A Starting Point for Christians in a Dialogue about Race (Post Three)

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord… “Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah 4:1, 3–4

What is wrong with Jonah?

The moral of the story of Jonah was simple growing up: it is better to obey God the first time because if you don’t, well, like Jonah you will suffer the consequences. “So little boys and girls, if God ever tells you to do something, and you don’t do it the first time, he may have a fish appointed for you somewhere—stay clear of the water!” But as I get older, that reading is really unsatisfactory.

If that were the primary reading we were to take away from the book, then there’s absolutely no need for chapter four at all. By the end of chapter three, the prophet has obeyed God; he said what God has wanted him to say. The people hear the message and repent of their sins. And God is satisfied with their repentance and decides not to send disaster on the city of Nineveh. There you have it, Jonah has fulfilled his duty the second time around, and the people have obeyed, and God is happy. End of story. But the story is not over yet.

It is really hard to drag the message of obedience over to chapter four. Chapter four begins, “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.” I remember how I used to think Jonah heard God’s voice at the beginning of the book and immediately said, “I’m out,” and headed to Tarshish. But chapter four, like chapter two, reminds us that Jonah is a pious praying prophet. And before he disobeyed God, he took the time to talk to God about the mission God would have him to take. He essentially says, “Isn’t this what I brought up to you before I left for Tarshish!”

Jonah’s prayerful complaint to God before he ran away was something like this: “If I preach this message, the people of the city of Nineveh may actually listen and respond to it. And knowing the kind of God you are (the same God who revealed yourself to Moses on that mountain), it may lead to the people of Nineveh becoming beneficiaries of your immense grace and mercy. And I do not want to see that happen.”

And now that Jonah has seen exactly that he says, “God, I would rather you strike me dead than to watch these people become recipients of your kindness.”

What is going on here? There’s something much deeper going on in this story than whether Jonah will obey or not obey. Jonah did what he was supposed to do halfhearted as it was. He’s come from the depths of the earth, seaweed wrapped around his head, and has performed his duty. But the prophet is angry at Nineveh’s repentance and God’s acceptance of their repentance. 

It is really hard to explain Jonah’s actions in this story without coming into contact with concepts like xenophobia (fear or hatred of people from other countries), hyper-nationalism, and racial prejudice. And Jonah is a pretty extreme example of all three. Jonah is for his country to the exclusion of others. Jonah is for his people to the exclusion of others. Jonah wants God to care for his people but not to care for others.

Using the life of Jonah as a teaching tool for his people, God desires us to dwell on the fact that God is more gracious than his people. We are supposed to juxtapose Jonah’s (and our) dislike of strangers with God’s inclusion of strangers. We are supposed to compare Jonah’s (and our) hyper-nationalism to God’s borderless love for all humanity. We are supposed to contrast Jonah’s (and our) racial prejudice to God’s care and concern for every person.

The story of Jonah is unsettling. It actually ends with an unanswered question about God’s expansive care for his creation. We are not supposed to make the message nice and tidy. Jonah’s story becomes a lingering rebuke to the xenophobic, hyper-nationalistic, prejudicial folk that have found safe harbor among God’s people.

If you need definitions for the words I used in this blog series such as ally/allyship, oppression, race, and racism – among other words – please consult these electronic glossaries: