Bigotry: Overcoming the Jonah Syndrome
A Study in the Minor Prophets: Jonah
May 1, 2002 - This article continues our Bible study on the Minor Prophets. Top Bible scholars explain the major themes of these books—and show how the prophets' messages affect us today.
by Desmond Alexander
During a recent visit to a local museum in Belfast, Ireland, my son was attracted to a display of antique swords. As he examined them with boyish interest, I saw an inscription engraved on one of the weapons. In clear, bold letters were the words: "Soli Deo Gloria" ("To God alone be the glory"). Here, as if anyone needed it, was a chilling reminder that politico-religious bigotry has had a long history in Ireland. As the contemporary militant Ulster-Protestant slogan, "For God and Ulster," reveals, national and religious aspirations have all too often been interwoven—with catastrophic consequences.
Such bigotry is not new. Bigotry lies at the very heart of the book of Jonah, a story that focuses on events in the middle of the 8th century B.C. As we read of the extraordinary events that befell this Israelite prophet, we encounter a sorry mix of misguided theological thinking and nationalistic fervor.
As we witness Jonah’s response to "the word of the Lord,"(1) it is apparent that everything is not well. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach a message of judgment against the Ninevites’ wickedness. Jonah’s unwillingness to go to Nineveh appears to be deep-rooted. Rather than simply ignore God’s call, Jonah deliberately undertakes a journey to get away, as far as possible, from Nineveh. Boarding a ship in Joppa (modern-day Tel Aviv-Yafo), Jonah hopes to travel to Tarshish (a location in Spain), at the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.
While Jonah’s motive for undertaking such a dangerous journey initially remains obscure, eventually he discloses it in an angry outburst to God. Following the repentance of the Ninevites and the revoking of the judgment that God had pronounced upon them, Jonah angrily prays, "O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. 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, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."(2)
At the heart of Jonah’s prayer is his inability to accept that God should show mercy to the Ninevites. His flight to Tarshish was motivated by dread of God’s compassion. And when later his fear is realized, Jonah is filled with such anger that he longs only to die. For Jonah it is unacceptable that God should pardon the Ninevites.
The reason for Jonah’s uncaring attitude toward the Ninevites is not apparent at first. An important clue comes in chapter four. In a book that emphasizes the compassionate, merciful nature of God, the destruction of the gourd that sheltered Jonah appears to be out of place. Everything else in the story is about salvation, not devastation. However, the gourd’s destruction by the worm symbolizes what Jonah may have feared: in fewer than 50 years the people of Nineveh would be responsible for the obliteration of Jonah’s own native land Israel. In celebration of that event in 722-721 B.C. the Assyrian king Sargon II recorded the following words after his capture of Israel’s capital city: "At the beginning of my royal rule, ... I besieged and conquered Samaria, led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants of it."(3)
Many questions must have flooded Jonah’s mind as he waited outside the great city of Nineveh. How could God possibly forgive these people, leaving them alive to reap devastation on Jonah’s fellow-countrymen? What had the Ninevites done to deserve such mercy? Did they not merit God’s judgment rather than His forgiveness? Why should God show so little compassion toward His own people Israel? How could Jonah serve a God whose actions are so enigmatic?
The inconsistency of Jonah’s theology will not be lost on the careful reader of the story. Following his own disobedience and his flight from God’s presence, Jonah himself experienced God’s forgiveness. After his deliverance from a watery grave, he rejoiced in God’s mercy with the affirmation, "Salvation comes from the Lord."(4)
God’s response to Jonah’s anger is striking. Whereas God pities Nineveh but destroys the plant, Jonah pities the plant but demands the destruction of Nineveh. At odds with God, Jonah is typical of those who see the divine attributes of justice and mercy as functioning for their own benefit; mercy for themselves, but justice for their enemies. Fortunately, our God is never manipulated by human desires. As the book of Jonah makes obvious, God is sovereign, His justice is impartial, and His mercy may extend to anyone who sincerely repents.
In everything God remains sovereign. To underline this, the story of Jonah contains a number of incidents in which God demonstrates His control over the forces of nature. The great wind,(5) the great fish,(6) the gourd (or vine),(7) the worm,(8) and the scorching east wind(9) are all appointed by Him. We need to be reminded constantly that God is no puppet deity, programmed to respond to our particular wishes.
Jonah’s bigotry, his unforgiving attitude and his hatred might be termed "the Jonah syndrome," and unfortunately, the Jonah syndrome lives on today. Christians have often revealed the same bigoted attitude as Jonah. We expect God to show us mercy but deal justly with our enemies. After all, we deserve God’s forgiveness, they don’t! Such an attitude surfaces in many situations and is a blatant rejection of the central Christian doctrine of salvation by grace.
The Jonah syndrome exists within the Church. The Apostle Paul encountered it among the early Corinthian Christians. The Jonah syndrome lay behind the divisions that separated believers from each other. Each group believed that they alone were the true recipients of divine grace; God would fulfill His purposes through them, not others. Today the same mentality still separates Christians. We need humility to recognize that God’s grace may embrace even those whom we would readily reject.
It is vital that we do not allow the self-interest shown by Jonah to color our judgment in national or international affairs. All too easily we can identify God with the ambitions of one particular nation or political party. Such thinking in the Middle Ages pervaded the so-called Christian crusades against the Muslims. Centuries later we continue to suffer the consequences of anti-Christian feelings brought about by the crusades. While loyalty toward one’s nation or ethnic group is often presented as something worthy, we need, as Christians, to remember that Christ’s Kingdom can never be identified with national or ethnic interests. Those who exploit religion in the name of patriotism undermine, rather than advance, the Kingdom of God.
The Jonah syndrome may surface in our personal relationships. It is often easy to criticize and condemn the behavior of others. Yet, when we become adamant that we are in the right and others are in the wrong, we encroach upon God’s sovereign right to exercise judgment or mercy as He pleases. We need to remember that God’s mercy may extend to the most unlikely of candidates. If, in our arrogance, we believe that God is there exclusively for us, we shall discover at our cost, as Jonah did, that the Lord of Creation is not owned by any single individual or nation.