Jonah and the Story of White American Christianity

Jonah and the Story of White American Christianity by Chase Tibbs

Who from us sins that soil our souls does hide,
To save the wretched remnants of his pride.”
And tearful thus they pled til Jonah said, “Tis I!
I’ve sinned against my God and now deserve to die.

Away from you, cast me you must. God’s anger flies at me alone.
The sinless must not precious lives give up to sinner’s deeds atone!”

 

Inspired by a literalist and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, we have often reduced the story of Jonah to a historical event in which God magically makes a “great fish” swallow a stubborn prophet and spit him out three days later. Running from God’s call to proselytize to the evil people of Nineveh, Jonah ends up caught on a ship in a storm caused by God, and, as the sailors toss him overboard, God sends a fish to gobble him up and turn him around.

This common telling primarily focuses on the supernatural event of a human being surviving days in the belly of a fish—assumed to be a whale—and on the more practical question of how God will correct us when we do not behave. Perhaps, even more, this particular telling of the Jonah story has been used by Christians to suggest that those who are not Christian are inherently immoral, while those who are, the ones with the right beliefs, are good.

Although, I must wonder, could the book of Jonah have anything to say beyond supernatural phenomena and Christian colonization of cultures and religions?

While many may not perceive the character of Jonah as potentially speaking to the reality of white Christianity’s tolerance of, and participation in, the oppression and subjugation of black and brown persons, I hear a story of a prophet’s refusal to live in faithful solidarity—his failure to be deeply concerned for, and committed to, the wellbeing of others.

When understood in the writing’s historical context, Jonah is a Jewish prophet, a religious and ethnic minority, called by God to witness to Nineveh, the empire that once colonized and exploited the people of Israel. In this regard, white Christians living in the United States are unable to identify with Jonah in his cultural and religious oppression. In fact, regarding colonization and exploitation, white American Christianity could be more directly associated with the dominating privilege and power of Nineveh—the capital of ancient Assyria.

However, there is a part of Jonah’s story that does find commonality with the story of white Christianity in the United States. Although white Christians do not readily comprehend Jonah’s experience of religious and ethnic discrimination, his passionate reluctance to care for the wellbeing of all God’s creation is something more familiar, uncomfortably so.

In this light, the story of Jonah is the story of white American Christianity.

The question the book of Jonah leaves me wrestling with is this: How committed am I to the salvation of all God’s creation?

Now when I talk about salvation, I am not talking about being saved from eternal punishment dealt out by a vengeful God on the basis of whether or not one holds the right beliefs about God, Jesus, and the nature of existence. Soteriology that is measured by correct beliefs is idolatrous because it makes God’s love dependent upon the human intellect. Our relationship with God and others should not be rooted in the fear of some punitive act of divine violence that awaits us if we do not act a certain way. The understanding of salvation I want to suggest is concerned with relational wellbeing, the individual and communal wholeness of all of God’s creation.

As Jonah does not want anything to do with the wellbeing and wholeness of the people and animals of Nineveh, white Christians in the United States have continually refused to live in solidarity with people of color in their dehumanization and suffering. From slavery, the Black Codes, and the Jim Crow laws, to more recent, additional destruction brought on by the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and over-policing, white Christian communities have fallen short of the love for justice and mercy required to confront and subvert the systems sustained by an ideology of black and brown inferiority—all of which taken together become the monstrous, and amorphous, power that is white supremacy.

As the prophet is asked to demonstrate God’s care and concern for Nineveh in his embodying of the Torah, we as white Christians, in our seeking to imitate Christ, are asked to embody what Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, calls Christian poverty. “If the ultimate cause of human exploitation and alienation is selfishness, the deepest reason for voluntary poverty is love of neighbor. Christian poverty has meaning only as a commitment of solidarity with the poor, with those who suffer misery and injustice.” He continues, “Christian poverty, as an expression of love” is, first and foremost, “solidarity with the poor and is a protest against poverty.”[1] According to Gutiérrez, the radical idea of love of neighbor cannot be understood apart from the embodiment of both solidarity with those who suffer from, and protest against, injustice, dehumanization, and exploitation.

In a letter written to friends remaining in Germany during the reign of the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “if we want to be Christians we must participate in Christ’s own magnanimous heart by engaging in responsible action that seizes the hour in complete freedom, facing the danger. And we should do so in genuine solidarity with suffering flowing forth, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ toward all who suffer. Inactive ‘waiting-and-seeing’ or impassive ‘standing-by’ are not Christian attitudes. Christians are prompted to action and suffering in solidarity not just by personal bodily experience, but by the experience incurred by their fellows for whose sake Christ himself suffered.”[2] Here, Bonhoeffer articulates a Christian life that is rooted in active and intentional solidarity with the oppressed. And as Jonah is to live into his calling as a Jewish Prophet, if we want to be Christians we must incarnate the heart of God, the heart that mourns for, and suffers with, the world.

Yet Jonah chooses to do otherwise.

Jonah, running from God’s command to go and participate in the salvation, the relational healing and restoration, of Nineveh, chooses to deny others the love of God by refusing to care for their wellbeing. This is the sin of Jonah.

Jonah is found unwilling to incarnate the grace and justice of God for others and, instead, excuses and defends his lack of concern. Indifferent toward their wellbeing, he fails to embody the Torah, which is fundamentally concerned with living in holistic relationship alongside neighbors and creation. Rather than receiving God’s command to turn toward Nineveh in compassion, Jonah shows Nineveh his back. And while white American Christians cannot fully relate to the reasons why someone like Jonah—in his experience of religious and ethnic oppression—is unwilling to passionately care for the redemption of the empire of Nineveh, we can identify with his essential reluctance.

Paralleling the reluctance of the prophet, white Christians have failed throughout the history of the United States to live, first, in solidarity with black and brown human beings and, second, in protest against the systemic racism that perpetuates and justifies their daily oppression. Rather than utilizing one’s power, privilege, and resources to dismantle and deconstruct the demonic discrimination that systemically harms the physical, mental, and emotional health of individuals and communities of color, many white Christian communities have remained untouched by the loss of life and by the outcry of black and brown human beings.

In the final chapter of the short narrative, the angry Jonah resents God’s compassion and love for Nineveh, so God, testing Jonah’s heart, provides him shade underneath a shrub, then quickly takes it away. In agony, Jonah melodramatically contests, “It’s better for me to die than to live.” The story ends with God wondering how Jonah could be so concerned with his personal shade under a shrub, yet incredibly calloused towards the holistic redemption of human beings made in the image of God, as well as the rest of the natural world.

If white Christians are to participate in the decolonization of our Christian communities, we must repent from our indifference, our lack of care and concern for black and brown lives, and turn toward God’s creation, which we are called to seek relational wellbeing with. This will take nothing less than an intentional decolonizing of our embedded ideologies of black-inferiority, our theologies that fail to confront and disrupt the sin of racism, and our day to day ways of being in the world as beneficiaries of white privilege.

According to the Apostle Paul, Jesus became the Christ, not because he was powerful, or because he was in a particular political party—he certainly did not identify with those who used their weapons to terrorize the most vulnerable to subjugation; rather, Jesus of Nazareth became the Christ in his relentless faithfulness to the actualization of the Realm of God—as demonstrated in his willingness to stand with, “to the point of death,” those whose lives the empire had deemed worthless. The crucifixion of Jesus is his final testimony that, even in the face of such brutal violence, he believed witnessing to the truth that oppressed lives really do matter was more essential to his Jewish faith than dismissing their suffering with a quip that “All Lives Matter.”

Let us refrain from “inactive ‘waiting-and-seeing’ or impassive ‘standing-by.’” Today and every day, white Christians ought to emerge with a renewed commitment to, and understanding of, the salvation of all God’s creation—including our own. We must choose solidarity over defensiveness, poverty over privilege, mutuality and interdependence over a messiah complex,  because the salvation of this world is interconnected and inseparable. Returning to the words of Gutiérrez and Bonhoeffer, if white Christians truly want to be known by our “Christian poverty” that, essentially, is “an expression of love,” we will begin to “seize the hour in complete freedom, facing the danger,” and willingly choose to “participate in Christ’s own magnanimous heart” for dismantling the demonic powers of racism.

 


 

 

[1] Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 172.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Manfred Weber, and Douglas W. Stott. Meditations on the cross. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 26.

 

Chase Tibbs

Contributor at Christianity Now
Chase is currently a student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. Pursuing an MDiv and MTS, his interests lie in reimagining faith for persons of faith in postmodern contexts. He is influenced by the Holiness movement, process philosophy, existentialism, liberation theology, and postcolonialism.

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