand to be vindicated.

What about those that have harmed us? What happens when they do not reach out to make amends, or insist they have done nothing wrong, or will not engage with you at all? What about needing to forgive somebody who has died or is otherwise indisposed?

It seems to me we then have the choice of either holding on to our sense of being aggrieved or let it go. We can constantly tell ourselves the story of how we were wronged and live out that identity of the righteous victim. Or, without excusing the other’s actions, without forgetting the harm they caused, we can let go of the hurt and the anger and the acrimony and vindictiveness.

Anger and resentment are corrosive to the soul, eating you up inside. Forgiveness can be an act of self-­care, even as one stands in opposition to the others’ actions, firmly standing against their behaviour.

One does the work of justice, of resolving conflict, of being in relation with difficult people, without becoming full of negative emotion. It’s a kind of non-­attached engagement; we are not detached, but we don’t get hooked and reeled in by the reactivity, the ill will of those with whom we are in conflict. We maintain a spacious, serene mind and equilibrium in our hearts. Even as we oppose them.

Being unforgiving is essentially a fantasy of making the past different and wanting to punish somebody for doing something they cannot change.

Forgiveness is a practice that liberates us from what cannot be undone; it frees us from an unchanging past.

Forgiveness, being fully in the present moment and oriented toward possibilities of the future, is what it takes for peace and understanding.

I can understand and appreciate how the story of Jonah is traditionally the Haftorah reading for the afternoon Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is an intense time of self-scrutiny and prayer, a time for forgiveness of wrongs, making amends, and reconciliation.

We can laugh at the caricature that Jonah represents, but let it be the laughter of recognition and not derision, that we see in this character something of our own character.

And let us recognize that we ourselves at times are like the citizens of Nineveh, unable to tell our right hand from our left, and that concern and grace and love is shown to us, even in our confusion and uncertainty, more than we sometimes know.

And let us find it within ourselves to live more graciously and with more compassion, for ourselves as well as others, forgiving and asking forgiveness, that we may live with ease and at peace.


The Christmas That Never Was

Another Christmas is upon us.

What do you hope for at this time of year? What are your longings?

Such questions. Most of us sound like beauty pageant contestants in our answers. “World peace,” we might say.

But underneath our hopes and fears of all the years, what do we want to get out of the holidays? Underneath it all, are there not wishes and desires not only unarticulated but perhaps inarticulate—wants and expectations so deep we may not even be aware that we are wanting or expecting anything?

My experience is that people—myself included—get spooked during the December holidays, especially about Christmas, the way animals get spooked before a storm or natural disaster. Like Ebenezer Scrooge himself, we are unnerved and haunted by ghosts of Christmases past and yet to come.

We try so hard for magic and love and community and familial harmony. We work so hard to reproduce the atmosphere of a “true” Christmas, an “authentic”  holiday—with cookie and cake recipes that have to come out right, greeting cards to all the people that need to get one from us, the perfect gift for every person, family traditions that must be just so, certain relatives and friends that must be present for the holiday.

And then. Inevitably. Disappointment.

The present we got is the wrong size, the wrong kind, the wrong color—or simply does not have the sheen it did in the shopping catalogue of our imagination.

Family members quarrel. Family members are far away.

Recipes don’t work. Greeting cards are late or we forgot somebody.

And after a push toward being jolly and merry and happy at Christmas that begins November 1, it all comes to a crashing halt on December 25. Bereft amid the cookie crumbs, leftovers, torn and discarded gift wrapping, we ask ourselves, What was missing?

It is in that moment, I believe, that we come the closest to realizing our unconscious hopes and desires about Christmas. What had we hoped for that we didn’t get? What were we longing for that went unrealized?

Many of us have a nostalgia for a Christmas that may never have truly existed or happened. Our nostalgia is for something that we have only longed for, been  homesick for, that doesn’t exist.

The perfect Christmas does not exist.

Even the Christmases that we “remember” from years past are reconstructed from our memories made unreliable by our unfulfilled desires and distorted by the lens of nostalgia.

I don’t know about you, but every December 25 that I wake up and am not a child, I am disappointed. That excitement, that magic, that wonder—none of those will ever be mine again because I am no longer a child.

As mature, self-differentiated adults, we handle our disappointments with lightness and grace. The clearer we are about what we can and cannot have, what is possible, practical, probable and impossible, the better our own hearts and spirits will be this season.

Peace in our hearts, our families, our households, our church comes when we act with intelligence and emotional wisdom.

What do you hope for at this time of year? What are your longings?

It’s worth taking the time to truly answer such questions.

Move Your Money From Wall Street to Main Street

A campaign on Facebook and elsewhere has designated November 5, 2011 as “Bank Transfer Day.” Ordinary people are being invited to divest from the Wall Street banks and move their money into local banks and credit unions. The 1% of the US population that controls more than a third of the nation’s wealth will wake up on November 6 and know just how powerful the 99% can be if we act together.

I recently moved my money from one of the big banks to a local one. It’s easy to do:

  • Open a new account in your local bank or credit union
  • Order cheques and a debit card for your new account
  • If you have direct deposit at work (or anywhere else) have your employer redirect your deposit to the new bank. If you pay bills automatically, make sure these all have your new information. Make sure these have all been switched before closing the old account (it can sometimes take a few pay cycles).
  • Transfer your money to your new account
  • Close the old account, following the procedures of that bank. Don’t just withdraw your money and leave the account open—they will charge you fees for an inactive account, fees for a low balance, fees for just about anything they can think of!

Find a local bank or credit union near you at the Web site of the Move Your Money project. You may want to tell the person at your old bank that assists you why you will no longer be their customer. If there is a segment on their form (there was with mine) for the reason you are closing the account, insist that they fill it out. Better yet, write a letter to the branch manager letting them know that you withdrew your money and why.

Why should you move your money?

  • better rates and fewer fees
  • more personal service
  • keep money in your local community
  • increase local economic development—and help create more jobs.
  • take a stand in a system that is unfair, raising your voice for economic justice

There was a public outcry after the Bank of America announced it would start charging its customers $5 a month to get access to their own money using a debit card. It seems that the bigger a bank is, the more fees it charges you!

My community bank charges almost no fees. If I get charged an ATM fee, I get it refunded at the end of the month. More and more community banks and credit unions offer ATM surcharge-free networks. On average, community banks and credit unions charge less in fees. I also found the highest interest on my deposits at my local bank and a local credit union. The tellers and even managers at the branches of my community bank all know me by name, know my profession, and ask about my work when they see me. Local banks and credit unions have higher customer satisfaction ratings than the too big to fail banks

The largest five banks held 13% of US deposits in 1994; today they hold 38%. Because these banks were considered “too big to fail,” they got bailed out using taxpayer money, but never became any more accountable to taxpayers after they crashed the economy and sent many taxpayers into the unemployment lines. The reason they were propped up was supposedly to ensure the flow of money. They continue to use ordinary people’s deposits for risky trade investments, not loans to small businesses, which are the engine of the economy. Local banks and credit unions, on the other hand, do a disproportionate amount of lending to small business owners.

The big Wall Street banks will probably continue to use your deposits for risky, unregulated investments. This is precisely how they crashed the economy in 2008. No bank should be “too big to fail.” If the government continues refusing to break up the big bank monopoly, a united front of ordinary people can achieve a similar effect by withdrawing our money from them.


How You Can Support Occupy Wall Street

There are many ways that you can support the growing Occupy Wall Street movement:

JOIN IT. Visit an occupation site near you. There are currently more than 200 in the United States alone. In Boston come down to Dewey Square, outside of South Station in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Talk to the people who are there. Stay for a General Assembly. Make a sign and carry it. Participate in a protest march (these are frequently announced on the Web site beforehand; check back often). Bring a tent and stay awhile.

START AN OCCUPATION. Figure out what resources you need, learning from what other Occupy groups have done.  Gather together friends, family, co-workers, and members of your faith community, labor union or school. Reach out to existing anti-poverty and economic justice groups active in your area. Choose a space. Bring a sleeping bag and/or tent. Call the press. Create a Web site.

Instead of occupying a public square, how about organizing a picket line (outside a Bank of America location, say, or a federal building). How about a rally? How about a vigil? What could your theme be, and could there be costumes, theatre and music?

PROVIDE MATERIAL, MORAL & SPIRITUAL SUPPORT. Many of the Occupy groups have Web sites. Check them out for what they need in terms of supplies. Some of these sites also make it possible to send financial contributions either on line or to a mailbox. Be generous. Check with the group what they need vis-à-vis food. Many Occupy groups have set up kitchen tents, so check in there. Visit and stay awhile, encouraging the protesters who are sleeping there with your positivity. Remind them of the support they have among many ordinary people in the US and around the world. Pray for the protesters, and if possible include them in the “prayers of the people” in your faith community. Hold them in the Light.

TAKE ACTION ON THE ISSUES. Marching, protesting, and camping out in public squares are not for everybody, and that’s okay. Even if it is okay, here are some other things you can do to support this broad-based social change movement:

  • MOVE YOUR MONEY. Withdraw your support of Citi, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. You can close all of your accounts with these banks and transfer your money to a local bank or credit union. The too-big-to-fail banks are more interested in continuing the risky (and still unregulated) practices (using your money!) that led to the economic crash. Local banks and credit unions do disproportionately more lending to local small businesses, did not engage in these risky practices, do not give their CEOs millions in bonuses, and have fewer fees. Divest from Wall Street and invest in Main Street!
  • CALL YOUR STATE’S ATTORNEY GENERAL. There is mounting proof that the big banks falsified documents, encouraged bad loans, and lied to investors–illegal actions that led to the housing collapse, costing the world economy $7.7 trillion and causing the Great Recession. Now five of these banks—JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Ally Bank—want immunity from prosecution in return for a settlement of just $20 billion. President Obama will give this to his Wall Street cronies, a slap on the wrist and nothing more. This amount is a fraction of what the banks cost American investors and homeowners. But this deal relies on the agreement of state attorneys general. The New York, Minnesota and Nevada attorneys general, are not going along and are conducting their own investigations. Encourage your state’s attorney general not to accept this deal and to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley can be reached at (617) 727-2200.
  • BRING THE PUSH TO AMEND THE CONSTITUTION TO YOUR COMMUNITY. Help reverse the Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court, which enshrined the “personhood” of corporations and granted them First Amendment rights of free speech. This has sealed excessive corporate influence over our democracy, allowing corporations and unions to flood political candidates with unseen and unlimited financial contributions.
  • CALL AND WRITE YOUR LEGISLATORS. QUESTION POLITICAL CANDIDATES. Who is paying for their election campaign? What are their budget priorities—endless war or Medicare? Will they reinstate Glass-Steagall? Will they give the Securities Exchange Commission more regulatory powers? Do they support the overturn of Citizens United? Will they pass the Fair Elections Now Act? Will they protect social programs from budget cuts? What do they think of Occupy Wall Street?
  • SCREEN THE ACADEMY-AWARD™ WINNING DOCUMENTARY “INSIDE JOB” IN YOUR HOME AND COMMUNITY AND DISCUSS IT. Most public libraries have the DVD. What will your audience do about what you have seen, heard and learned? What actions will you take together?

HELP THIS MOVEMENT EVOLVE. The Occupy Wall Street movement is weeks old. Yet in weeks, it has galvanized older social change campaigns and altered the political discourse nationally. What matters most to you about this changing climate? What do you hope for? Be sure to articulate this, and your own reasons for joining or sympathizing with the movement. Talk, write, blog, preach, teach and/or sing about what is important to you. In so doing, you are helping shape the discourse about both the Occupy Wall Street movement and the issues.

SHARE YOUR STORY. Are you struggling to make ends meet? Are you on an ever-running treadmill of overwork just to keep your head above water financially? Do you have a family member in the armed forces deployed overseas? Are you a returning veteran? Are you being foreclosed on? Have you lost your retirement savings? Do you have thousands of dollars in student or other debt? Will you go bankrupt paying or trying to pay medical bills? The Occupy Wall Street and We Are The 99% movement has broken the silence for many people—sharing their stories publicly for the first time. What is happening to you is not a sign of your failure; the whole system is failing. By telling your story, speaking frankly and openly about your situation, you are giving permission to others to do likewise.

And in so doing, helping the 99% find itself and its voice.