Wednesday, June 16

Tuesday’s Thoughts: What Does Jonah Have to Teach Us About Imperialism?

Jonah, in the Bible, in Hebrew scripture (commonly called the Old Testament for Christians), is the famous individual characterized as being swallowed by a whale.  In my daily practice of scripture and art, I decided to tackle Jonah's tale.

I had never really liked Jonah. He seems pretty selfish. Rather than desiring a rescue and grace for an entire people  he would rather the divine machine of war reign down destruction. When God decides that Ninevah, the city that Jonah is supposed to prophecy to, has turned over a new leaf and is repentant of their bad deeds, Jonah has a selfish snit and God teaches Jonah a lesson. Or rather, God tries to teach Jonah a lesson. We don't really know if it works or not. It's a cliff-hanger that goes unresolved.

Anyway, I decided to write a spoken word poem about Jonah. I hope you enjoy it.


What does Jonah teach us about imperialism?

Jonah was asked
by God
to go to Ninevah in Iraq
five hours north of Abu Ghraib
where the US tortured humanity

But Jonah fled.
Hiding himself. Refusing
to enter the complexity of his compatriots
engaging in evil.

In the bowels of a prison - I mean ship -
he rested while storms like war
raged on

He thought he was hidden from
God and all patriots
until the unwashed
crying out to their Gods
came and forced him to waken

The sailors knew Jonah was hiding
and running from God who
is in all the heavens, the earth,
and the sea.

They convicted him of wrong doing,
and he asked to be thrown to the depths.

Suddenly a calm descended.

Then a great fish rose up
swallowing Jonah.
And he was gone. Gone like the
7,490 prisoners held in Abu Ghraib.

Tortured and praying from
his cell within the
great fish,
Jonah cried for deliverance.

He was released in a
gush of vomit
onto dry land.

Again, God tells Jonah to go proclaim redemption.

The compatriots in Ninevah heed the warning
and turn away from evil
towards mercy
their hearts convicted.

While at Abu Ghraib
11 soldiers were convicted
of systemic evil.
No fasting or mourning
for them.

Meanwhile, Jonah, like a bad broadcast of Fox and Friends,
harbors evil in his own heart and
walks away wishing
Ninevah had been destroyed.

His anger burning brightly
he rests in the desert's heat
watching Ninevah's rebirth

Comfort comes to him in
the form of a growing shrub
that shelters him from the worst that the
heat has brought on.

A gift of mercy from God.

As Jonah stews in his self-righteousness,
sheltered in God's shadow,
seemingly supported in his
decision to hate
A worm created by
divine design infects
the shrub and it
withers and dies.

Exposed to the heat,
anger grows and a longing
to make his shrub
great again
is born.

Jonah's Whale
Bible Journaling by Terri Stewart


  • I remember hearing, as I grew up, that God respects the choices human beings make. E.g., hundreds of times I was old that people go to Hell because they choose to go there, and God respects their choice. God is not in the business of coercing people against their will. The book of Jonah stamps a giant “BULLSHIT” on all that libertarian rhetoric. God rather explicitly coerced Jonah to go to Nineveh … at “whale-point”, no less. God said “Go to Nineveh”. Jonah exercised his free choice and freely chose not to go. God overruled him and forced him to go. God, in Jonah, is a Republican christofascist Who is in the business of forcing people to be compliantly pious, their choice be damned. Need I point out that whether one agrees with Jonah’s choice is irrelevant? So, yes, the story of Jonah is indeed about imperialism: God is the Imperialist.

      • Of which God is one, i.e., the one never mentioned. At least I am aware of no such critique of God’s behavior. Besides, consider the disproportionality of power. Is there not some meaningful sense in which imperialism on the part of the US is objectively worse than imperialism by, say, Haiti or the Dominican Republic?

        • I am sure they exist. The hermeneutics of suspicion didn’t develop for no reason.

          And regarding imperialism I can only speak to what I know. I remember when Abu Ghraib first came up in the news I was horrified. For some reason I was studying Sodom and Gommorah then. When I looked them up on the map trying to locate both places they were very close to each other. I had thought about this issue of biblical evil and modern day evil done in the same geographic location for a long time. Haiti is not near Nineveh—Abu Ghraib is.

          • The real analogy is that God did to Jonah what the complicit soldiers did to the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, i.e., “Fuck your free choice, do what I say”. One data point in support of Richard Dawkins’ famous description of God.

          • You see it that way because your lenses tightly focused on God. I’m not saying it’s not one of the possibilities. But it is not the only possibility. My lens is more tightly focused on the human actions. So that is why you write what you write and I write what I write!

  • Also I don’t blame Jonah for running. God in the book of Jonah — actually the whole Tanakh — is the Great Celestial Franklin Graham. Keeping a healthy distance is just plain prudent. BTW this is the reason why, even back when I was a Christian, I was no great fan of that poem, so universally beloved of virtually all conservative Protestants, “The Hound of Heaven”.

    • That sounds like a horrible poem and I don’t know it.

      I don’t read the Bible like it’s a divine translation. I read it like it’s people telling their encounter with mystery. So is it God? Is it Jonah? It’s the storytellers perception of both. And Jonah is kind of a dick in the story. The God character is at least a little more complex in that there is redemption and ultimate forceful badness within the one character.

          • So is the NT description of Jesus playing with little kids and feeding folks. If the human origins of Job are reason to read with suspicion, the same should be true of the Gospels, perhaps even more so since the violence of the God incarnate in Jesus is elided in both the Gospel text and commentaries on same. I published a “Skeptic’s” column about this — at Easter, no less.

      • Re the filters … yes, that’s why I continue to say that, e.g., the real problem with clerical child abuse is only secondarily the character Church, i.e., the human institution, and primarily the character of God. Focusing one’s lens on the former means that one loses focus on the latter. Problem is, the latter is the reason for the former: absent God there would be no Church. Absent God there would be no problem about evaluating Job’s choice.

        • That doesn’t hold true across religious institutions. If It were true, that it was the cause of the church, and the cause of God, then the pedophilia problem would be equally represented a crossed all religious institutions. And it’s not.

          Also, pedophiliacs exist without faith communities. Granted they are not able to have institutional cover-up, but they do exist and are prolific in their abuse of others. It just doesn’t make the news because it’s not institutionalized.

          With or without God, there is abuse.

          And I can still find Jonah’s choice to continue hating even after a civilization has stopped being systemically evil to be a bad choice.

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