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Saturday, March 2, 2013

A repenting God

Does God change?
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out (Jonah 3:9-10)
I wrote earlier in the week about “the sign of Jonah,” and mentioned my question about God "repenting," both in this context and in the context of Ash Wednesday’s reading from Joel. It's hard to miss, in both the Jonah story and in first reading from Ash Wednesday, the reference to God’s repentance. This "change of God's heart" is the central theme of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Jack Miles’s "literary" reading of the bible. 

The Lenten weekday readings are the same from year to year. One teacher I had described them as a catechism for the elect, a crash course in Christianity for the last forty days before baptism. Some see in the Jonah-fish imagery a sign of Christ in the “belly” of the earth for three days and then resurrected. But Jonah ends up where he doesn’t want to be, and Christ ends up risen from the dead. So the “three days” typology is awkward, and doesn’t work for me on this one. 

As I mentioned before, the book of Jonah is read in its entirety on the Jewish feast of atonement, Yom Kippur. In that context, one can draw a lot from the story: God is God. Humans can’t run forever; God will find a way to get us where we need to be, and kicking against the goad only amplifies our suffering and that of those around us. Humanity is one; prejudice, especially religious or racial prejudice like Jonah’s for Nineveh (in Assyria), is dangerous and will be turned on its head by God. But what gets me is that strange phrase: “He (God) repented of the evil he had threatened...”
Rainbow at Pearl Harbor, HI,
USS Arizona Memorial

In the Noah narrative of Genesis, the vow of God never to destroy the world again by water was sealed with a covenant sign: God’s bow, the bow of a warrior, is set in the sky as an everlasting memory. It’s a sign that God was retiring from the people-destroying business. But in the rest of the Jewish scriptures, there was a lot more to come. In fact, in the psalms and elsewhere, the complaint about the situations in which the Jews find themselves is turned against God, chiding the deity that if he doesn’t come to Judah’s assistance, the other nations will say, “Where is your god?” In other words, it’s a matter of divine pride. Whose god, like whose big brother on the playground, is really stronger? Israel pray, "God, if you are so great and if you really love us, why don't you beat the crap out of the Baals of the other nations?" Who gets bragging rights in the god department, who gets the capital “G”? Certainly it seems, to any objective look at the history of the nation Israel, that its God must be very small indeed. Unless...

Unless, as Jack Miles describes, God is repenting of the idea of being a God who will change things by violent, forceful intervention. I’m uncomfortable with this idea on the surface of it, so let me put it in a way that makes more sense to me. Maybe the Spirit of God, inspiring the scripture, is finding a way to gradually disabuse humanity of the idea that god-ness means power and might, and might mean something more than a particular nation’s anthropomorphizing and apotheosizing of itself by creating a celestial warrior-king who makes sense of a nation’s ups and downs by victories and punishments. Maybe humanity, through the writers of the biblical literature, is gradually coming to understand that violence begets violence, because violence always has an object, and the object will always find a way to bite back. Maybe humanity is gradually getting infused with the idea, inspired by an agapic, communitarian, and kenotic Deity, that all human borders are artificial, that victimizing minorities and externs doesn’t solve problems, that war, murder, and genocide legitimated by religion (that is, by god(s)) are still murder, and that ultimately being-with is more life-giving than being right or being powerful.

These are revolutionary thoughts. They’re not my thoughts, but they are the thoughts at the heart of the gospel proclamation about the empire of God, the empire that is not like those of this world, the empire that Jesus peaceably announced as the antithesis and alternative Way to the empire of Augustus, son of god, prince of peace, and savior.

Jonah, cast in his story by a sea beast upon the very shore of the nation which he had gone to great lengths and suffering to avoid, is now faced with the task of preaching to his enemy. His only comfort is that these Assyrian jackasses will not listen to him, and that God will, as promised, burn their city to the ground. What happens, to Jonah’s chagrin, is that both Assyria and its king repent, leading God to repent as well. Isn’t this about as fresh a word to us as our headlines, and as revolutionary a way of thinking as the preaching of Jesus himself? Never write anybody off, the story is telling us. Our boneheaded apologetics, nationalism, and religious sectarianism are dead-ends. They are stormy, death-ridden voyages that leave us shipwrecked and reeking of whale vomit on the shores of the very people upon whom we want to rain fire and brimstone. The “sign of Jonah” that calls this and every generation to conversion, then, is the sign of reconciliation, of enemies at table together, of victims lifted up and restored, of blood-feuds revoked and forgotten. The God of Noah is revealed, repudiating the bow, finding a way in the world through covenant and regeneration, starting with Sara’s laughter outside the shady tent at the terebinth of Mamre, and ending with the wedding feast of the Lamb when every clock has ticked off its last nanosecond.

Jack Miles’s literary reading of the Bible offers that it might, in fact, be God there, drenched in fish-puke and still breathing fire, when it’s suddenly apparent that s/he’s on the wrong side of history, and being God, s/he ought to be shaping the future. What better reason for us to change our hearts than the blinding revelation that God has somehow blazed even that trail for us?