Paddy Cavanaugh is Micah Fellow serving The Corssing community in downtown Boston. Here is a sermon he preached on Sunday, November 8th.
In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the story of Jonah is a popular one. It is often told to us as children because it’s so charming and relatable– there’s action in the storm, humor in Jonah’s preposterous predicament of being swallowed by a giant sea creature, and ultimately forgiveness and redemption for all involved, including the Ninevites who hear God’s words through Jonah and turn away from their wickedness.
The story also touches on our very human struggle to live into God’s calling for us. But what stands out to me as the most challenging and poignant theme in the story, is the restorative message of liberation, not just for Jonah, who is liberated from the fish and from his reticence to live into his calling, but also for Nineveh – the capital of the Assyrian Empire which was synonymous with oppression.
The challenge is accepting the message that the liberation of the oppressed and the liberation of the oppressor are inseparably bound together, that the whole world cannot be redeemed until we are all redeemed, either from the shackles placed on us or the shackles we place on ourselves.
The first time I read the passage I was confronted with my own confused frustration with Jonah. Why would he be so angry as to wish God would take his life? After all the Ninevites had heard his call – God’s call – to acknowledge their wickedness and repent. Shouldn’t Jonah have rejoiced and been glad? If not for the mercy extended to the Ninevites, then at least for the fact that he actually wasn’t that bad of a prophet all?
As I reflected on Jonah’s bitterness I was reminded of a conversation I shared with a friend who recently returned from a pilgrimage to Ferguson, Missouri. We each remembered so vividly our shock, anger, and outrage upon hearing the news of Michael Brown’s death last year, intense feelings that soon faded into bitterness, resentment, and mistrust. I channeled this animus directly at the police, the racist institutions that permitted and approved of violence to people of color, and to everyone remotely tied to those institutions (including myself); in other words, the Ninevites, who symbolize all that was wrong with the culture of empire that ran contrary to God’s radical love.
A part of me wanted not just justice, but retribution; the Old Testament kind that Jonah was familiar with, where evildoers are smote with divine fury or turned into pillars of salt. And when officer Darren Wilson was acquitted of the crime of Michael’s death, these toxic feelings inside of me amplified. I realized at this point, that even if officer Wilson had been convicted, I still would have felt this inner rage that made me too want to disappear from such a broken world.
Recalling these feelings helped me to understand Jonah’s anger. I feel that like myself, part of Jonah wanted God to punish the oppressors in the way he thought they deserved. He was angry that the God who he believed was on the side of the marginalized would upset the pattern of retributive justice and extend grace and liberation to the oppressors. He wanted no part of a world where evildoers could also be redeemed.
But God pointed out to Jonah that the toxic feelings of embitterment and rage had become his shackles, just as the Ninevites had been shackled as oppressors. I felt God reminding me the same thing, that the path to liberation is through reconciliation, not retribution, and that those who benefit from systems of oppression are ultimately deprived of living in full relationship with God and each other, as the living Body of Christ.
This is not to say that the officer who shot Michael does not need to be held accountable for his actions; he does. Or that we do not need to acknowledge and correct our own complicity in systems that perpetuate violence, racism, sexism, homo- and transphophia and other forms of division; we do. Rather, this means that part of extending love to one another involves holding each other and ourselves accountable when we fall short of our calling to love God, neighbor, and enemy.
This Sunday at his installation our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminded us that “the liberating love of God is key to the way of Jesus” and that if “it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.” If we accept this to be true, then we can likewise accept that that which is about love, is also about God. Then we, like Jonah, can seek the light of our own liberation in order to work together as agents of love for the full liberation of the whole world. Amen.