Thursday, July 31, 2014

Haters (Jonah 3:10-4:3)

Should we forgive God for not hating the same people we hate?

    When God saw what (the Ninevites) did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring them the destruction he had threatened. 
     But Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious. He prayed to the Lord: "Please, Lord, isn't this what I said while I was still in my own country? That's why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster. And now, Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Jonah 3:10-4:3 HCSB

Angry Jonah


The root of Jonah's anger is an inability to forgive God for not hating the same people Jonah hates. Jonah's point is good: justice demands retribution on those that liquidated ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. But God did not choose justice by retribution. God chose forgiveness, that is justice by reconciliation. Here's the knot: Jonah believes retribution is the higher value, God believes reconciliation is the higher value. We discover that God is the one who is willing to take the risk and break the rules of tit-for-tat retaliation. God smashes they cycle of retribution by introducing into human communities all that God is: gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishment. It is little wonder that Jonah leaves the city, the arena of God's mercy and tenderness. East of Nineveh Jonah sulks for life has been chosen over destruction.

The Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, shares his story of being in a concentration camp. While there he was taken to visit a severely wounded young German SS officer. The officer, within hours of death, wanted to confess his mistreatment of Jews and his entanglement in the policies of the Nazis. When the officer asked for Wiesenthal's forgiveness, Wiesenthal got up and walked out of the room. Wiesenthal wrote about this incident in his memoir The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, asking the question, did he do the right thing?

Subsequent editions of the book included responses from leading thinkers around the world. The majority responded that they would not have forgiven the SS officer and the officer had no right to expect such forgiveness. Some pointed out that bitter resentment helps victims hold onto a sense of self-worth and resist future attacks. The renowned Catholic priest John Pawlikowski stated that Wiesenthal was correct in not administering "cheap grace" to the dying soldier. Jewish author Dennis Prager maintains that while God may forgive a murderer, living people cannot for the only person empowered to forgive the killer is dead. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and minister of armaments, wrote that he can never forgive himself, nor can anyone else remove his guilt. 

A minority responded yes, they would forgive. The Dalai Lama noted that one should forgive those who harm us, but one shouldn't forget the harm in order for future safe guards to be developed. Dith Pran, victim of the Khmer Rouge, wrote that he could not forgive Hitler and his cronies. Yet, he could understand and, therefore, forgive the soldiers, ordinary men and boys, who were brainwashed into committing the actual atrocities. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame declared that he would forgive "because God forgives."

Among those that provided an ambiguous "yes, but" response is Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner acknowledges that in the Jewish tradition Wiesenthal had neither the power nor the right to forgive the German soldier. In general, however, Rabbi Kushner recommends forgiveness because continued resentment causes too much harm to the victim.

In another setting the Presbyterian minister 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, " say Buechner, "is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you." 

Which returns us to our haunting questions: Should we extend forgiveness to the hyper-heterosexual coach, the school principal who turned a blind eye, the teacher who disappeared behind a closed door? Can we show mercy to the minister who proclaimed us vomit in God's mouth, the Sunday school teacher who rejected us, the congregation which condemned us to hell? Can tenderness be spoken to friends who continued the hateful tirade after we came out, to family members who abandoned us, to employers who sabotaged us? Should we forgive God for not hating the same people we hate?

How do you answer?