As the Supreme Court considers the President’s travel ban I’ve been thinking of the millions of people around the world for whom squalor and terror are every day companions and asylum is the only hope. The motto “America First” is so at odds with my understanding of the Gospel that nearly a year-and-a-half after the Presidential election I still can’t connect the dots between Christianity and anything that even remotely resembles this message. Even so, an overwhelming majority of white, Conservative Christians who made the President’s election possible, did. Their Jesus, who apparently condones mass expulsion, scapegoating and walls is unrecognizable and monstrous to me.
Nearer to home, I’ve also been thinking of an afternoon spent with my Grandfather and his sister sitting at the family’s kitchen table more than thirty years ago. Both of them were on a roll, spewing cigarette smoke and vitriol about the United States taking in too many foreigners. Of course, both of them washed up on Ellis Island as children with a boat load of other families seeking nothing more threatening to our national security than a decent life. Reaching my limit, like a snotty, adolescent jujutsu master I used the weight of their ranting against them and said, “As far as I’m concerned, I’m the only real American in this room!”
Long after their deaths, the memory of that moment remains delicious but not as victorious as it once was. That’s because, with age, it’s gotten harder simplify or villainize my Grandfather.
Back when it was easy, I’d roll my eyes listening to him chat up cashiers or flirt with every waitress. But then, after I was ordained making friends out of strangers became a job requirement. That’s when I realized my Grandfather had been a pro at it but I just hadn’t cared because as a teenager I’d thought almost everyone in rural, South Jersey where I grew up was boring and dumb.
It also took years after dumping my Granfather’s last ashtray to reflect on how he spared my mother, brother and me after my parent’s divorce from experiencing anything remotely like the poverty he grew up in during the Great Depression. And just a couple of years ago, when I was asked to offer an opening prayer during Jersey City’s Memorial Day Observance at The Holy Name Cemetery, I burst into tears standing in front of a room full of old men, just like my Grandfather but in uniforms and military hats. I remembered the stories he told about liberating a concentration camp and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. My embarrassing, infuriating racist Grandfather was also, dammit, a war hero. And I loved him, am grateful and proud.
But what if Bill MacGregor wasn’t my Grandfather? What if he was just a stranger and I overheard him having that same conversation with his sister at the next table over in a diner? Informed by my own, Christian values, I’d almost certainly write him off as a bigot and I wouldn’t have any interest in what he’d done with his life, who he was to his family or anyone else.
The prophet Jonah doesn’t run away from God’s call because he’s bad. Jonah cares about being good so much that he hates everyone who isn’t, including the terrible Ninevites. And it’s not the being sent to call Nineveh to repentance that Jonah minds. Who among us wouldn’t get satisfaction out of being commissioned by the Lord Almighty Himself to go tell our enemies how morally messed up they are? It’s only at the very end of the page-and-a-half long book that Jonah reveals that what he cannot bare is God’s slowness to anger, steadfast love and eagerness to forgive.
What exactly did Nineveh need to repent over? Did they commit crimes against humanity? Did they worship false Gods, lift drilling bans along the Atlantic Coast or legalize marijuana? The Bible won’t say. Whoever you are, whatever crime you would find unforgivable, I think you’re supposed to assume that that’s what Nineveh did. And they probably did it over and over again.
Scripture says the people of Nineveh have to change and if they don’t there will be terrible consequences. But Jonah is just the messenger, not the judge. And while Jonah hates Nineveh because he is good, God doesn’t. On the contrary, God loves that city of people so fiercely he winds up stooping to defend them to the morally superior minor prophet, excusing them for their crimes by saying they’re so oblivious they don’t even know their right hands from their left. Doesn’t this make you think of Jesus on the cross pleading with God to forgive the world even though we don’t deserve it?
The story ends with God telling Jonah He even loves all of their pets.
We might not love our enemies like Jesus told his followers to, but God apparently does and no matter what side of the religious or political spectrum we find ourselves on that’s usually more than any of us can take. So we wind up, like Jonah, out in the dessert with our back turned to our own Ninevehs, preferring to die than to see those people as being God’s own treasure. And that’s how we let our religiosity get in the way of God. If we stay out there with our BFF Jonah, Jesus, the lover of sinners, has certainly not been served by our gone bad like milk left out overnight.
So God, I pray for myself and all of the good, religious folks of the world: teach us how to be as passionate about loving our enemies as we are about seeking justice. Help us love you more than our own rightness. Teach us how to hold our faith in an open palm instead of a balled fist. And if all else fails, may your Kingdom come despite us. Amen.
Your sister in Christ,