“And the Lord said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’” (Jonah 4:10-11)
We live in a human culture absolutely saturated with violence. All around our world, violence is a way of life. In many other countries, terroristic violence is a frequent regular occurrence. Our news reports often bring us accounts and sometimes images of frightening violence. Movies like “Deadpool” and “John Wick”, and TV shows like “Game of Thrones” demonstrate that violence resonates with our hearts as an American people, and that at some level we entertain ourselves with thoughts of it. And even less extreme examples of our entertainment choices are rarely if ever devoid of violence at least at some level. Violence surrounds us so much, that we frequently become desensitized to it. Sometimes so much so that we don’t even notice it. It has become like the proverbial “elephant” in center of the room. Violence doesn’t shock or humble us anymore. And the constant companion to violence is fear. And Christian, you and I would be lying if we said we were immune to fear. We demonstrate fear of violence in a lot of ways. It’s why you probably react with anger at the mention of ISIS. It’s why we get mad when we feel the government wants to remove our right to defend ourselves. It’s why political messages like “just kick all the Muslims out,” “build that wall”, etc… can seem very tempting. Even this past week, I saw Christian brothers posting messages online that say essentially “The president says we should apologize for Hiroshima. Ok: I’m sorry … that we didn’t drop the bomb sooner.” Fear drives us to dehumanize our enemies. Fear drives us to respond to violence with personal violence and revenge. The question of how government should respond to violence is an important one, for another time, as is the topic of self defense, which is not prohibited in Scripture. But perhaps more important for those of us who aren’t the government is the question “what should be my personal attitude toward my enemies and toward violence as a Christian?” This very question is one of the foundational questions asked throughout the book of Jonah.
We all know the gist of Jonah’s story: God says “Go to Nineveh”; Jonah says “No”; God says “think again”; Jonah goes, but refuses to like it; God saves Nineveh and Jonah complains. It would be very easy to judge Jonah if we don’t walk a mile in his shoes. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, and while that doesn’t mean a lot to us, please understand – the Assyrians were among the most violent and bloodlusting people of ancient times. They invented means of violence so extreme they shouldn’t be described in polite company. Just reading again about it today, has nearly ruined any appetite I might have had. The Assyrians celebrated violence – you can actually see today examples of their art that have survived the millennia – and it is saturated with gore. (What will people say about our art in the distant future?) Their ancient histories that have survived boast in very explicit detail about the violence they committed. It was all about shock and awe, and about frightening conquered peoples into submission. Jonah likely was filled with terror, disgust and anger when he even thought about the Assyrians. When he finally and reluctantly pronounced his warning of impending judgement and then sat back from a safe distance to watch the fireworks, you and I would have sat right there with him. They deserved it. And so the book of Jonah ends with the object lesson of the vine, and with the question which I’ve quoted for you. It ends with a QUESTION. “Should I not pity?” God does not provide us with Jonah’s response to his question, because, in the end, the book is not about Jonah’s response – it’s about yours. God asks us “should I not show pity?” Pity?! On whom?! On the Assyrians?! On a brutal, murderous, wicked, merciless, pagan people?! Yes, that’s precisely what God is asking. I believe God asks this question for a reason: like Jonah, we often think that God should show mercy to us alone – even while we sit and relish the thought of a bloodbath upon our enemies. The human heart in its fallen state, is a tempestuous sea of violent desires, even in the redeemed. But we look away from the violence within us like the elephant in the sanctuary, and pretend it’s not there. And because we don’t put our eyes on the guilt of the thing, we feel justified in wishing our enemies would meet a violent end. After all, they deserve it. And it offends our sense of justice that God would suggest mercy. But in the end mercy to the enormously undeserving is the only kind of mercy God shows. God invites Jonah, and you and me, to share his empathy toward the wicked. Oh, my friend Jonah, the sound of God’s pity should be a sweet sound in our ears, and when it’s not, it should be an indication to us that we are in the wrong posture toward mercy. After all, God’s empathy found its greatest expression at the cross, Christ dying at the hands of the violent wicked for the sake of the violent wicked. We should abhor violence; violence is an affront to the God who created life. But our abhorrence of violence should never exclude the violent evil in our own hearts. And so, it should never be a proud abhorrence, but a humble one which sees its own need for mercy, and is willing to plead for mercy toward others.