Jonah and Our Hard Political Hearts

by | Oct 13, 2020 | 5 Merciful

Jonah Under the Bush

Jonah Under His Gourd, Maarten Van Heemskerck, 1498-1574, Public Domain

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).

The last post, “Julian’s Joyful Insight Into Sin,” offered her vision of God as compassionate and forgiving.  Who wouldn’t dance for joy over such a loving God?

Yet, I sense in myself and in many others a certain reticence about such belief.  If we look more closely into our hearts, we may find that we reject it outright. Finding and adjusting our attitude toward mercy will set us on the way out of our bitterly divided political ethos and into true peace.

Consider Jonah.  God commanded him to travel to Nineveh and call out the vicious city for its violence, not least against his own people, Israel.  To escape the assignment, Jonah took the next boat toward a port as far from Nineveh as he could find on the map.  God redirected and transported Jonah in the belly of a great fish, mercifully sparing him death by drowning.  Grateful for the second chance at life, Jonah agreed to the mission after all.

But he slouched into Nineveh grudgingly and issued a half-hearted forecast of doom.  Everyone from the king to the cows repented, and God mercifully spared them.  Despite pulling off the most spectacular prophetic feat since Elijah flew a chariot to heaven, Jonah sulked under a bush.  When God checked in with him, he admitted that he fled in the first place because he knew God’s mercy and expected hated Nineveh to get a hefty share.

Think about it: He ran not for fear of the Ninevites or from feeling overwhelmed by the Holy, but from disgust at God’s mercy.  I don’t think he’s such a peculiar character.  Just look at the way our politicians treat each other. Moreover, look at the way we treat each other when we disagree about politics. Once we face our habits of objectifying others and cutting off compassion, we find Jonah looking back in the mirror.

The moral calamities and hypocrisies of the biblical stories and all of human history may come down to our wariness of divine mercy, preferring  a less forgiving deity who might balance the scales of justice evenly or let fewer scoundrels off the hook. While radical mercy for us compels our mercy in response, amid political conflict, we see loving our enemies as a sign of weakness.

So accepting God’s mercy should provoke an urge to give back.  But do we want that urge? Jonah did not want that urge to spoil his resentment.  I suspect that holds many of us back.  As Frederick Buechner wrote:

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.[1]

In this political season that gives rise to suspicion neighbors and distrust of family members who disagree with us, let us hear God’s question to Jonah as a question addressed to us. Substitute for “Nineveh” the party with whom you disagree politically:

Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (Jonah 4:11)

[1]Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. (New York: HarperCollins, 1973, 1993), p. 2.

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Political Incivility Versus Divine Mercy: Choose Your Story Line
Mending Divisions With Doctor Jesus
Dr. King’s Medicine: Love Your Enemies


  1. Michael Parnell

    I have said that what I want for me and mine is grace. You can get justice. That is the problem with us.

    • J. Marshall Jenkins

      That is an exquisitely concise statement of the theme of Jonah, and it certainly speaks to our time.


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