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Lessons From the Belly of the Beast: What Jonah Can Teach Us On 9/11

“I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of She’ol I cried, and you heard my voice.” – Jonah.

Jonah’s cry reverberates through me this 9/11.

The United States plunged into unfathomable depths of an ever-widening whirlpool of vengeance on September 11th, 2001.

Though nearly two decades of endless war is barely acknowledged anymore, the Global War on Terror has devastated the world and our nation in ways we can’t afford to ignore.

Our war on terror has drained funding for our needs while flooding the world with more terrorism, death, despair, refugee crises, food insecurity, and environmental devastation. Our violence boomerangs back to us in the form of mass shooters and militarized police. Meanwhile, investing in war over wellbeing has left us woefully unprepared for the global pandemic that has exacerbated so many of our underlying tensions. People of color and in poverty are especially vulnerable.

We are drowning the world in a sea of violence we cannot escape.

Jonah was also surrounded by violence – the world’s and his own – when he cried out to God from within the belly of the beast. Yet he was reluctant to show the same mercy he desperately needed to others.

What can Jonah teach us on 9/11, in the midst of a pandemic, when the world is simultaneously on lockdown and on fire? Meditating on his story, we can glean at least 4 lessons to help us climb out of the belly of the beast of American Empire and build the Beloved Community together. But first, let’s recall…

We are called to be the leaven that spreads an epidemic of kindness.

Jonah’s story in a nutshell:

Jonah flees God’s command to go to Nineveh and cry out against its wickedness; sails away instead. Big storm, ship nearly sinks. Jonah tells the crew to toss him overboard; the storm is his punishment for refusing God’s command. He’s tossed, the storm ceases, the crew prays, and Jonah is saved from drowning when he’s swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah prays inside the fish who, after three days, spews him onto land. He goes and cries out against Nineveh. Everyone repents. God doesn’t destroy Nineveh; Jonah’s livid. “You always show mercy! I didn’t want to warn those jerks because I knew you’d let them live! Just kill me now!” Jonah whines. He watches Nineveh from afar, hoping God will come to God’s senses and kill them. God doesn’t. But God grows a bush to shade Jonah, so Jonah’s happy. Then God makes a worm eat the bush, and Jonah’s petulant again. God says, “You cared about a bush you didn’t even grow. Shouldn’t I care about those 120,000 fools in Nineveh, not to mention the animals?”

It’s a fascinating tale of resentment and repentance and forgiveness. In his breathtaking analysis in Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation New, Dr. Anthony Bartlett points out that Jonah’s story is a parable, not history. Like Jesus’s parables, the parable of Jonah turns all understanding of God, prophets, and enemies upside down.

It starts in the first chapter, when the scapegoating mechanism is exposed, revealing that…

(1) Scapegoats bring real, short-lived, peace.

When Jonah flees God’s command, a storm threatens to sink the ship in which he sails. When the crew tosses Jonah overboard, the storm ceases. God clearly initiated the storm as punishment for Jonah’s disobedience. Right?

Actually, a raging storm is a perfect metaphor for a crisis of mimetic desire exploding into violence. A community about to implode as rivalries spiral out of control suddenly finds someone to blame, and unity against the accused clears the skies and calms the waters.

Jonah is a scapegoat, an object of blame whose expulsion brings peace. The sudden cessation of the storm is a metaphor for the catharsis that comes from taking decisive, united action. God doesn’t bring the storm or the peace, but the belief that God does is real.

People have long extolled a “period of unity” immediately following 9/11, lamenting the loss of that unity in the face of today’s extreme polarization. To the extent that people came together to help one another, the spirit of togetherness in the wake of tragedy was divine.

But when a common enemy draws people together, the unity, though real, produces a false sense of righteousness, leaves out the most vulnerable, and ultimately drives us further apart.

When we respond to those who indiscriminately kill our civilians by indiscriminately killing civilians of other lands, any sense of superiority is a delusion.

When “unity” is achieved in a context of over-againstness, we must ask, “Who is left out?” Beyond the citizens of the countries we bomb in the name of eradicating terrorism, the answer includes the many Muslims harassed in the wake of the attacks. Anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped dramatically in 2001 and have never come down to pre-9/11 levels since.

When we put faith in violence over faith in humanity, we deny our interconnection in Love. Faith in violence thrives on creating more outcasts, scapegoats, and enemies. Eventually, this sacrificial logic devours the world.

The spirit of vengeance has always held a deceptive pseudo-righteousness. God has been mistaken for violence from the beginning.

But Jonah is saved from drowning in violence, showing us that…

(2) God doesn’t cast us off; God meets us in the depths of our despair.

Jonah is swallowed but not consumed.

That’s what violence does to all of us.

It crashes over us, encloses on us from every side, makes it hard to see and breathe…

But deeper within us, the core of Love can never be broken. Even if our souls are rocked by the turbulence of violence, even if our very lives are lost in the deluge, God meets us in the depths of this violent world, speaks to us in the depths of our violent souls, and preserves us from within.

Jonah prays from within the belly of the fish not to be delivered, but in gratitude that he has already been delivered. The fish is a proto-Christ figure. Jesus, the savior who went to the margins, who was cast out from the world; the fish, a creature of the sea, one already in the “realm of chaos” where scapegoats and exiles were cast. The sea swallows Jonah, but then he is taken into the body of the fish, where his life is preserved.

God shelters Jonah within the depths of chaos.

What does love feel like when it’s saving us from our violence? Often, extremely uncomfortable. That fish’s belly was no paradise!

But the fish is a vessel of Love. It preserves Jonah and literally turns him around – symbolizing repentance.

But Jonah doesn’t repent. Delivered from the violence of the world, he still refuses to be delivered from the violence within himself.

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, how is God meeting us in this relative isolation surrounded by chaos and turning us around?

Will we learn as little as Jonah?

Or can we use this unprecedented moment of mutual vulnerability to consider what we are doing? Can we help end worldwide suffering caused by a pandemic of violence when our nation has been a superspreader?

We are called to be the leaven that spreads an epidemic of kindness. What begins in the depths of one human heart can spread throughout humanity.

Nineveh’s repentance teaches us that…

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(3) Repentance is far-reaching and communal.

The people of Nineveh hear the warning, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Everyone repents in sackcloth and ashes, turning from their violence. God spares the city.

God was never going to destroy the city.

Cities, nations, empires… all fall by human violence. Many great and terrible empires collapse under the weight of their own militarism. 

God warns, but never destroys. God doesn’t condemn, but guides hearts to compassion.

The Ninevites perceive that God’s wrath will destroy them. But when they cease their violence, they save themselves. Or, God’s mercy in sending Jonah saves them from themselves, not God.

Even the children and animals repent. The all-encompassing repentance mirrors the all-encompassing nature of violence. Violence takes its toll on everyone and everything, so repentance – turning from violence – uplifts the whole community, including children and animals.

Yet repentance looks so dismal in sackcloth and ashes.

When we learn the harm that has come from our violence, we should feel remorse and do what we can to make restitution. But repentance is not about begging to be spared from an impending doom. It’s about finding our truest selves not over and against our enemies, but embraced in Love. It’s sobering but joyful, allowing us to live into our fullest selves in community rather than conflict with one another.

If the Ninevites had recognized their own violence, not God, as the cause of their self-destruction, perhaps their repentance would have been characterized as much by joy as by fear. Then again, if they truly turned from their violence, their joy is ahead of them.

What would we do if we recognized our own violence as our greatest enemy? If we knew we would die by our swords, would we put them away? What if we recognized that reparations for racism at home repentance from and militarism abroad is a worthy price to pay for living as we are meant to live, rejoicing in the embrace of Love that enfolds all creation?

We’ve seen how far our violence can go. How far can our love go?

Jonah languished in misery, his vengeful spirit devouring the joy that might have been his had he opened his heart to compassion rather than contempt. Sometimes, hating our enemies becomes our identity. But…

(4) We are not delivered from our distress until enemies become friends in Love.

Jonah’s warning to Nineveh is also a warning to his own soul he fails to heed. Our hatred for others ultimately destroys us.

Jonah’s preference for death (theirs or his) over reconciliation at the end says everything. But the story’s end isn’t Jonah’s end. Maybe he finally does repent.

Maybe we can too.

Bonus: How to walk on water!

Especially since 9/11, our nation has put faith in violence to stamp out violence. Now violence is erupting everywhere.

We are looking for a way to navigate this violence and come out safely on the other side.

Jesus gives us the sign of Jonah as his self-signifier.

Both Jonah and Jesus calm the raging storms of human violence.

But Jonah shows that the peace that comes from worshiping violence cannot last. When he’s condemned by a false understanding of a vengeful God, God’s love proves deeper than the seas. Jonah becomes an instrument of God’s peace, turning others from violence. But with violence still raging inside him, he embodies the living death of resentment.

Jesus’s peace comes from knowing God is Love and perfectly magnifying Love in his humanity. This peace allows Jesus to step onto water without sinking, into a world of violence without violence overpowering him.

He kept his focus on loving, especially those whom violence leaves behind. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, cast out the demons of trauma and war. This is walking on water without sinking.

And when Jesus, like Jonah, is cast out of the world on the cross, God goes with him to the depths of the earth. Love within him overpowers death.

By grounding his identity not against enemies but in unconditional Love, Jesus navigates human violence and comes through on the other side.

We follow Jesus by remembering that Love resides within us and every human being. We love so actively and completely that we leave no room for hate.

Jesus lives out the parable of Jonah, but with his whole being infused with life-giving mercy, not soul-crushing vengeance. May we take this mercy into ourselves to heal us from within. And, following Jesus, may we magnify the light that leads us from the darkness of violence into the luminescence of Love.