It’s been a week.
It’s been a week of confrontation, of confronting people and ideologies we hate. It’s been a week of mortification, realizing that God has allowed many people who have evil in their hearts to incite violence and be known. It’s been a week of recognizing hate in our nation and in our own hearts. It’s been a long, arduous week, of seeing hate flung around through the media, through Facebook, and through domestic and foreign terrorist attacks.
It’s been a week.
There’s a certain weariness I’ve felt as I’ve watched the news, as I’ve experienced all this week has brought. Perhaps you’re weary, too. That weariness comes through news reports, politician’s statements, and social media. We’ve listened this week to people defame and condemn other people. The terms used by all parties against each other are not for repetition here, but are slanderous, mean, harmful and, in sum, full of hate. Very often, this language is a call not only against the ideology, but against the people who hold the ideology, condemning not white supremacy, for example, but condemning white supremacists. And too often, those condemnations are calls for God to take violent action against the persons condemned.
And that is where the problem lies. The gospel stands aghast at hate spewed from one person to another, especially when that hate turns to violence. The gospel calls to us, as Christians, asking that we spread the love of God and seek unity and reconciliation with all our brothers and sisters, no matter how despicable their ideologies might be. For the gospel is not republican, it’s not democratic, it’s not liberal, and it’s not conservative; no, the gospel stands astride all of our various perspectives, all of the ways we divide ourselves, and boldly proclaims that all our petty squabbling matters not at the foot of the cross because no political perspective, no party, no ideology, can save us. Only Jesus Christ can do that. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the best perspective on the world, it’s the salvation of all of humanity, and it can save us from our politics and our hate.
The gospel has a message for us today that transcends our party politics, that sees beyond our divisions, that breaks through the noise of this past week to offer us a fresh perspective on the hate we’ve all experienced. For we need a new way to see through this conflict so that we, as Christians, can offer the love of God to the world.
And so, as we hear the Word of God proclaimed this morning, the question before us is this: how do we do that? What is that fresh perspective? How do we work and act for unity and reconciliation? How do we show the love of God in the midst of this moment of division and hate?
To answer these questions, we need to examine the story of Jonah.
And to examine the story of Jonah, we must first know something about the ancient city of Nineveh.
Nineveh has been the sworn enemy of the people of Israel for a long, long, time. The Israelites hate everything about Nineveh: the religion, the customs, the ideologies, the war mongering, and the people. They hate them so much that there’s a whole book of the Bible dedicated to how terrible Nineveh is: the book of Nahum. For many years, Nineveh was the center of the Assyrian empire, the most feared, most powerful, and most hated enemy of the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah.
And so Nineveh is simply the worst, the most terrible place in the minds of many Israelites, the absolute pit of humanity, the epitome of all that’s bad and villainous. Nineveh, in the minds of most Israelites, is the capital of evil itself.
Is it any wonder, then, that Jonah doesn’t want to go there?
I imagine we’re all pretty familiar with the story of Jonah. God calls him to deliver a message of doom to the people of Nineveh, for God declares that “their wickedness has come up before me.” (1:2b) Jonah flees, takes a ship headed in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh, God sends a storm, the sailors throw him overboard, a whale swallows him, Jonah prays a prayer in the belly of the whale, the whale spits him out and Jonah goes to Nineveh. In Nineveh, he delivers God’s message of destruction.
It’s easy to empathize with Jonah. Of course he didn’t want to go to Nineveh. It’s the worst place ever! And this is how most of us remember the story; a story all about Jonah. Jonah flees, God catches Jonah, Jonah repents and does what God commands. But that’s not where the story ends. Let’s finish it together by reading Jonah 3:10-4:11, finding out what happens after Jonah delivers the message to the Ninevites.
So Jonah’s gone, delivered the message, the people have repented, and God has changed his mind. They will not be destroyed because of the city’s repentance. I think Jonah’s a bit justified in being upset. He’s run away from God, only to repent and do as God commanded, probably with some glee in his heart at the thought of the mortal enemy of the Israelites being destroyed. But then God changes his mind, and Jonah’s angry, so angry he says twice he’d rather just die.
And so angry, so full of hate, he wants God to kill 120,000 people. He walks away from God, sits down on the high hill, waiting for God to change his mind again and destroy the city. Jonah wants vindication for his efforts, for the risks he took coming to the seat of all evil, for the work he did on behalf of God. He wants to see righteous destruction of the mortal enemy of himself and his people! He wants his hate validated.
Jonah’s decided that feeling vindicated for his work and validated in his hate is worth the death of 120,000 people. That was hard for me to fathom. I couldn’t imagine myself thinking that way, feeling that I could justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Until, when reading the news one day, getting my political fix, I realized that I had wished 2.5 million people dead.
I was reading about the North Korean missile tests, about Kim Jong Un’s use of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, to maintain his power. I thought to myself that it would be easier if Pyongyang simply didn’t exist. It was a fleeting thought, and I quickly reprimanded myself for it, but for that brief moment, I had wished 2.5 million people dead, the population of Pyongyang.
North Korea, a mortal enemy of the United States at the moment, is a source of constant tension and frustration. It’s terribly scary, especially when we consider their nuclear missile development. And so life would, indeed, be easier if God destroyed Pyongyang or, for that matter, the rest of the country.
When I think of Nineveh as Pyongyang, Jonah’s hate and desire to see Nineveh destroyed makes a bit more sense.
It’s easy to ridicule Jonah for being ridiculous about wishing 120,000 people dead until we consider Nineveh as one of our mortal enemies. What if God had raised up a prophet to go to Pyongyang, deliver a message of destruction, but the people repented and God saved the city. In the book of Jonah, there’s no indication that the people’s repentance changed anything except some behaviors and calling upon the name of the Lord; meaning, their government remained, their culture remained, it appears that even their religion remained. So, if Nineveh were Pyongyang, repentance might mean simply giving up nuclear weapons, feeding the citizenry instead, calling upon God in that moment of repentance, but the country would remain communist and officially atheist. Not very satisfying, for it doesn’t feel very just.
Or imagine if God raised up a prophet to go and deliver a message to Raqqa, the capital of ISIS. If they repented, and God spared them, would that have a satisfying feeling to it? They’re a mortal enemy, they’re bent on our destruction, but to save them simply because they repented and called on the name of the Lord? Does that feel right? Does it feel just?
I’d rather see our enemies defeated, I’d rather see those who hold terrible ideologies, those who seek violence as a means to victory, those who threaten the world, defeated and removed from threatening the world. That feels just, that feels like good sense, that feels right. And that’s Jonah’s perspective.
But is that how we are to be as Christians? Is that the gospel message for us this morning?
The Ninevites repentance should sound very familiar to us Christians. Jonah stood up in front of the people and said “God’s about to destroy you because of your wicked behavior!” And the people, upon hearing this message, ran down to the front of the city, repenting of their sins and calling on the name of the Lord. If that happened in any place in the world, we would call that a salvation experience, for we would understand it as the moment of justification, where we confess our sins and call on the name of the Lord. As Paul says in Romans, quoting Joel, the Old Testament prophet, “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. ‘For, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” (Romans 10:12b-13, cf. Joel 2:32) For old and new testament folks alike, calling on the name of the Lord was the beginning of salvation, and so the Ninevites have had nothing less than a salvation experience!
God’s actions in sparing the city demonstrate that every life, no matter how evil, is redeemable, for no one is beyond redemption. Repentance is possible for everyone. God’s ultimate desire is personal relationship with each and every human being, a relationship that is forged by repentance. The people have called on the name of the Lord, forged relationship with God, and are saved. This is cause for much rejoicing! Just as if the people of Pyongyang repented and called on the name of God, that would be cause for much rejoicing. If the people of Raqqa did the same, that would be cause for much rejoicing.
The Ninevites were enemies of God, their wickedness had made them so. But those who “once were lost” are now found; those who “once were blind…now….see,” because God’s grace has met them in their repentance and saved them. God, being gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as Jonah describes, spares the Ninevites because God loves his enemies. This is a powerful act worthy of rejoicing in the Lord.
But Jonah doesn’t rejoice; the Ninevites are a mortal enemy. They’re so evil that, in Jonah’s mind, they’re deserving of death.
And we, this week, may feel like Jonah, whether about North Koreans, ISIS, white supremacists, Antifa, or even a personal enemy. We may not feel much like rejoicing because it’s terribly difficult to love our enemies. That simple sounding phrase of Jesus gets very challenging very quickly when considered in light of honest enemies. But the call on our lives is to be less like Jonah, who hated his enemies, and more like God, who loved his enemies.
And the path toward being less like Jonah and more like God begins with understanding the difference between ideology, no matter how evil, and the person who holds it.
For Jonah, the people are evil. Their behavior demonstrates that. Their culture demonstrates that. Everything about them demonstrates that the people are inherently evil.
For God, even though their wickedness had come before him, the people are not evil, but redeemable. They may harbor evil in their hearts, their culture may cause them to act in evil ways, everything about them may scream that evil has a grip on them, but they are not inherently evil because they are still God’s creation, images of God.
This is what we are to do as Christians in response to hate, like the hate we’ve seen and experienced this week. We must love our enemies, for they are God’s creation and our brothers and sisters in Christ; redeemable from the evil that envelops them.
And loving our enemies begins with separating ideology from personhood.
Condemnation of behavior and ideology not only makes sense, it’s necessary. To preserve our national identity, we must condemn white supremacy. That’s exactly what God did through Jonah: condemned the people’s behavior and beliefs. But to condemn the person holding the belief, or the person exercising the behavior, is quite another thing. That’s what God did not do, condemn the people themselves. And that’s what we should not do, condemn the humanity of our enemies.
And so, as we post on Facebook about the news that centers around race, we might choose to condemn white supremacy, Antifa, or Neo-Naziism, but we must not condemn the people who make up the membership of those groups.
That means, when we are in conversation about North Korea, we might condemn their use of nuclear weapons, their starvation of their people, but we must not condemn the North Koreans themselves.
That means, when we’re thinking of ISIS, we might condemn the terror attack in Barcelona and their farce of a religion, but we must not condemn adherents of ISIS themselves.
That means, when we whisper to others about our personal enemies, when we remember them by name, when we think of how they hurt us and made us suffer, we might condemn their actions and their beliefs, but we must not condemn them personally.
For when we condemn people for being people, when we condemn individuals, when we declare their humanity inherently evil, we are no better than our enemies, for we are haters just like they are. We become like Jonah: bitter, selfish, spiteful, and hateful.
The truth is, we’re all someone’s enemy. I can name you a few folks for whom I am their enemy. The same is true for us. Some of us gathered in this room politely avoid each other because we are each other’s enemy! This is simply the nature of life lived on this earth, we have friends and enemies. To some, we are a friend, to others, we are an enemy. But we would never begin to believe that we’re beyond redemption, that we’re beyond God’s love.
And so neither are our enemies beyond redemption, beyond God’s love.
In the midst of a hate-driven national narrative, the task before us as Christians, as evangelists of the gospel, is this: to separate ideology from the person.
If you find white supremacists repugnant, remember that they’re your brother and sister in Christ, as in need of God’s love as you are.
If you find Antifa repugnant, remember that they, too, are your brother and sister in Christ, as in need of God’s love as you are.
If you find North Koreans repugnant, remember that they, too, are your brother and sister in Christ, as in need of God’s love as you are.
And, if you find…and this time you fill in the blank…repugnant, remember that they, too, are your brother and sister in Christ, as in need of God’s love as you are.
When we choose to see the person before we see the ideology, when we separate evil from personhood, when we look at someone and see the image of God inside of them, it changes our attitudes, it changes our approaches to people, it changes our posts to Facebook, it changes the emails we forward, it changes the jokes we tell, it changes the conversations we have in hushed whispers, it changes the hate we spread through our own actions into the actions of love, the actions of Christ in us, as we share the gospel message of unity and reconciliation by demonstrating that we love our enemies.
Loving our enemies transforms hate into love. Hate has no place at the foot of the cross; the cross of Christ, where we see that, in the face of tremendous hatred toward God, God chose to love us, his enemies, so much that he gave us his only Son. God’s actions on the cross transformed hate into love, saving us and giving us the example by which we are to live our lives. We can be proponents of the hate we have seen and experienced this week by sharing hateful posts on Facebook, by condemning the people who hold despicable ideologies like white supremacy, by defending politicians who use hateful rhetoric…
We can be proponents of the gospel by choosing to love our enemies, by choosing to see the person before we see the ideology.
That’s what we as Christians are to do in the midst of hate. That’s the gospel message for us this morning that cuts through the noise, that’s the perspective that transcends our politics and our division. The gospel message for unity, for reconciliation, is simply this: We are to love our enemies.
And loving our enemies begins with separating ideology from personhood.
Loving our enemies is the example God sets for us in our scripture this morning. God looked with love at the people of Nineveh, hating their behavior, hating their beliefs, but loving them as people. And when they repented, when they called on the name of the Lord, God saved them.
May we show such grace and mercy to our enemies. May we be the vehicle through which God saves our enemies. And may we be saved from the ways we make ourselves into the enemies of others.
May we love our enemies as ourselves.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.