I am writing these words on January 7, 2021. It has been less than 24 hours since the Capitol building was the site of an insurrection that sought to stop the certification of the electoral college ballots by Congress. Over these past few weeks the country has been living on a knife’s edge, as a series of democratically elected leaders, including the President himself, undermined the democratic process itself with lawsuits and accusations without evidence.
I write this on January 7th, knowing it will be published on January 24th: four days after the Inauguration which we normally expect to mark the conclusion of a peaceful transfer of power. That process, usually taken for granted, no longer seems certain. So I write this as a letter to the uncertain future, in the optimistic hope that the U.S. democratic norms, flawed though they may be, can stand fast against the storm that assails them. I also write this letter as a warning to both a church and a people that has much to repent.
On January 24th the readings for the day are structured around two call narratives to discipleship. The first of these features one of the more curious prophets in Scripture: Jonah.
Jonah is best known for his time in the belly of a fish because he fled from God’s call to give his message to Nineveh. We meet Jonah today after his ordeal, when God calls a second time. Having learned his lesson, Jonah dutifully travels to Nineveh to foretell its supposed destruction.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, to that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 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. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (Jonah 3:1-4)
But God’s plans are so rarely clearly understood, even by his own prophets. Jonah, it seems, is a surprisingly effective prophet. No sooner has he proclaimed the city’s doom than:
…the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth…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 3:5; 10)
The text goes on to show the prophet’s dissatisfaction with this ending. He calls out to God, upset he wasted his time — to which God simply responds: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). God’s will is God’s alone; it is not Jonah’s place to question it.
Reading this on January 24th, we may well be dissatisfied, like Jonah. Already we hear calls for “healing” — in fact, those started months ago, with Biden’s first address as President-elect. For those who have been sounding the alarm about growing violence of white supremacy for years, such rhetoric rings empty and hollow. How can unity be possible when the humanity of black and brown peoples has been under attack, from the borders of our country to the streets of our cities?
In my own tradition, Roman Catholicism, such a push towards reconciliation is particularly problematic when it is not accompanied by contrition and penance. When a Catholic seeks absolution of sins through the sacrament of reconciliation, they must 1) be contrite, sorrowful over their actions, and 2) want to do, and eventually complete, penance for the wrongdoing. These two factors are conditions on which the sacrament’s forgiveness is premised — without them, absolution does not take effect.
While some have apologized for their involvement in stoking the violence of January 6th, even if we take their contrition as sincere, it is not clear that the condition of penance has been met. It is not even clear what penance for this action would look like. In the history of my tradition, practices of penance were meant to re-calibrate the spirit: some of the earliest types of penance were fasting, alms, or pilgrimage. But these actions focus on the perpetrator of harm, not the one who has been harmed.
In Nineveh, we see sackcloth and mourning that looks much like these early forms of penance. Indeed, they are commanded by the king in a section of text that is skipped over by the lectionary (Jonah 3:7-9). This penance is expected of all, indiscriminately in a way that may actually end up blurring the lines between those harmed, and those who harm.
The divisions in our country we are being called to heal cannot be solved with fasting and sackcloth (though such gestures from the right persons might actually help, insofar as they show how seriously we must take the sin of white nationalism and supremacy). As we read this text on January 24th, I hold the hope that not only have democractic norms held, but that we have also opened up difficult conversations about reconciliation and justice. As we read this on January 24th, I offer a warning that we not brush over the need for penance and reparations in the pursuit of healing.
Early readers of Jonah would also have historical context not obvious in the text: by the time the book of Jonah and the other minor prophets were written, Nineveh had, indeed, fallen. Jonah’s words — that Nineveh should be “overthrown” — is only partly subverted by the city’s conversion. His warning comes to be, just not in his time.
Not only would Nineveh’s story be known to early Jewish readers, but so would Judah’s. Much of the Twelve Minor Prophets, as explained by Ehud Ben Zvi, were written while Persia ruled Judah after the fall of the monarchy, when Judah had lost “Jerusalem (= the LORD’S city), the Temple (= the LORD’S house), and the Davidic dynasty (= the LORD’S chosen dynasty).” Perhaps in Nineveh, Judeans saw the outcome they wished for their own people. Perhaps they saw hope for God’s mercy on a world the reader knows is broken and wounded.
If God could have mercy on a place such as Nineveh, could not Israel return to its glory? If God can accept the repentance of Nineveh, can not God forgive the US of its sins of nationalism and white supremacy?
Only if we have a prophet to speak to us. As we read the story of Jonah on January 24th, we might remember how Jonah fled from his duty. Jonah sat in the belly of an ocean beast for three days for fleeing God’s call. Jonah’s motivations for fleeing are unclear at this point. The only glimpse we eventually get is in Jonah’s complaint after God has decided to save Nineveh, that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah’s complaint suggests that his entire ordeal could have been avoided by trusting in the mercy of God. Jonah marks a stark contrast here with someone like Abraham, who bargained God down to saving the similarly doomed city of Sodom if but ten righteous men were found (Genesis 18:16-33). Since Jonah’s intentions are fairly opaque, we can only guess at whether his words to God come from a desire for destruction of his enemies or absolute trust in God’s mercy.
If we find ourselves in Jonah’s place, we should interrogate our own reasons for resisting God’s call, whether it be from the desire for destruction or hope for a mercy that absolves us of action. I would venture that this question is all the more important in this moment as white Christians in this country have long been avoiding the duty to call one another to repentance. Are white Christians (of which I am one) resisting this duty because we want pure, retributive punishment or because we hope for the easy, cheap grace of forgiveness and reunion without penance?
The deep-rooted, shameful complicity between Christianity and white supremacy is well documented — even here in Political Theology’s recent forum on Whiteness and Biblical Studies. The events of January 6th showed exactly the lengths white Christians will go to hold onto white supremacy as a divine mandate.
And too many other white Christians have given this rot in our faith a pass, afraid of hard conversations, confrontations, conflicts. Afraid of confronting their own complicity. Too many white Christians have instead fled from God’s call, only to now get caught in the storm and swallowed by the great fish. Only to now linger in the belly of the beast, crying out for God.
So here we are, on January 24th — perhaps we have been spat out onto dry land. Perhaps the transition of power has been orderly, politicians who have stoked the fires of hate have been sincerely contrite. Perhaps we pray that we might have God’s mercy on the horizon. But that does not remove the difficult task before us of conversion and penance.