HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE MESSAGE AND MISSION OF JONAH
by Mark Dankof for Global News Net (GNN)
(an excerpt of remarks delivered at the National Convention of the Lutheran Ministerium and Synod–USA in Indianapolis, Indiana in 2002)
Several of you at this National Convention have asked me to speak briefly on my latest writing projects and adventures, especially my work for the new international Internet news service, Global News Net (GNN), based in Tempe, AZ. While I have already authored a number of articles for GNN, especially in the realm of political observation and commentary regarding the Middle East, my emphasis in the immediate future will be writing and research in the area of human rights, both in the United States and internationally. My desire, and that of GNN, is to attempt to give fair coverage and hearing to human rights groups worldwide, spanning the ideological, religious, and political spectrum. If the individual or organization in question is a responsible representative of a cause devoted to the improvement and saving of life anywhere on the planet, GNN wants to give he, she, or it additional exposure, to stimulate thinking on a global basis regarding how best to address the most critical issues of the age, while there is still time to do so. And I believe that the clock is winding down in history. If this is the case, it is my judgment that the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, or secular citizen has a series of challenges–and responsibilities–ahead, which must be given top priority in time, thinking, civil dialogue, and financial support.
When it comes to human rights and ministry to the suffering, the persecuted, and the dying, orthodox Lutheran Christianity may well turn to the book of Jonah as a reminder of a series of principles forgotten by a large percentage of the present population of the United States and the larger cosmos. These principles, if recovered, may restore the fortunes of individual souls and the collective soul of both our Republic and the world at large. If jettisoned, the clock will indeed strike midnight in a proximate time frame.
Principle number one in history and in the book of Jonah is this–that no nation can afford to measure its strength and longevity by borders, economic growth, military prowess, and diplomatic prestige. The strength, longevity, and purpose of any individual or collective entity can and shall be determined by the sincerity of commitment to God and subsequently to His creation. Foremost among his creation are human beings, made in the image of God. At the time of the penning of Jonah’s prophetic record, the northern kingdom of Israel was being ruled by Jeroboam II (793-753). His reign is remembered for its recovery of territories previously lost by Israel to a predatory Damascus, subsequently defeated itself by Assyria. With the defeat of Damascus, the northern kingdom of Israel expanded its borders, enjoyed external peace with its immediate neighbors, and experienced a degree of economic growth and prosperity slightly reminiscent of Israel’s halcyon days during the United Monarchy under King David and Solomon. But like the United States of the post-World War II era, the northern kingdom was internally decadent and complacent. Its replacement of concern for God and the deeper human rights and needs of its citizens with economic greed and the corruption of its central government, resulted in irrevocable judgment at the hands of Assyria in 722. The capital of Israel, Samaria, was sacked. The northern kingdom disappeared in the sands of history. It begs the question as to the future of these United States, given the abominable condition of our churches, the corruption of our government, the rapacious greed which drives our mega-corporations, the consciously evil character of our mass media, the self absorption of our people, and the spirit of violence and war which threaten to envelop us as well as the world at large. The clock is indeed winding down.
The second principle is this---you can’t run from God and what He has commissioned you to accomplish as an instrument of witness and ministry for His creatures in time and history. Jonah 1:3 informs us that the prophet of God, having been commissioned to travel from Israel to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria near the Tigris, elects instead to express his rebellion against God’s directive by traveling to the other end of the Levantine commercial sphere to avoid carrying out the divinely bestowed commission to beckon the Ninevites and the King of Assyria to join God’s kingdom rooted in love and faith. The Biblical narrative describes Jonah’s trip to the coastal city of Joppa, to catch a sea-bound vessel for Tarshish, believed to be in southwestern Spain near Gibraltar. It is a decision rooted in selfishness, cowardice, and the axiom that self-preservation and self-aggrandizement is transcendent above and beyond all other virtues and values--where the will of the Creator is supplanted by the will of the creature. It is also a decision replicated and identified with by much of modern America in its most repellant expressions and moments. The tragedies of the Middle East; the mass genocide of the civil war in Sudan; the ballistic missile buildup near the Taiwan Straits; political repression and death in war-torn Colombia; the oppression of religious and human rights activists in Communist China; and the destruction of civility, love, and honor in our own families, cities, communities, and political parties is an existential irrelevancy to the American masses. They are enamored of pennant races, Super Bowls, Hollywood, and the investment advice of the Wall Street Journal, while Rome burns. The clock is indeed winding down. In the midst of this evil age, we cannot afford to avoid travel to Nineveh for escape and vacation in Tarshish. When the needs of God’s creatures in Nineveh beckon us in divine imperative, we must respond. This is the message of Jonah. This is the message of the prophets and apostles. This is the message of the earthly ministry of Jesus. This is the legitimate, beckoning cry of the modern human rights movement in a variety of forms, cultures, and expressions. We must see the need. We must hear the call. We must respond as an affirming alternative to the culture of hedonism, indifference, and death.
The third principle is a derivative of the second, and similarly inviolate. When you run from God and His divine appointment and commission to help humanity in crisis, He finds you in the midst of your self-created distress and self-destruction, wherever you are. In the midst of distress He not only saves you and redeems you, He uses your suffering and angst as a primer for correction and instruction in love and reconciliation. Luther tells us that it is the suffering individual who is in greatest communion with the Biblical God. And the suffering individual is paradoxically receiving God’s greatest grace and restoration in the midst of tragedy and crisis. Only this suffering individual can reach out to those who also suffer in the larger cosmos. Whether we speak in the specific terms of the Biblical Gospel, or in the language of secular human rights movements and testimonies, this must certainly be the great mystery and truism of life, which frames the philosophical foundation for all that we undertake–that to love God and minister to His creatures is of the essence of meaningful human life and existence. The jettisoning of this perspective is the beginning of an inexorable, declining spiral into spiritual sickness and death, individually and collectively. Jonah’s residence in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights is followed by his resurrection from the pit; the word of the Lord coming to the prophet a second time; the subsequent obedience of the chastised, wiser prophet in traveling to Nineveh; and the revocation of God’s threatened judgment on that city. God and the example of His prophet beckon us to a similar renewal of life, a reestablishment of divinely commissioned purposes, and the priority of love and sacrifice–before the winding down of the clock, and the subsequent, sounding stroke of midnight.
Finally, the fourth principle is equally applicable to Christian proclamation and secular human rights consciousness. Love, forgiveness, and reconciliation is always to be preferred to the profane self-satisfaction which finds its greatest expression in participating in or witnessing the destruction of those perceived as enemies. In chapter four, Jonah tells the God of Israel that his earlier flight to Tarshish was rooted in the fear that the latter’s reputation for grace, compassion, and love would cause God to "relent from sending calamity" [4:2] upon Nineveh. It is a startling admission, not simply in its evidence of the prophet’s preference for judgment over redemption, but in Jonah’s failure to "connect the dots" between his own redemption and renewal and that provided for the Assyrians by the Lord of Creation. In this, the 8th century prophet mimics the darkest motives in the deepest recesses of the hearts and minds of those whose allegiance to the worthless idols of power and idolatrous nationalism is paramount. The equation of Pax Americana or Eretz Israel as synonymous with the purposes and Kingdom of God in history is both idolatrous and comprehensively disastrous. The concentrated wish for the actualization of impending cataclysm upon those of personally disfavored racial, nationalistic, ideological, political, and religious orientation is definitively, clinically demonic. And the case of the dissolution of the northern kingdom in 722 at the hands of Assyria, may prove to be the historical precursor and prototype of our own collective future destiny—unless the message and mission of Jonah becomes our message and mission in the proclamation of God’s grace in both the confessing Church and in the secular realm of legitimate human rights activism on behalf of a suffering world.
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