By Bert Montgomery
Everything I know about the biblical story of Jonah I learned from watching Easy Rider.
Well, maybe not everything. But there is something about the now classic 1969 hedonistic, freedom-loving, hippie/biker story about two guys riding from Los Angeles to New Orleans that does remind me of Jonah.
In the ancient Jewish story, God tells Jonah to go preach in the “great city” of Ninevah — the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which in historical context, was Israel’s most hated enemy. Jonah, naturally, would love nothing more than to preach hell-fire and damnation to the Ninevites, then watch God blow them all to bits.
But, deep down in his gut, Jonah knows God is slow to anger and quick to forgive. He fears God might fail to carry out his threats against Ninevah. So, instead, Jonah gets on a boat heading in the opposite direction.
There’s a huge, nasty storm at sea. The people on the boat ask which of their gods is causing this deadly storm, and Jonah raises his hand; it’s his God that’s doing it. To make a short story shorter (it really is a very short story), Jonah is tossed overboard. The storm stops. Everyone on the boat is saved while Jonah is left to drown at sea.
Of course, Jonah does not drown; God sends a big fish to swallow him whole. After three days and nights the fish “deposits” him on the shore. “Deposits” is a polite way of saying the fish vomits him up.
Jonah gets the hint: God really wants him to go to the city he detests within the empire he despises. This time Jonah goes. He marches into Ninevah holding a “God Hates Ninevites!” sign in one hand and a bullhorn in the other, screaming “God’s about to strike you all down!” But, from highest royalty to the lowest nobody, everyone puts on sackcloth, sits in ashes, and asks Jonah’s God for mercy.
It was just as Jonah feared. The people Jonah most loved to hate are not annihilated by God, but rather spared. Jonah’s enemies, who should also be God’s enemies, are welcomed and embraced by God.
The story of Jonah arose in the Jewish tradition to counter a very popular assumption of “divine election”: the belief that God can only be concerned about the “Chosen People,” but not anyone else.
Hebrew Scriptures scholar Barry Bandstra summarizes the Jonah story like this: “the people of God have no right to be self-righteous, or to hold on to the love of God selfishly.”
That brings me back around to a song from Easy Rider titled “Don’t Bogart Me.”
“Bogart” is a slang term referring to legendary Hollywood actor Humphrey Bogart’s tendency to always have a cigarette dangling on his lips. The song is about Bogart’s image, and the more communal nature of hippies sharing, shall we say, a different kind of cigarette. “Don’t … bo-gart …. that … joint, … my friend …” (don’t let it just sit there dangling out of your mouth like Humphrey Bogart) … “pass it ohhh-verrrrrrrr … to me…”
God’s people always seem to develop the bad habit of dangling God’s grace and forgiveness in front of others. We always seem to pick up the bad habit of assuming our own salvation and, with smugness, being certain of God’s coming judgment against others.
It might be a stretch, but I can imagine the Ninevites singing to Jonah, “Don’t … bo-gart… God’s love … my friend …,” can’t you?
If you take offense at this comparison, good. The truth of Jonah’s story makes us uncomfortable. The truth of the story forces us to see God among the people we fear or despise most, whose actions we are certain keep them outside of God’s love. The truth of the story means coming to terms with our moral self-righteousness and our desperate attempts to selfishly hold on to the love of God. The truth of the story forces us to keep asking ourselves, who, today, are our “Ninevites”?
When you can answer that question, let this song play in your heart: “Don’t bogart God’s love, my friend …” Share it generously, recklessly, unselfishly, and with absolutely no strings attached — there’s plenty for everyone.
Rev. Bert Montgomery pastors the University Baptist Church in Starkville, teaches sociology and religion at Mississippi State University, and, like Steppenwolf in Easy Rider, aims to take the world in a love embrace. Email him at email@example.com.