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.

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American Idols

My last several years living in the United States of America has been an exercise in, as my Canadian friends would say, living in the belly of the beast. It hardly feels this way, of course, surrounded as I am by people of good will. I reflect on the wars and the violence, the inequities and injustices, and it is easy to not feel that I am somehow contributing to it. I ignore the reality that the taxes I pay here go to fund things I do not in good conscience support. I float along feeling that if I am not actively contributing to the things that I find objectionable, then I am doing all right. I get momentary flashes, however, when I think, If I am not actively resisting, then I am participating.

That is the nature of living in the midst of what the New Testament calls powers and principalities. The social ills one would actively resist are actually systems, whole networks of power relations. It is difficult to stand apart from a system. Daily life is a mundane series of choices that one makes unthinking, and many of these are aspects of the powers and principalities of the nation.

I like to personify these powers and principalities as idols, false gods, to keep them as personalities before my eyes to better clarify the choices that I make. Idolatry, in the monotheistic religions, is the worship of deities other than the one true God. It is the deification of objects; idols are objects made of stone and wood and metal and are revered as divine. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have prohibitions and limitations on representing the divine. The caution is in mistaking the representation for what is represented, the sign for what it signifies, thus drawing worshippers away from the one true God and toward the worship of symbols and images.

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:1-6).

The Bible describes idolatry as the worship of images and also of polytheistic deities. The biblical language of idolatry (the Hebrew literally means “foreign worship”) is a polemic against the indigenous nations of the ancient Near East, which saw the natural world as imbued with supernatural forces. Hebrew monotheism, by contrast, saw the divine as entirely beyond the world. The pagan religions that surrounded the ancient Hebrew people used statues, talismans, and natural objects in their worship, frequently believing that the divine was immanent within such objects or within certain geographical locations. In setting themselves apart from the nations, the ancient Hebrews shored up their national identity by forbidding the worship of foreign deities, and banishing the use of sacred objects. To do so was unpatriotic as well as irreligious.

Devotion to pagan gods and goddesses was nevertheless not uncommon among the ancient Hebrews, as we read throughout Hebrew Scriptures. No sooner had Moses received the Ten Commandments on top of Mount Sinai, than the Israelites below fashioned a golden calf to worship. They built poles to honor the goddess Asherah and frequently worshipped other Canaanite gods such as Baal.

The prophets and judges decry such infidelity to the God of Israel and frequently lambast the creation and worship of idols. In separating themselves out from other ancient peoples, the Hebrews not only strictly forbade the use of any created thing in worship, they also set limits on ways in which the divine could be mediated or communicated through objects. Though such things as the Ark of the Covenant, or the equipment and vestments of the Temple were sacred, they were not worshipped as such, for God was utterly transcendent.

The Bible affirms that the one true God is shapeless and formless, so no image or idea or created thing can represent God. The reverencing of images is thus forbidden. The Protestant Reformation renewed among Christians the sense of God’s transcendence and the caution against sacred objects and images. Puritanism is the stream of Christianity that is most similar to the Jewish view. The more sacramental currents of Christianity allowed icons and statues to be reverenced as mediators of God’s grace, and bread, wine, water and oil to be signifiers of God’s presence and grace. Our Puritan forebears (those of us who stand in Unitarian and Congregational traditions) were iconoclasts, literally destroying icons, images, and statues in an effort to purify Christian faith and practice from idolatrous distractions.

For each of the monotheistic traditions, the sole object of worship and adoration is the transcendent God. Valuing something or somebody that hinders the love and trust owed to God alone is considered idolatry. God and God alone comes first and God and God alone is foremost in the lives of the faithful. Though God provides many gifts for our use in a life that glorifies him, we are not to confuse the gift with the Giver. Though all of creation speaks of God and God’s handiwork, we are not to confuse the creation with the Creator. It seems to me that we offer our blind and excessive devotion to powers and principalities that are neither God nor godly. Refusal to worship them is deemed unpatriotic.

The idols and false gods that reign here in the United States are militarism and wealth. These are our contemporary American idols. We put our trust in military might. We worship Mammon, the New Testament personification of wealth. We lay waste to the Earth in the name of our economies, feeding its fires with our children’s futures, feeding the voracious appetites of economic growth with no less vigor than ancients fed their own children to the god Molech. Militarism is a false god whose parents are nationalism and violence. Militarism is the belief that a strong military is needed for security and peace, that a strong military must be maintained at all costs, and that the military must be prepared for preemptive and aggressive action in defense not only of the nation’s borders, but of its economic and geopolitical interests.

The ideology of the nation state and the legitimacy of violence are the faith and practices of this false religion. This is most clearly seen in totalitarian regimes. The image of its despotic leader is ubiquitous, its bureaucratic apparatus all-powerful. God is replaced by the state and given the humanizing face of its leader. Its scriptures are its laws and constitutions, its spirituality appeals to blood and soil, its worship military and nationalist parades and processionals. Discipleship with this idol is obedience, patriotism, and an unquestioning loyalty to our own ethnic, racial, linguistic and national group. The theology of the state is its reinforcing ideologies; whether that be democracy or free enterprise, state socialism or Marxism, pan-Arab nationalism or jihadist Islamism.

We are not without our own processionals and parades in the United States of America. We celebrate the American Revolution and the principles of democracy in a haze of nostalgia. We play out the rituals of a constitutional democracy, even as the Supreme Court grants legal personhood to corporations, as lobbyists for banks, oil companies and other industries become government policy makers, passing through a revolving door of influence and governance, as public institutions are handed over to private interests. The republic transmogrifies into an empire, marching ever further away from the ideals of the founding fathers, and we are swept up and carried along in the patriotic parade willy-nilly.

We are a nation at war, and war has become so ubiquitous and unending that it is no longer remarkable. Warfare is the air we breathe. War is our daily reality. Yet we are inured to its violence, its daily death, its very presence. Unlike the Second World War, we are not asked to conserve electricity and other resources, plant victory gardens or participate in a popular mobilization around a war effort. American soldiers, many of them young, working class, and people of color, are deployed again and again, unnoticed and unseen. Lost in a flurry of distractions, we forget the wars that we wage overseas. The wars seem to go on in the background, with the volume muted, not interfering with our day-to-day lives.

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.They have mouths but they do not speak; they have eyes but they do not see; they have ears but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths. Those who make them and all who trust in them shall become like them.” (Psalm 135:15-18)

Have we become like them? Unspeaking, not using our voice? Unseeing, turning a blind eye from what our actions and inactions are causing? Unhearing, refusing to listen to the cries of the hungry, the cries of the non-human animals, the cries of wounded soldiers and grieving civilians a world away?

The United States government budgets more than one trillion dollars in military spending. The false god of militarism is literally consuming our national treasure. A fraction of the money spent on war and war preparations could fund homes, schools, university scholarships, teachers salaries, and equip homes with renewable electricity.

Our technologies, our wealth, and our economies are three of our other false gods, fed by and fuel for the American idol of military might. Competition for resources, especially cheap oil, is the motivation for our militarism and global belligerence. Americans consume far more than our fair share of the planet’s resources and to maintain our bloated lifestyles of acquisitiveness and overconsumption, we need to maintain by force the steady flow of natural resources into the fires of our economic engines. Our styles of life, based on growth economies that devour the Earth, are quickly rendering the planet uninhabitable.

“If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

In biblical religion, to love and serve God heart and soul, to not be turned away by the false gods, leads to an abundant, lively relationship with the Earth. To be devoted in love and service to the divine, we need nothing less than a conversion, a turning away from domination and violence, hoarding and destruction, limitless growth and greed.

We need to convert our elected government’s priorities from funding endless wars to funding the common good. We need to convert our petroleum fueled war economy of the past into the sustainable, ecologically sound economy of the future. To love and serve the divine is to take seriously biblical and humane values: cooperation and sharing, conservation and stewardship, mutuality and nonviolence, prudence and justice.  We need to be converted anew to these principles as individuals and as a society.

I love the glimpses the Bible offers of a divine dream for the earth; it offers us direct “thou shall not’s” as well as the visions of its prophets. Security and peace are not gained by outgunning the enemy, by clobbering those who we view as competing with us for limited resources. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and others foresaw a time when war and war making were banished, and peace the order of the day.

“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor with they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree and no one will make them afraid.”

The causes of war – economic disparity, scarcity – are removed. Everyone has their own land, their own vine and fig tree; everyone has enough. Security comes with having enough.

This is peace in the holistic sense of shalom, the integrity and wholeness of creation. In Isaiah’s vision, animals that typically fight each other lie down together in peace, and even the mountains and hills burst into song, the trees of the field clap their hands, in the day of God’s shalom on earth. The biblical injunction to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy is an exercise in setting limits. A balance of work and play is required in the worship of the one true God. Work is given meaning and dignity, as forms of tending the green garden bequeathed to humankind. Overwork and exhausting the soil are anathema to biblical principles and its Sabbath economics. No person or animal or farm should have the life squeezed out of it by overwork.

The holy invites us into a spacious sense of abundance and plenty by giving us enough. Ostentation and material gain for its own sake are rejected in favor of limits within which we flourish. We need only enough. Mammon is the biblical word for riches, the personification of wealth as a false god. Greed and excessive love of money are forms of idolatry, a betrayal of a trusting relationship with the God who provides us with enough. Mammon is the endless treadmill of wanting and getting, getting more and wanting more. Manna, the food the Israelites ate while they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, is the antidote to Mammon. It was provided freely by God and rotted if it was hoarded. Everybody had exactly enough, everybody had exactly as much as they needed.

We read in the book of Acts this description of the earliest followers of Jesus:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. … they ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:44-46)

Goods were shared and wealth redistributed to all as any had need.  The economics of manna is a joint venture in everybody having enough, in everybody having a glad and generous heart. This is a small echo of the biblical vision of the Jubilee Year, a time when there is rest for the land, forgiveness of debts, when land is returned to its ancestral owners and slaves are freed. Land, in the ancient world was wealth. If you became indebted and had to sell your land, it would be returned to you in the Jubilee Year. Nobody could buy up land and keep it for him or herself in perpetuity. The fact that the Bible mandates a regular dismantling of structures that might keep wealth in the hands of few points toward a vision in which there is enough for everyone. Wide gaps between rich and poor are not God’s dream for his world. Nobody has more than is needed and nobody hoards. Everybody has enough. This is a vision of work and prosperity for all, indebtedness and slavery being relieved, balance between work and play, and personal and environmental rejuvenation.

Provoking the Powers: The Palm Sunday Action

The Canadian journal Adbusters is known for its provocative design. It makes use of a technique known as détournement—literally “derailing” or “turnaround.” The Adbusters artists call what they do “culture jamming.” They take familiar media figures, like Joe Camel, the cartoon promoter of Camel cigarettes, and put him in a hospital bed, redubbing him “Joe Cancer.” The logos and campaigns of Nike, Coca-Cola, and Shell Oil are similarly subverted in ways that highlight those companies’ labor and environmental abuses. Sometimes, the likeness to the actual media campaigns of these corporations are so realistic, viewers are fooled.

That’s the point. Not to fool viewers, but to mimic the propaganda of the powerful and so unmask their motives—is this really an advertisement for pollution and the exploitation of workers?

It was Adbusters that provided the spark that ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement. Last spring, it published a call for protesters to flood lower Manhattan and camp out on Wall Street until a federal investigation of the corporate influence on US politics was begun.

Wall Street is a street in New York City, yet when we say “Wall Street” what we actually mean is: the finance industry, the banks, the stock exchange, the market. The location is highly symbolic. Protesters have taken over Wall Street in the past, of course, and for this very reason. On the 50th anniversary of the stock market crash in 1979, protesters occupied Wall Street, blockading traffic to protest the nuclear industry and arms manufacturing.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, I was involved in an activist group that was famous for its graphic designs and theatrical actions to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the political crisis surrounding it, including the slow governmental response. It was called ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.  It began in New York when playwright Larry Kramer called for direct action to pressure governments and drug companies into acting. The first protest was on Wall Street on March 24, 1987 and was dubbed No More Business As Usual. Activists protested the unholy alliance of the Food and Drug Administration with the pharmaceutical companies producing the only approved HIV treatment at the time and the profiteering of Big Pharmacy.

Certain symbolic actions work in a similar way. Gandhi marching to the seaside to make his own salt. People of different colors sitting together at a lunch counter to be served. Michael Moore escorting youth who were shot during the Columbine massacre, with the bullets still lodged in their bodies, to the corporate headquarters of Kmart, which sold the ammunition to the Columbine killers, in order to give those bullets back. The agitprop gesture itself is speaking to much larger issues in the society—salt tax and empire, segregation and institutionalized racism, gun violence and access to firearms.

Dollar bills, piggy banks, Monopoly playing cards are some of the visual cues that protesters on Wall Street have used, along with costumes—the mask from the graphic novel V is for Vendetta, a banker with bowler hat, monocle and cigar. Without ever being granted an interview by the media, these protesters effectively get their point across. Without ever being granted the ability to explain their demonstration protesters use images with which most people are familiar. This is a form of protest known as guerilla theatre.

Using familiar images, easily recognized characters in costumes and masks, and symbolic actions, guerilla theatre is able to summarize, in a few short visual bytes, an entire political position. In quickly understood symbols and gestures, guerilla theatre summarizes whole economic and social analyses. Through enacting and ritualizing power relations in dramatic forms, the powers that be are provoked, the effects of their power unmasked.

Guerilla theatre, détournement, symbolic actions are practices of those who would protest systems of domination and exploitation. Imaginative and humorous use of images, characters, and stories are practices of those who would bring about a change in awareness, consciousness, who would transform the political, social, cultural and economic landscape to be more just, more peaceful, and more equitable. Satire, parody, irony simultaneously make people laugh and question the powers that be.

The Jewish prophets knew something about guerilla theatre. The visionaries of ancient Israel, they were constantly using attention-grabbing antics to convey God’s displeasure. Hosea marries a prostitute, symbolizing the people’s unfaithfulness to God. Jeremiah burns a linen belt, he smashes a clay jar in front of the priests, to illustrate God’s coming punishment of Judah; he puts on a yoke and parades around with it on, to illustrate living under the oppression of Babylon. Isaiah goes naked and barefoot for three years. Ezekiel lies on his side for 390 days and eats only measured amounts of food, food cooked over human dung. (When Ezekiel protests, God relents and lets him use cow dung, but the message is the same: the people will be restricted and defiled when they are in exile).

Jeremiah stands at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem and yells at everybody going in. “Don’t think that you are safe just by being in God’s temple and praying. Only through social justice, not oppressing the marginalized and not shedding innocent blood will you be close to God.” The prophets in general targeted the elites in Jerusalem and their association with the Temple. Since the beginning of the monarchy in ancient Israel, God called upon certain visionaries to proclaim an alternative vision of the social order free from the abuses of hierarchy and domination. The prophets rose up to proclaim the alternative to monarchy. So when we read the prophets, we find Jerusalem and the Temple targets of their wrath as well as hope for the redemption of Jerusalem and the Temple.

By the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was the center not only of Jewish aristocracy, but also of its collaboration with Roman imperial rule. The Romans, in acquiring lands for their empire, generally allowed local customs and religion to continue, as long as tribute was paid annually to the emperor in Rome. The Romans commonly used local wealthy elites to rule on their behalf and collect the tribute. Jerusalem and the Temple, then, had become symbols both of domination by elites and by foreign powers. The people were being increasingly forced into debt, their land confiscated outright or foreclosed upon, all in funding the payments to Rome, and the payouts in land to the Romans and their local collaborators.

What’s more, faithful pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem needed to pay for the animals that were to be sacrificed for them by the priests. They had a store of such sacrificial animals for those traveling from far, which could not be paid for with Roman coins. This secular money had forbidden images on it, and so the money was exchanged in the Temple for Temple currency. And in so doing, the Temple charged a fee. Because the celebration of Passover necessitated the ritual sacrifice of an animal in the Temple at Jerusalem, the faithful multitudes, already overtaxed and indebted, were further gouged.

Passover was a tense and turbulent festival in Jerusalem. It was, after all, a celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery, a fact not lost on either those who wanted to be liberated from Roman rule or on the Romans themselves, who tightened security during the weeklong observance. The city became crowded with pilgrims and large crowds could easily become mobs in rebellion against Rome. This had in fact happened within memory at the time of Jesus’ arrival to the city.

The Roman governor of the region, Pontius Pilate, made sure to come to Jerusalem with reinforcements. Usually stationed on the seaside Roman city of Caesarea Maritima, Pontius Pilate and his soldiers paraded, in a show of force, from the east up to Jerusalem. Banners emblazoned with Roman symbols of empire and might waved as the procession marched along. Legions of professional warriors, helmeted and heavily armed, were surrounded by lightly armed auxiliary forces. Shields, swords, javelins, bows and arrows, slings were all on display as the army made its way on horseback to the Roman fortress on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. People no doubt gathered along the way, watching, in awe, in fear, in resentment.

Jesus, too, paraded into Jerusalem for the Passover feast. In what I suggest to you was an act of guerilla theatre, Jesus and his fellow protesters staged a mock military parade parodying the Roman one. The Roman governor and his army arrived through the east of the city, Jesus and his followers from Bethany and the Mount of Olives, from the west. Jesus did not come riding on a horse, but unarmed and without armor, rode a donkey. Jesus likely entered the city by the Golden Gate, where it was believed the messiah would appear. Protesters waved branches, palms according to John’s gospel, symbols of triumph and victory. They covered the path before Jesus as he went along, a sign of honor and homage.

The donkey added humor and pathos to the parade; the humble, stubborn beast made a mockery of the Romans with their horses. It also harkened back to the messianic visions of the prophet Zechariah, who saw the coming ruler of Israel “triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah continues: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9:9-10) Banishing weapons and war, this king would usher in peace. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose a donkey; the messianic vision would have resonated with the crowds, a king of peace. Jesus’ followers shouted out that he is the son of David, the heir of the David’s throne, also political and messianic affirmations. The rule of the Romans will end and the messianic era, the rule of God will begin. The kingdom of Caesar will fall and the kingdom of God will be ushered in. And systems of domination will fall as systems of right-relation, justice and righteousness will prevail.

Imagine the laughter and excitement at this demonstration, the astonishment at this act of provocation, this détournement of a military parade. Imagine the underlying sense of awe and hope.

The Romans rode into town from the east. Jesus rode in from the west. One procession represented the force of empire, the rule of military might, the powers of domination. The other represented the force of love, the rule of peace, and the powers of cooperation. One way of life was based on power over others, on exploitation, on the hoarding of resources. The other way of life was based on power within, on equity, and the sharing of resources. One a social order of fear and scarcity, the other a social order of faith and abundance.

Which of these two parades do we, today, find ourselves in?

The next symbolic act of guerilla theatre that Jesus performed, in his campaign to highlight the incoming rule of God, was to target the profiteering of the Temple elites. He came into the place in the Temple where secular money was exchanged for Temple currency, and where animals such as doves were being sold for sacrifice. He drove them out. He upset their tables, scattering their coins as he dumped everything onto the floor. Jesus and his followers then blockaded traffic in that area of the Temple, not allowing anybody to carry anything through. It was a sit-in, this blockade. No more business as usual! Jesus condemned the Temple elite as thieves, robbers who were hiding out in the Temple. Like Jeremiah before him, he decried those hiding in the Temple, thinking they were holy, when in fact they sanctioned injustice, oppressed the marginalized, and turned a profit from people who simply wanted to get close to God.

This event is frequently misrepresented as Jesus “cleansing the Temple,” as if the Temple needed to be pure and this purification meant ridding it of money, filthy lucre. It should be a house of prayer, not a house of commerce. This obfuscation of the gospel spiritualizes this action, and in so doing drains it of its import and power. Jesus was making a point about the power relations of his society, how the Jewish aristocracy had acquiesced to Roman power, allowing the Romans even to appoint and remove chief priests at their will. Jesus targeted the Temple in this way to highlight this situation.

In quickly understood, dramatic, symbolic gestures Jesus summarized his whole economic and social analyses. Using familiar images and easily recognized characterization, Jesus was able encapsulate, in a few short visual bytes, his entire program and mission. A social order based on compassion, forgiveness (including the forgiveness of debts), and peace was at hand. This was to be God’s imperial rule that stood in opposition to Roman imperial rule and all forms of rule that included domination, exploitation and inequity.

Jesus made his message known not just through his words, his stories and parables. He also enacted his message, choosing actions that would convey more than words could. His détournement of Pontius Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem is a good case in point, using humor and song and parody and symbols that readily conveyed his message that there was a more powerful ruler in the world than Caesar, and this power flowed with grace and humility and peace. Referencing the prophets, using messianic symbols, everybody watching would get the point even if they never heard of Jesus or heard him speak. His interrupting business as usual in the Temple was another case in point, gestures that conveyed his message of judgment against the unfair powers that be.

Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment reserved for insurgents and those guilty of sedition. It was a gruesome form of public execution meant to quell any further forms of dissent. When I hear the mission and teaching of Jesus characterized by people as: “Jesus taught his followers to be nice to people,” I always laugh. Be nice to each other? You do not get executed by the Roman Empire as a political criminal for walking around telling people to be nice to each other! You get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for antagonizing their interests, for challenging the legitimacy of their rule. You get crucified by the powers that be for suggesting that another world is possible.

I can’t help but think of all of those who have stood on the side of love and paid for it with their lives. Who have told the world that another way is possible—individual lives rooted in the practices of kindness, forgiveness and empathy, a social order rooted in the values of compassion, mercy and mutuality. I can’t help but think of all the other protest movements that have stood on the side of love, on the side of peace, on the side of justice. I can’t help but wonder if the powers that be will always win, if domination and war and wastefulness are the fate of human beings and human communities.

Which procession do we, today, find ourselves in, which parade up to the Passover feast, the celebration of liberation? The military procession of empire or the protest march of freedom?  Are we following the processions of militarism and money or the procession of prophecy and peace? We can stand by the side of the road in fear or jump in to the laughing, dancing throngs that are hailing the news: another world is possible.