“The gates of repentance are always open. And I think American culture in particular really struggles with this, when we think about our national character. And step one is really reckoning with the harm that was caused.” -Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
Jonah and my Issues With Other People’s Repentance
The detail most people remember about the story of Jonah is that he got swallowed by a whale, probably because this image that lends itself to wallpaper in a way that Jonah throwing a temper tantrum, or Jonah being a bigot does not. The whale part – that’s like, ok and everything…. but the rest of Jonah is amazing - I mean, you have to love a Bible story where the least interesting thing about it is that some guy gets swallowed by a big fish and is spit back up on dry land.
Background: The Assyrians were the enemy of Jonah’s people - they had ravaged and pillaged so much of Israel taking their wealth, occupying their land, and demanded that they be paid tribute – basically District 12 and the Capital.
And then one day, The Word of the Lord comes to Jonah and God says “Go tell that wicked Assyrian city Nineveh to repent– those guys suck so much that their wickedness is like, totally stinking up heaven”
It’s like if God came to me and said “Hey Nadia, you know the people who detain children and refuse to wear masks during a global pandemic….. hey Nadia, you know those mansplainers on twitter …well, you’re right, those people suck. So I’d like you to cry out against them for me.”
Can you imagine? I don’t know about you but I’d take God up on it in a heartbeat. A divinely sanctioned call out? I’d throw up some tweets and go on some podcasts about it and even show up in person with a bullhorn to cry out against my enemies, the horrible people.
So it’s kind of weird that Jonah doesn’t take God up on this offer. Instead, Jonah takes off on a boat in the opposite direction. God says for him to go speak against his enemy to tell them to repent - and Jonah takes off. Which is weird.
(so here’s where he gets thrown off a boat, swallowed by a big fish and spit up on the shores of Ninevah and then finally speaks his little half-assed prophesy: “repent or be destroyed” but like, quietly and with about zero sincerity)
But the thing is, it worked. Jonah’s reluctant prophecy worked. His enemies repented. They stopped their violent ways, they dealt with their systemic racism and provided universal health care and separated their recycling.
And God did not destroy them!
But here’s the rub: Jonah, rather than being delighted that his enemies repented and changed their ways, pouts like a big fat baby. Sitting on a little hill outside Nineveh, Jonah finally admits why he was such so reluctant to call fro his enemy’s repentance: it wasn’t because of low self-esteem, home sickness or fear of public speaking. No. When his enemies repent and are then spared, Jonah is like, Yeah, that’s why I didn’t want this stupid job in the first place – because I knew, God, that you were gracious and merciful slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Yep. That’s a biiiig problem, a God like that. Why? Because that kind of God is really hard to recruit onto our own team.
God was like, wait, you’re angry? And Jonah says heck yeah I’m angry (and here’s where he becomes a total drama queen) he says I would rather DIE than for my enemies to be spared.
I would rather die than for my enemies to do better and be shown mercy.
That’s what’s hard about reading Jonah - I have to look at how maybe I too need my enemies to stay my enemies, since it’s hard to know who I am if I don't know who I’m against. And maybe I need for the apologies of those who have done wrong to never ever be “good enough” for me, because being the one who is right is a comfy place to be. Not to mention that showing up with a bullhorn to cry out against someone else is seriously the best way for me to avoid being the one being cried out against. Reading Jonah, I am confronted with how uncomfortable it is for God to show love and mercy to those I do not believe deserve it. Part of me really doesn't want to have empathy for those who have fucked up, for those who have abused their position, for those who have done harm.
But empathy is not exoneration.
So we can fight for justice – we can call a thing what it is and name the harm done by the powerful while also holding the horrible truth that God is super hard to manage, since God loves you and (sorry about this, but…) God also loves your enemies.
God is kind of the worst like that.
Today I’ve released this bonus episode of The Confessional. We are working hard on Season 2 which will be out next month, but until then, enjoy this conversation I had with the brilliant and beautiful Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg about the steps of repentance in Judaism. I reached out to her to help me understand what an acceptable apology is, when it should be offered, and what steps could be taken to return to community after an offense has been committed, since I am once again reminded of what my friend Rev. Jacob Smith said: “We are all 3 bad days away from being an internet scandal, and most of us are already on day 2”.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the author of seven books including: Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. She was named by Newsweek and The Daily Beast as one of ten rabbis to watch. And she's written for The New York Times, The Atlantic Salon, Time, Newsweek, and she regularly contributes to The Washington Post. And she also just happens to be a wonderful and super smart friend of mine.
You can listen directly from my website or subscribe to The Confessional for free at these podcast gettin’ places: