By Frances Flannery.
Since the Paris attacks, many in the U.S. have drawn deeper boundary lines between “us” and “them” in an ugly way that in my lifetime I only recall seeing after 9/11. It is true that ISIS is related to Islam in an extremist way, much as the KKK is related to Christianity (think of the burning crosses). Yet this association has caused some politicians, pundits, and ordinary citizens to become much more suspicious of Muslims in general, despite the fact that far less than 1% of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims support ISIS’ kind of terrorist violence.
Non-Muslim citizens brandishing guns have marched outside of a mosque in Texas and several candidates for President have doubled down on Islamophobia. Donald Trump has suggested shutting down mosques, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want to implement a religious test for immigrants (only allowing in Christians), and John Kasich has urged that the U.S. renew its commitment to “Judeo-Christian” (read: not-Islamic) values.
Congressional representatives of both parties signed H.R. 4038, the “American Safe Act of 2015,” which would bar any refugee from Iraq or Syria from entering the U.S. unless DHS, FBI and the Director of National Intelligence certify the refugee is not a threat (despite the fact that entrance for refugees already entails the most rigorous vetting process of any means by which foreigners may enter the U.S.).
As a biblical scholar who also researches religious terrorism, this backlash against Muslims and mischaracterization of Islam is of great concern. This is aside from my questions regarding the morality of our refusal to help families fleeing the very same terrorists whom we fear, or that we are arguing over admitting 10,000 refugees a year when 42,500 persons a day are forced to flee because of conflict, violence, or hardship. Instead, I raise this concern out of wishing to end the cycle of terrorism. The refugee challenge is related to terrorism, just not in the way that the media has spun it recently.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, as I’ve struggled to articulate my understanding of the importance of the choices the U.S. and Europe are making regarding the refugee crisis, I’ve been thinking about the Book of Jonah in the Bible. Now, I’m not a “do it because the Bible says so” theologian, because as a biblical scholar, I read each biblical text in its own historical context and find they often disagree. I do, though, sometimes find personal inspiration in the Bible, and the last few weeks I have been contemplating an uncomfortable challenge for us as I reflect on Jonah. However, it’s going to take a bit for me to show you exactly why, because the book teaches a lesson that is not the version typically related in either Jewish or Christian Sunday Schools. There, where children create construction paper fishes to swallow little prophets, the moral seems to go something like, “There’s just no running away from God. Don’t even try.”
Instead, I suggest that a close reading of Jonah reveals a different dilemma. Through the “word of the Lord,” Jonah is told to prophesy divine destruction to the archenemies of the Israelites, the cruel and fearsome Assyrians (Jonah 1:1). Yet, since the prophetic promise of doom typically includes room for repentance, Jonah does not want to take the chance that the Assyrians will escape destruction. Exercising his free will, Jonah then runs away on a ship, sailing in a direction away from Assyria, but a divinely stirred storm results in him being cast overboard (Jonah 1:3-16). To save Jonah from drowning, God sends a giant fish to swallow him alive and spit him out after three days and nights (Jonah 1:17, 2:1-10). Afterwards, God sends the same word of the Lord to Jonah a second time, indicating that God wants a different answer (see Elijah in 1 Kings 19:9, 13). After being narrowly saved from death, Jonah acquiesces this time, but only reluctantly. He preaches repentance in Ninevah, the capital city of his hated foe Assyria, and his mission is a success.
Importantly, the text never posits that Jonah has no choice. Rather, the whole book is about God urging Jonah to make choices based on better insights. The text does not waver on the issue of free will. This is clear because the Ninevites, surprisingly, “turned from their evil ways” so well that “God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:5-10). In fact, all of the Assyrians repent, from the King on down to every single citizen and all the animals (Jonah 3:8). Imagine cows and dogs wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes, full of sorrow for their sins. The Book of Jonah does!
This mass repentance might convey to Jonah that the Ninevites weren’t all bad, that they were capable of change, and that it’s a good thing he decided to preach repentance to them so that they could avoid destruction. Instead, he is so angry that he yells at God. To paraphrase, Jonah says: “I knew you would forgive them! I knew you were merciful! That’s why I didn’t want to go in the first place!” He is so angry and spiteful that he wishes he were dead (Jonah 4:1-3). Treating Jonah like an overtired and angry toddler, God calms him down by shading him with a giant plant, and Jonah’s mood improves (Jonah 4:6). However, then God appoints a worm to eat it, so that Jonah’s temporary respite from the heat ends. Jonah, in a full-blown fit, wants to die all over again (Jonah 4:7-8).
Abruptly, the book ends with a stunning theological statement by God that provides point of view for the whole story. The Lord said, “‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow . . . And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” (Jonah 4:10-11). That’s the end of the book. (Mic drops).
This is one of the strongest assertions of God’s radical care in all of the Bible. “Those who don’t know their right hand from their left” is an ancient idiom for children, so God is saying to Jonah, “Have some compassion. You cared more for this plant (because of what it did for you) than for 120,000 children and all the animals, whom I sustain.” Thus, God’s care extends to every single creature. Indeed, the entities with whom God interacts in this remarkably non-anthropocentric story include a fish, a worm, a plant, the sun, the sea, the wind, and all those repentant cows.
Jonah was so deeply angry because the Assyrians were the worst enemies of the Israelites, and they got off the hook. Jonah divided the world into an “us versus them” scenario and he could not forgive the wrongs that “they” had committed. But God’s circle of care is vast. God reminds Jonah that anyone can change and that God will forgive even the most wicked if they “turn from their evil ways” (Jonah 3:10).
As a biblical scholar, I read each biblical text in its own historical context. I therefore conclude that this subversive little book overturns the wartime theology of Deuteronomy and much of the Deuteronomistic history (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Samuel). There, Israel is the clear “us,” God’s preferred insider group, and the wicked outsiders are all the foreign peoples of the land: Moabites, Philistines, Phoenicians, Edomites, Amalekites.
These deuteronomic strands of the Bible are unremitting in not only calling for an end to cultural mixing with such peoples, but even in sanctioning the wholesale slaughter of man, woman, child, and animals (e.g. Joshua 6:21, 1 Sam 15:3). That tradition has had a long and damaging shelf life: immigrant Europeans to North America used these same texts to justify the slaughter of the First Nations.
By contrast, the Book of Jonah claims that the boundaries between “us” and “them” can be broken down through repentance and forgiveness, even for the worst enemies of Israel. Many of the prophets (those radical souls) echo this inclusive message, as in the Book of Isaiah when God calls Assyria “my handiwork” and Egypt “my people” (Isa 19:25).
Every time that we subscribe to the “us vs. them” narrative, particularly when the U.S. and Europe cast Muslims as “them,” we unintentionally give ISIS’ theology more explanatory power. It’s not that the Syrian refugees fleeing oppression will go into ISIS territory if we don’t take them in – after all, they were willing to risk illness, injury, starvation, freezing and death to escape ISIS and other extremist oppressors. It is that when the U.S. frames the world as “us,” the “Judeo-Christian” nation, over and against “them,” refugees who are Muslim, we unintentionally strengthen the very propaganda that ISIS uses to radicalize new members. And this ideology, spread through social media, will live on long after its leaders are killed, only to fuel more hatred and terrorism.
I am not a complete pacifist. I think that limiting ISIS’ territory and funding through military action is essential. I also believe that an increase in intelligence capabilities is necessary, particularly in Europe. But none of these strategies will ultimately work if ISIS radicalizes many more adherents.
What would utterly gut ISIS’ theology is a radical moral and political platform of inclusion that counters their “us versus them” division of the cosmos. This strategy breaks the current cycle of the struggle in which we are locked, one that begins with discontentment, which contributes to radicalization, which can lead to terrorism, leading in turn to a backlash against terrorists, which can create more discontentment, and so on. Specifically, the U.S. and Europe could counter ISIS’ terrorism in several ways:
- We should counter-message ISIS’ hatred with attitudes of inclusion and compassion for Muslims and all people.
- We should distinguish between those forced to be in the so-called Caliphate because of self-preservation and those terrorists who actually mean us harm.
- We should lessen the chance of future radicalization by enacting compassionate care for the world’s refugees, not just by allowing them to enter safe countries, but also by integrating them fully into our communities in productive and meaningful ways.
- We should focus on finding long-term solutions to the humanitarian crises, unemployment, and crises of self-identity that make extremist ideology attractive in the first place.
- We should not refer to our enemies, even to ISIS, as “evil.” Criminal, horribly violent, misguided, and cruel, yes, but not “evil.” Otherwise, we reinforce the idea that the world consists of good vs. evil.
- After an extremely thorough vetting process, we could even welcome back the former converts to ISIS who want to return home after learning the terrible truths of the so-called Caliphate. (In fact, they could be the strongest voices preventing future radicalization).
- We should diplomatically engage with non-terrorist local governments in regions susceptible to radicalization. We also must provide long-term support for peace-building in the regions in which we are forced to intervene militarily.
So, in the wake of the Paris attacks, I’ve been thinking about the Book of Jonah. To be clear, I’m not thinking in terms of a naïve hope that the leaders of ISIS will repent. Rather, as I listen to the reactions in the U.S. and Europe, I’m thinking about how Jonah didn’t want to extend his circle of compassion outside of his comfort zone, while God’s care encompassed every creature.
Although I hesitate to make claims about God, I must conclude that this care would extend to the world’s nineteen million refugees and forty-five million internally displaced persons fleeing conflict or hardship zones, particularly since 51% of them are children. And this is to say nothing of the animals.
Frances Flannery, Ph.D. is a biblical scholar who researches apocalypticism in all of its manifestations, from its origins in antiquity to its modern transformations, both peaceful and violent. She is Founder and Director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace (CISTP at James Madison University), a non-partisan academic think-tank embracing multi-disciplinary perspectives on achieving a sustainable systemic global peace. CISTP bridges academia with the intelligence community, public policy makers, diplomats, NGOs, and faith based organizations to arrive a new partnerships and fresh approaches to confronting the challenges that extremism poses (www.jmu.ed/cistp). Flannery has authored several works on terrorism, including Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism: Countering the Radical Mindset (Routledge, 2015) as well as numerous publications in biblical studies in the areas of religious experience, mysticism, dreams and visions, ecological perspectives, religion and political debate, and religion and popular culture.
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