1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. … 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.Jonah 3:1–5, 10 (NRSVue)
Grace, it seems, does not always make for good politics. And our politics have little room for grace. As an Israelite living in the shadow of the imperial city of Nineveh, Jonah is not happy when he hears God calling him to go into the city and announce God’s judgment. Nineveh represents a rival community for Jonah, a hated and oppressive enemy. Go up to Nineveh and cry out against it, God says. And so Jonah goes down to Tarshish.
Many know this familiar story. God finds Jonah at sea, stirs up a storm, and Jonah’s ship-mates reluctantly throw him overboard, where he is swallowed by a great fish. Finally spit up on dry land, the Lord speaks to Jonah again, and this time he decides to go. But he’s not happy about it, covering only one third of the city and giving a pretty terse message on behalf of God. But the city responds, and God grants grace, and Jonah stews, confessing later in chapter four that he fled to Tarshish precisely because he knew God is slow to anger and abounding in mercy. Jonah understandably wanted no part in such mercy and grace.
In his book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, Jeff Sharlet takes a road trip across the United States, stopping at church services and pubs, political rallies and diners to ask the question “how does a [political and social] body come apart?” All across the country, people confess to Sharlet their political awakening, their conversion, so to speak, when they became convinced of the grave threat other political communities pose to them. Democrats, migrants, LGBTQ+ persons, elites, the media, people of color … enemies constituted through their otherness, otherness equated with enmity. In a parking lot outside a church or in a bar where servers openly carry firearms, people who seem otherwise unremarkable confess to Sharlet a yearning for civil war, a coming baptism in blood to cleanse the soul of the nation.
What makes Sharlet’s account so troubling is not necessarily the conversations he records, but the fact that the political imagination and moral intuitions that shape our public life offer few rejoinders to his interlocutors. By seeking moral certainty and granting identity markers near-ontological status, they have internalized and inverted the language game of modern political speech. Within this inversion, racism can now be “reversed,” and Christianity is under siege every time democratic process blunts Christian hegemony.
Decades of legal victories in pursuit of progressive goals, where individual rights to abortion or atheism, to marriage or racial equality, are able to be turned inside out through the same logic that produced them. While dangerous and disappointing, this should not come as a surprise. Liberty as it is used politically offers an imperfect horizon, for it is capable of shape-shifting into the norms and needs of whichever political community that calls upon it. In many cases, such shape-shifting suggests promise and possibility. In his book Modern Social Imaginaries, Charles Taylor describes modernity as, among other things, the “long march” of Enlightenment notions of liberty toward ever-more applications (143-150). Abolition, women’s suffrage, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights movement are all rooted in notions of liberty, seeking to extend basic rights to excluded groups.
But the “long march” meets, at nearly every turn, other political communities who perceive in the extension of rights to one group, the violation of their own. Religious and cultural conservatives might perceive the loosening of sexual norms and no-fault divorce laws as a violation of their religious liberty, their right to shape the public institution of marriage in ways that align with their values. But debates in the middle of the nineteenth century over slavery in the U.S. provide perhaps the most reprehensible example. Even politicians who considered slavery evil envisioned emancipation as weighing the right to property against a basic right to freedom. Liberty – understood as freedom from external coercive power, as the basic right to pursue one’s own ends – is relative to the norms, hopes, and stories of its political community.
It is, in other words, a kind of identity politics. We make the case for liberty by identifying a group whose interests are not protected and defining those interests in clear moral terms. One is either for the extension of these rights or an enemy of freedom. In many cases, this moral clarity offers a prophetic gift and challenge. But in others, such clarity can be weaponized, and the language of liberty dehumanizes our neighbors by demonizing them. However one thinks about Sharlet’s interview subjects, they believe themselves to be in a struggle for liberty and have become well-versed in the language game of contemporary politics.
In Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh identifies an aporia within modern discourse on liberty and rights. Because liberty names a negative value – understood as freedom from coercion – it limits the size and power of the state in managing or directing individual affairs. And yet, the very individualism such liberty promises requires the state to continually mediate between the conflicting claims to liberty of different groups. As Jefferson Cowie shows in Freedom’s Dominion – his study of white resistance to federal power in a single Alabama county – Black and Indigenous freedom in the South was secured through extensive military and administrative interventions by the federal government. Such interventions were always brief and contested, however, because they were perceived to violate the liberties of white squatters and land owners. Liberty, I mean to say, is constructed by and relative to a political community.
We’ve wandered a long way from Jonah and Nineveh.
God calls Jonah to go into enemy territory. A “great city” three miles across, Nineveh signifies the economic, political, and military power constantly threatening Israel’s well-being. As a means of survival, Jonah has separated himself from Nineveh, seeking to go anywhere but into the imperial city. Jonah wants to see Nineveh burn, and so does the community to which he belongs, and for good reason. Israel is marginal to Nineveh. Israel’s interests are not the same as that of Nineveh. Jonah’s response is rational, believable, good politics in a competitive and violent world. He has constructed an Other, understood this other in moral terms, and remained clear in terms of his obligations. Flee Nineveh and let God deal with them.
The problem, however, is that before God deals with Nineveh, God deals with Jonah, and Jonah ends up at the gates of the great city with his half-hearted message. Even more surprising, Nineveh does not do what Nineveh is supposed to do. They do not alienate, judge, try, or persecute Jonah. They don’t laugh at him and ignore him. They hear him, and respond in ways that border on the ridiculous and humorous. The whole city repents, even the animals are in sackcloth. And so God relents. God shows grace. And Jonah is pissed.
God deals with us, and also with our political enemies, and this is an act of grace which introduces moral complexity and political uncertainty. Grace cracks the door to a world not entirely determined by scarcity and competition, a world less comfortable with binaries. Like Jonah, the political communities we construct to defend our own interests or to protect the interests of others are caught in a zero-sum game, where fixed identity markers and moral certainty fossilizes the political options available to us. Grace – the grace of God and the grace a stranger might offer us – disrupts this arrangement and suggests a different way in which we might conceive of our shared life and of the world itself.
That is to say: God’s grace for Jonah and also Nineveh questions our competitive and acquisitive understanding of the world. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer reflects on the wild strawberries which grew in the woods near her childhood home. They belonged to no one, and also everyone, for they appeared through the natural interchange of seed-laden strawberries, animals, soil, and sun. The strawberries happen to ripen most years near Father’s Day, and she recounts tip-toeing through the woods for hours to collect wild strawberries in a jar for the celebration. It was important to her that the strawberries were gathered from the woods. Besides being less sweet, purchased strawberries would change the nature of the gift, which expressed the doubled generosity of the forest and Kimmerer’s care in collecting the fruit.
For Kimmerer, the “gift of strawberries” discloses the nature of reality (22-24). The world, she suggests, must be understood as a gift economy in which human flourishing and creaturely well-being depends upon a grand ecological dance of giving and receiving. It is not so much about strawberries, but rather the kind of relationship signaled by the strawberries between Kimmerer, the earth, and her father. In this yearly ritual, she recognizes a world characterized by abundance, and human life constituted in and by relationships. The gift of strawberries, for Kimmerer, is not just a fond memory from childhood, but rather the disclosure of graced existence. Life depends upon the gifts of soil, water, sun and all those creatures and plants which cultivate the possibility for our thriving, what Norman Wirzba in This Sacred Life calls “the meshwork world” (109-122). Creaturely life is a shared, interdependent gift.
Despite the fact that the Bible is used to defend various Enlightenment claims to individuality and autonomy, the Scriptures offer various instances like Jonah’s, where God surprises us – and the biblical characters – by putting us into surprising relationships which break open the moral certainties and carefully-constructed categories that protect our safety and cultivated identities. Jesus with Zacchaeus. Paul with Ananias. Peter with Cornelius. God’s care for Nineveh and its begrudging prophet invites both parties to consider a world characterized by gift. God cracks open a door to new possibilities, in which Jonah might recognize the humanity of his enemy, and in which an imperial city might repent of its idolatrous ambition and hegemonic violence. But the story ends with Jonah arguing with God on a hill overlooking the city. He remains unwilling to walk through the door, choosing a more comfortable and more violent world instead.
As we enter a new election season with our polarized political communities occupying different epistemologies and worlds, it remains an open question what it will look like for us to cultivate a better politics. We are caught in a riptide, being pulled further apart with few resources at our disposal for anything other than the zero-sum game we’ve inherited. The Jonah story, however, offers a different kind of political imagination, where God confronts and offers grace to enemies by putting them into contact with one another. This multi-layered grace introduces moral complexity and political uncertainty, but it also opens the door to a world not entirely determined by scarcity and competition.
What is clear, however, is that the zero-sum game we are currently playing is like trying to escape the riptide by swimming against it. Thankfully, we have this story about a great fish. Perhaps grace makes for good politics after all.