Jonah: a story for our time

My Lenten reading this year has been the book of Jonah. While most children have probably at some point been captivated by the story of Jonah in the belly of the big fish, I feel this is much bigger story that contains themes of direct relevance to our time and our lives, as individuals and as a society, in the time of the Covid 19 pandemic.

I started studying this book a few weeks ago when the Coronavirus outbreak was a “not-quite-pandemic-yet”, when the news were more (or at least equally) concerned with the choice of candidates for next Labour party leader; When Brexit trade talks were kicking off in earnest; when BoJo announced they were having a child, and when the royal family were still reeling from their roller-coaster of a winter. Now as I finish this study in the days before Palm Sunday 2020 the everyday world here in the UK looks very different to what it did even those few weeks ago.

The fight to delay the Corona Virus pandemic is now in full swing and we are living under lockdown, and in anticipation of an NHS overwhelm on a massive scale. New mega-hospitals are being set up at speed in major cities, and big corporations are partnering with scientists to race ahead and develop ventilators and positive pressure respiration devices. I and hundreds of thousands of others are stepping up to volunteering roles, and that for me at least just included being sent a massive amount of resources on bereavement and grief counselling, the distress of which will be made worse by the harsh algorithms that will be needed to decide who gets the few available respirators, and the isolation and separation the contagion of disease is necessitating between loved ones at the end. The thought of being able to do or say anything even vaguely sensible in the face of that seems overwhelming. As the first news stories start to trickle in of families and households that have begun to crack and succumb to increased levels of domestic abuse and despair, I sense that people are afraid.

On the other hand there are also positives, as social networks are consolidated, tested and extended digitally, to also include our neighbours and the often unseen others who share our streets and communities. There is time now for sleeping, for gardening, even as a colleague told me-for spending an evening playing boardgames with the in-laws online! We are catching up with painting the garden furniture and eating meals as a family, saying compline by candlelight or getting down to reading that book.

So Jonah’s story resonates: it’s not an easy story. It is a struggle, that echoes across the ages in its timelessness, and which is written with more than a hint of comedy in the portrayal of the wayward prophet. It is also short and accessible - a soundbyte for our time. I have been reading Denis McBride’s discussion of the book in which he highlights Jonah’s struggle as one of identity, direction and outlook, and I have taken this as my starting point here.

1/ Identity - who are you?

Somehow being forced to be at home is to be confronted by the life you live right now, the life you have created over the years and months of your life. It may be a life you like, or one you don’t like. It may be you are right where you thought and wanted to be, or a million miles away from that. It may be OK, fantastic or hellish, but being at home is to be in it fully and without possibility of hiding from what is. Home is the inner sanctum- the castle to which we carefully guard access. How you live is an outward manifestation of your IDENTITY now. How you spend your time there, what you surround yourself with, who shares it with you. Being at home is confronting: I remember approaching my campsite and my tent after a time in the mountains- and asking what does this space say about me. Who lives here? How does it work well for them? When people confront and take stock of their identity that can be difficult, but it can lead to deep change, to existential change, quite quickly.

2/ Direction- where to from here?

For those who will walk out the other side of this pandemic, there will be a DIRECTION out of this. There will be a path out that may be in a very different direction to what we went in with - or it may be the same. That direction is the course we will steer going forward, as individuals and as a society, economically, culturally and environmentally. The life that lies ahead may continue along the same lines as before - sometimes that is easier- or it may be a new path, that is still waiting to be walked by us, alone or together. By definition stepping out is to step into the unknown- there may be other pandemics (there almost certainly will be, and soon). There may be some combination of love, friendships, births, deaths, new jobs, old jobs, adventures travel and retirement ahead: we can’t control what happens. In the well-worn wise words of Kipling “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same; “ It starts with a direction, with steering a course and starting out.

3/ Outlook - what shapes the way we look at the world and all that’s in it. 

The OUTLOOK we emerge with from this time, is the sum of the values we decide to acquire, keep, or thank and throw out. The sense-making, the meaning -making, the story we eventually tell about this time will continue down the ages, in the photo-albums, in the “facebook” memories years from now, and in the lived experiences that stay with all of us. The people and institutions we turn to for succour, meaning and comfort right now will continue down the generations, and those we turn away from, will not. In this time of false news and misinformation in whom do we trust? Before lock-down there was everyday freedom in many societies, freedom that we often took for granted, freedom to choose and freedom to think. Sadly this pandemic highlights how many never made the most of that. Many stopped asking questions, stopped finding the answers we need. Perhaps in those answers were what we needed to live and die well, and to feel confident that our nearest knew how to do so too - whatever the circumstances. Walking out of here what will we do about that?

One of the central tenets of the book of Jonah is about MERCY, which makes the book so relevant to these times. In this pandemic, I think that on some level we all long and hope for mercy, for our nearest and dearest, for our communities, our way of life, and our values. This slippery mutating virus “enemy” is very real, but cannot be brought down with the missiles and wars, the bluster and face-offs with which we have tackled most of the conflicts of the last century. To fight this virus means putting everything that we know from our daily lives in the centre of the operating table and calmly making the incisions that will cut away what we can, leaving only the essential. Instead of fighting by adding to the economy like most wars, this time we will fight by pairing the economy right down. Instead of doing more, we will do less. Instead of complexity, there is simplicity: save lives.

Mercy

All of us I think are longing for mercy. Mercy is not something earned or deserved- if it was it would be justice, because mercy is by its very nature undeserved. Mercy is granted us by forces beyond our control, beyond petition. Disease is the great equaliser: it takes no notice of rank or status, the goodness or badness of how we have chosen to live our lives, whether we live in palaces or shacks, or even whether we help others for a living, or destroy them. These past two weeks royals, parliamentarians, nurses, doctors, teachers, young and old, and folk everywhere have been infected, some mildly, and sadly, some not. We are all of us hoping for mercy. Jonah longed for mercy. He chose to follow a merciful God- but he also thought some actions and some behaviours were beyond the pale and should not be spared. He felt, I presume, like the uneasy guardian who watches a the bright light of a simple kind soul, of a toddler who runs up to an ornery old neighbour with a daisy, or a playful puppy who pushes his luck with an older dog. These are actions that we know are almost inevitable, and the outcome of which we cannot control- maybe the old neighbour smiles, or maybe curses; the puppy gets bitten on the nose, or tolerated. And watching we know both to be equally likely. Jonah tried to avoid the situation by not letting it arise in the first place, he kept the puppy indoors, put reins on the toddler and tried to run away across the seas. But these things unfold as they must - and we are daily faced with the otherness of those we care about. There comes a time when they cannot be protected- we cannot run and must let nature and the universe take its course. Yesterday I heard another tale of a beloved elder parent locked in his care-home room, unreachable and alone. Watching TV, sitting it out and waiting. Another has a dying parent in their last days, and cannot now visit. At first people tried to escape the virus in their motorhomes, to Wales, Scotland- but there comes a time when we cannot protect those we love any more, and like Jonah we cannot run away. We long for mercy, but mostly watch numb as this unfolds- as it will. The sun inevitably burned Jonah’s head as he sat under a withered bush waiting, running, giving up, bargaining - with about as much effect as a small mouse has when squeaking in a hurricane.

Mea culpa- the bottom line

Another story within the story of Jonah is “Mea culpa”. By his self-directed action in running away to sea, Jonah spreads chaos on those around him. While they wrestle with the ethics and moralities of saving themselves by killing him he sits passively and does not do anything to save himself, either with the sailors or with God. This is a common thread for Jonah- he seems to flounce about and resort to taking a very passive-aggressive stance in almost all conflicts. His “kill me” mantra is unusual and recurring, certainly it seems he is either gambling for high stakes or he is suicidal. He never reaches “mea culpa” at least during the span of this story, and never manages to raise his head above the parapet to see further than his immediate future.

The great plagues of medieval times followed the growth of commerce and cities; as society grows, moves, converges in urban areas and progresses in wealth so that eating exotic foods becomes a new hobby; the conditions for diseases also proliferate. We caused this. Just as a new cattle feed containing protein from dead cattle most likely started the BSE outbreak in Britain, what we do as a society has unforeseen consequences. But it always does have consequences. Mea Culpa: how has what I do and how I have lived cause or worsen the Virus epidemic? It’s an uncomfortable thought, my fault- our fault. What needs to change? What responsibility do I need to take? There is an old children’s prayer that asks God to bless a child, and all those who love that child, and all those who love those who love that child… Like ripples of love reaching outwards on water, so does the negative, selfish, thoughtless actions of our every day. Mea culpa: what needs to change?

Ecology- the sabbath

Jonah does not seem inclined to step outside his life, to pause and to reflect- so God does it for him. Spending three days and nights in the belly of the whale while Jonah is essentially dead is a sort of Sabbath for him. The Sabbath is a liminal time of resting from the past and looking forward to the future. It is a slowing down, a time of rest and of being with our own imperfection, our incompleteness and that of all creation. It is a time to renew the covenant between the divine and creation: to fulfil the promises Jonah makes during that time he needs to emerge from the belly of the whale and again fully live out his vocation - which in his case is to serve God.

I write “again” because presumably he has in the past lived his prophetic vocation, and this disagreement with God stems from an intimate relationship. So intimate perhaps that he forgets himself, and forgets how God is still and always will be an “other” who plays by different rules. The story is about an unequal relationship between Jonah and God, one that Jonah feels has comfortably mooched along in a groove for a while and is then shaken up and revealed for what it is- unequal. Jonah essentially has a midlife, mid-career crisis. Just as we realise that while we are under lockdown in our homes that nature blooms outside and birds sing - and that they will continue to do so in a cycle that began long before the I of me, and will continue to do so long after I and everyone and everything I know and recognise is gone; Jonah realises that he is not in the driving seat- what he thinks or wants or believes to be right and fair- is not important.

The population of humans on earth has now exceeded 7bn people. And to some extent we have all been mooching along in this relationship between humanity and earth, assuming it will stay the same and that we are in control. This pandemic, has done what even Greta, the bushfires, and the floods of the past few months could not do to shake us up. The elephant in the room is the realisation that the relationship we actually have with this planet is not the one we thought we had. There is less of the “steward“ and more of the “house-guest” about our relationship with the planet - and in case there was any doubt about that the virus has brought each of us face to face with the realities of a world that we no longer occupy in the same way as we did a few weeks ago. We are now contained in homes and cities taking an enforced Sabbath, while outside the signs of spring are everywhere and the other species are blooming and nesting. Celia Deane-Drummond writes “I suggest that living from the Sabbath leads to transformation, a transformation of encounter, a renewal of covenant, which we can rightly name as a cosmic covenant. . . .”

There is no escaping the fact that the earth is healing just now, that this time of enforced sabbath is a time to reconsider and press re-set. But let’s not forget that we humans too are healing: Air pollution causes many thousands of deaths annually. Less movement and traffic means our air quality is better than it has been for years- and that saves lives. The speed of air quality improvement is astonishing. Like the book of Jonah which seems to pull out a single story in the middle of a much bigger story, so this one has no ending yet: As I write this we are still in the midst of all this, the pandemic is expected to peak and then peak again for many months to come. But the Sabbath has power too, and while we wait to see what emerges out of the other side of this, I hope we use the time to reconsider and lay the foundations for what is to come. That unlike Jonah we go beyond the passive-aggressive and stand up, facing the new realities all around us and deciding where we are going next: individually, societally economically and ecologically.


Refs:

Deane-Drummond, Celia. 2004. The Ethics of Nature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publications

McBride,2015, Journeying with Jonah: the struggle to find yourself. Redemptorist publications, London

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