Racism, nationalism, prejudice, hatred – all in the news once again. Oddly enough these headlines have had me lingering in the ancient story of Jonah, and once again reminding me of the timelessness and profundity of the biblical narrative. Jonah shows me that the pains and problems that we face today are not new. They are ingrained deep into the fiber of human nature. And no matter how much you go to church and pray, you are not immune to these toxic tendencies.
Reflecting on these things has helped me to see my own background a little better. Russian Baptists are a faith group of survivors. They are the collection of those who had to weather the battering storms of atheistic communism, and its attempts to snuff every last evangelical breath in their midst. The communists ultimately lost the war with the faithful iron soul of the Baptist’s devotion. But we are not without scars.
The piety and fidelity of my people is one side of the Russian Baptist face. There is a scarred side though. We came out very sectarian, very closed-doors, very suspicious of “outsiders”. The spiritual wasteland of communism also starved our zeal for the loss and need of people outside our faith community. We stuck together through the communism. And we “stick together” in the New Country to which we immigrated. All the while, we fail to see that those outside our faith community are not our enemies. They too have needs. They too need to know of Jesus’ love.
All the same racism, anger, hard-heartedness and pride I see in the crazy story of Jonah I see in the crazy story I myself have grown up in. I have seen communities of people who sit under the cross of Jesus, who did not care one bit about the eternal destiny of anyone outside their own church, family or clan. I have been part of communities that somehow thought that God’s mercy to them made them better or more superior to those who look, talk and think differently than they do.
So where does that put me? Do I simply look back at my history and condemn and scorn them for their ignorance and hardness? I could. But that would simply be my way of recycling in my own heart the sins of the past. It would be my way of being stuck in the generational cycle of religious pride. The only way out is to see that this is my story. This is me. I am no better, I am not above those who made me. In a recent conference talk, Jason Petty (Propaganda) challenged young people to not look away from the sins and diseases of their social and cultural upbringing. “Look at it. Sit in it. Stew in it.”
The only way forward is the way through. We need to look at our scars. Own up to them. We need to repent as communities and as individuals. And then to seek a way of change, a pursuit of real Christ-likeness, from within the messed up stories that have made us. God is continually writing his story in the story of his people, and this story comes with seasons of drought and seasons of renewal. But those seasons of renewal start in the drought. There must be those who are going to bring the fresh water into the dry places.
Jonah is an inditement against the moral and ethical superiority that often seeps into the ranks of God’s people. The book of Jonah does not sugar coat the issues. He was not pictured as a bad apple, as an outsider. This hard, angry, defiant, racist man is a prophet of God, a member nation through whom God chose to bring mercy and salvation to the world. Talk about a crooked stick. And yet God somehow manages to still draw the straightest line you ever saw.
When we see the sins of our families and our churches, we cannot disassociate ourselves from them and think ourselves better. The fact that the church is messed up does not make it any less the church. What makes it the church is the healing mercy and wisdom of God that continues to work with us even as he did with Jonah. I am deeply encouraged today as I see the cracks grow in the pride and hardness of my own church family. God brings the fresh and renewing growth to us as we stew in our sins and realize that we are no better, that we need grace every day.
Later this week I’ll be posting a follow-up article focusing on the question: Where to from here?