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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Forgiveness, Repentance, & White Supremacy

When the accused killer of the nine martyrs of Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina was arraigned in court, much was made in the mainstream media about how the loved ones of the murdered forgave him. This forgiveness was seen as marvelous, simplistic, premature, Christian—it garnered attention and commentary.

This narrative of African Americans forgiving a white murderer and terrorist fits neatly—too neatly—into a larger framework that diminishes the injustices inflicted upon Black people. Somehow the misdeeds of white people magically evaporate in the face of the wonderful “spiritual” and “soulful” presence of African Americans.

This isn’t right. And I mean by this not only that this narrative, and these assumptions, are morally wrong, they are also incorrect.

In confronting him, the loved ones of the slain worshippers did indeed forgive him and in the same breath told him this was his opportunity to repent.

It is this challenge to repent that deserves to be widely disseminated and discussed.

Demonstrating the powerful, all-inclusive mercy of God is the fruit of profound faith and spiritual discipline. God’s unrelenting and universal love is a core message of the Christian life as I understand it (steeped as I am in the Universalist witness).

The community of survivors that held and holds that killer in prayer, offering him forgiveness, demonstrating for him the nature of God, bathing him in the light of divine love are not weak. They are not meek and mild.

Forgiving him does not mean exonerating him. It doesn’t mean declaring him “not guilty.” It doesn’t mean not holding him accountable.

The point of bringing that murderer the light of God is to illuminate the evil he has done.

To make him see it. To make him acknowledge it. God’s light illumines the space where evil lurks, showing it to you. Making it visible to you. Being compelled to see what you have done—and to see it through the eyes of the ones who bear the consequences of what you did—is meant to awaken remorse, contrition, confession.

People have a tendency to cover up our mistakes, our missteps, our—let’s just say it—our sins through denial. We deny we have done anything wrong, or we deny that our actions were wrong, finding ways to justify or rationalize.

The unrelenting soul-force of those who would hold us accountable blow that all away. Look at what you’ve done, they say, see it here in the light. Acknowledge it.

And repent.

The humane response to being shown clearly the nature of our wrongs is to regret them, be sorry for them, to repent of them and ask forgiveness to those who we wronged.

The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer speaks of “cheap grace,” like being given the “get out of jail free” card easily and quickly. Cheap grace is, in his words, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

I don’t think what we’re seeing here is cheap grace. The Christian witness of forgiveness manifested by the loved ones of the nine martyrs of Charleston was one that required repentance.

And some kind of repentance is required if we are to ever have racial justice.

I have so few answers on what this might look like for all of us trying to live through the continuing legacy of slavery and colonialism on this continent. Except that the evil that white people have inflicted on Black and Native peoples will not magically evaporate.

And that without repentance, without the public confession of wrongdoing and without official apology, without a thorough examination of conscience by every person who benefits in the racial system of advantage and disadvantage, there can be no reconciliation, no justice, no peace.

Pauses, Grace Notes and Gratitude

Growing up, my family only said grace at special occasions, meals that the whole family was there for. We might have said grace at other holidays, but it was consistently said every Thanksgiving. Because of the nature of the holiday, a meal eaten with thanks, it would have all seemed rather hollow had we not paused before the turkey was carved, the feast of vegetables and sweet potato and stuffing and cranberry sauce spread before us, and actually given thanks. This was usually a perfunctory, rote prayer uttered by one of us children.

In the years that followed, I’ve noticed a space at the front end of every meal, every social occasion that included sitting down together to eat. There would come a moment, as everybody was assembled and seated, before the food was served. Everybody settles in and a quiet, a hush, comes to rest upon the assembly, an expectant pause, a breath, a glance around the table. Often, somebody would cheerfully say, Bon appétit! Or lift their glass and say, Cheers! Something needed to be said in that silent, ceremonial moment. It was only as my social network began to include more churchgoers that somebody might suggest, Shall we give thanks before beginning?

Give thanks. Those are the words of the wordless pause, the voice of the silent moment before the meal. As you regard those gathered around the table with you, as you look at the food and drink, the bounty of labor and love, delight and delicacy, even if you don’t have the words, or are not in the habit of saying grace, there is that space that is filled with gratitude, a breath of satisfaction and contentment. I’m so grateful we could all be here. I am grateful for friends and family and food, that I have enough, that I have what I need. I am grateful for these necessities of life, for life itself.

I think of those moments as grace notes in the unending musical score that is life. In music, a grace note is ornamentation, an unneeded or unnecessary embellishment. It’s not essential to the melody or harmony. It’s a little addition that enhances the beauty of the unfolding sequence of events. The grace note sounds as glasses clink in a toast to life, as the host thanks you for being present, in the hushed recognition of the holy moment before you dig in. There are other decorative moments that come unbidden, times of wonder and a sense of peace, times of clarity, when the mind unwraps the vivid sense that all of life is a gift.

Pausing to give thanks in the face of our blessings is an essential religious act, an essential human act. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. If only that recognition could be more frequent, more regular, how our lives would be filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace!

The word grace comes from the Latin gratia, which means favor or charm as well as thanks. In the Romance languages, the words for thank you echo this origin: gracias, in Spanish, gratzie in Italian. To say grace before a meal, then is to say thanks, affirming that our daily bread is a gift. Yet the word grace is resonant with meaning. The reverberations of its roots—gratia—are found throughout our lexicon. We are grateful for what we have, we are gratified by good news, congratulated when we have achieved something, a grace note, as we’ve already observed, is gratuitous, we leave a gratuity when a person’s service has pleased us. Something given with no expectation of repayment is gratis. We’re sometimes given a grace period on paying bills. A generous, accepting sort of person is gracious, an unthankful person an ingrate.

Echoing through this vocabulary of grace, those parts of our speech that ring with “gratia,” is an essential religious affirmation. Theologically, grace is the unmerited, freely given mercy and kindness of God, a gift of divine favor and love. It is universal and unconditional, given to all who are aware it is available. That love is so persistent, so generous, so overflowing that it offers forgiveness to all who ask. Wholeness, integrity, and peace are the gifts of being in right relation with God and one another and all we have to do is open ourselves up to it, acknowledge our shortcomings and brokenness and give ourselves over completely to the justice-making, relation-repairing power.

Have you ever experienced a kindness from somebody that came out of the blue? An act of generosity that you did not expect? When somebody did something for you that they did not have to do? Remember how that made you feel. Imagine how that might make you feel. Gosh—thanks! What a wonderful, wonder filled occasion! I feel blessed or fortunate or special.

Such acts may also stimulate an aspiration to go and do likewise. Such generosity gives us permission to do something similar for somebody else. We can add a gratuity to everyday acts—being friendly to strangers, sincerely thanking a cashier at the grocery store, a gratuitous kind word to a co-worker, making small talk to one who everybody passes by. Sending a handwritten note to somebody just because you were thinking of them with fondness. Listening patiently to one you find dull and usually interrupt. It doesn’t take much to produce this sort of grace among people. It doesn’t take much to add such ornamentation, such grace notes to our daily lives.

The thing about grace is that the more it is offered to us, the more we offer it to others. The more space we make in our lives for grace, the more gracious we become to others. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have been offered and blessed with, then we become more generous. When we realize how far we fall short of our potential, and humbly understand how much we are loved and forgiven despite our shortcomings, when we comprehend how much we have been forgiven, then we become more forgiving, more charitable. The one who has been forgiven little loves little, Jesus says.

When we have experienced loving acceptance just as we are, when others are gracious with us, we are more likely to look kindly on our failures, less likely to beat ourselves up over them. When we can be at peace with our own inadequacies and limitations, holding them lightly, we can be more generous with the inadequacies and limitations of others. Recognizing that no one is perfect, of course, one wants to work at perfecting what we can. But we do so with a sense of ease, of compassion with ourselves, and we extend that compassion generously with others. It is in knowing how much we have been forgiven for our failures that we can forgive others.

It is possible to reflect on all that constitutes one’s life and think of what we have as unexpected gifts, and not necessarily from a divine source. No one is an island entire of itself, to paraphrase John Donne just a little. We are all connected. Much of what we have we received with somebody’s help. Recognizing how dependent upon others we are and how others depend on us, how our lives are sustained in a network of mutual relation, how our very lives are interrelated in a common life larger than our own individual, we receive and give such gifts thankfully.

Of course, it is entirely possible not to accept a gift. It is possible to choose to turn a blind eye to the blessings that surround us. We are endowed with freedom, including the freedom to reject what is so generously offered. It is possible to be ungrateful, to look around at all that we have and see only what is missing, to look at all that we have been given, and be unappreciative. It is possible to focus only on the wants, the unmet desires, and blot out everything else. Indeed, there are things in our lives that we’d just as soon not have. There are needs that go along with this gift of life. We may look to tomorrow and wonder how they all will be met. We may worry. We may be afraid. Gratitude for what we do have dispels fear. When we cultivate an awareness of what we are thankful for, we see what a treasure trove our lives actually are. Listing what we are grateful for is taking inventory of the treasure we do possess.

And in gratitude, we share that wealth with others. There are others who can benefit from your gifts, even if you would never think of yourself as “gifted.” When we can finally see that we possess something valuable—a specific skill, particular knowledge, money or time—we are free to offer it to others for whom it is useful. As we learn to share what we have, we begin to have enough. As we give, so we receive. The greater generosity of spirit we cultivate, the more we are fulfilled and gratified.

Awakening to the movement of grace in our lives might need some practice. Awakening to our daily life as a precious gift can take practice. Listing what one is grateful for is such a practice. Time can be taken at the end of each day to sit quietly and reflect and review the day. What good thing happened that day that you could not have accomplished on your own? What elements of your day can be savored—the fresh air, the beauty? Did somebody—anybody—show you compassion or hospitality or kindness? Did you to do so for others, maybe being patient and friendly with a slow cashier, even though you were in a rush, or a giving money or time to a charitable and just cause, or not raising your voice or getting angry with a family member. Were there times of serenity or joy or laughter or peace? Be thankful for those moments. Be thankful for the good things that happened that you did not create.

If you’re too busy to make lists or sit quietly, there’s always saying grace. It’s a spiritual practice that connects us with our families, sitting together for a meal once every day. If saying grace before that meal is awkward, simply holding hands around the table for a moment of thankful silence might work. Pausing before a meal whether one is alone or with others, whether silently or aloud, and being mindful of what we have to be thankful for is a form of grace. Remembering that the meal itself involves the work of many hands both within our household and beyond it, and that the Earth itself sustains us. We need to eat in order to live, so hopefully the thankful pause will happen daily.

Awakening to the holy in our daily lives, listening for those grace notes, produces in us the fruits of a gratified life. We become artists of grace, giving freely of ourselves to others and creatively standing in the way of anything that detracts from the blossoming of love and mutuality in the world. We become change agents for others, for the social order, helping to shape a more gracious world grounded in the values and practices of kindness and generosity. Hospitality toward those in need, reaching out to the hungry and lonely and marginalized—these are precisely the ways that grace is felt in our world. We do it not out of duty, but because we are participating in an endeavor to humanize our world.

We would be aware of our dependence on the Earth and on the sustaining presence of other human beings. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. As we intentionally take time to recognize this, as we develop practices that bring us to recognize this, our lives are filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace. We are showered with sacred blessings that cause us to blossom and grow in thankful, expansive ways. We are bathed in grace and we in turn become gracious.

There are moments when we survey the banquet of our lives and are thankful. We have what we need. There are times in our lives when we are given exactly what we need. We cannot command them or produce them, but there are moments of pleasure and delight that grace our days unexpectedly. A sense of serenity, that all is well; the comforting silence between companions. The special quality of such moments is that we don’t bring them about by overachieving or being perfect. We don’t bring them about at all. They are given freely, gratuitously. In such moments of clarity, we understand that all of life is a gift.

It comes as simply as the quiet, sacred moment before a meal.