If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Liberating Jonah

As a child the Jonah story was for me about a man who got swallowed by a whale. In my young mind he was no different from Pinocchio. As an adult I found this "whale of a tale" hard to swallow. The problem was not just because it was hard to believe that a human could stay three days inside the belly of a "big fish." In my evangelical fundamentalist church tradition the story was turned into a missionary tract with Jonah, the evangelist, being told by God to go preach to the sinners in Ninevah. And I was not interested in proselytizing people in foreign countries from other faith traditions.

I just finished reading a whole new take on the Jonah story. One that I can more easily swallow. The book is Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation by Miguel A. De La Torre. I had read his book Reading the Bible from the Margins and Doing Ethics from the Margins, so I was curious to see what he had to say about the book of Jonah.

De La Torre interprets Jonah from the perspective of those on the margins of society. It is a liberationist reading of Jonah, which means that it is a reading with the political, economic, and social dimensions of the text placed in the foreground and utilizes a "hermeneutic of suspicion" that questions the hegemony of pietistic individualism, white eurocentricity, heterosexist patriarchy, capitalistic neoliberalism, and U.S. imperialism. His purpose is to study Jonah to "find biblically based paradigms for developing of discourse and action that can lead to reconciliation between and socioeconomic classes within the United States." A praxis mode of interpretation is emphasized in the final chapter by using contemporary case studies.

De La Torre's places the Jonah narrative within the socio-political context of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire held the power in the story, while Jonah and the Israelites were among the marginalized. So, with this power dynamic it becomes more difficult to identify Jonah and the Israelites with the U.S. as an empire or Jonah as an example of missionary activity to foreign contries from within our U.S. context. We fit more analogously with Assyria. De La Torre examines the economic, racist, and religious faces of the U.S. as an empire. He also looks at the Jonah story as analogous to the marginalized calling for repentance and reconciliation from those in the dominant power structures.

Reconciliation take a good portion of the last part of the book. De La Torre's approach is to allow reconciliaion to be defined by and originate from the marginalized, who are most often the victims of the dominant culture. Forgiveness plays a significant role in his understanding of reconciliation. Reconciliation must be accompanied by justice and forgiveness by repentance, or else they become "cheap grace." Justice is understood as restorative justice over against retributive justice. De La Torre states that "restorative justice must include a retributional component." He seems to understand this component of "retribution" in terms of justice and restitution. I would question his understanding of justice and accountability as being "retribution," but agree with his call for accountability and restitution.

Finally, De La Torre notes some pitfalls the marginalized should avoid when challenging the dominant church and society. One pitfall is that reconciliation is embedded within Eurocentric constructions of what reconciliation means. This means that the marginalized and those with power will view reconciliation differently. Also, it means that the dominant church and society will seek to maintain its place of privilege in any attempts at reconciliation. Challenging white privilege should not turn into "a multiculturalism of symbolic concessions" rather than the redistribution of of power. And power should not be underestimated. Shedding tears over the past and present injustices cannot be a substitute for dismantling power and privilege. Peace cannot substitute for justice to the oppressed and marginalized.

De La Torre does not end his book on a hopeful note. Hope is the final pitfall. His hopelessness may be disturbing to some, particularly Christians. But, I understand why he has little hope for reconciliation, even in a context where many of us have been inspired by the recent message of hope in our U.S. presidential elections. De La Torre's lack of hope is based upon the long term consequences of neoliberalism, neocolonialism, imperialism, the entrenched nature of inequitable power and privilege, and a long history of racism, injustice, sexism, and oppression of marginalized groups that has taken hundreds of years to only partially be redressed and undone. Hope offered by the dominant culture most often appears contrived to the marginalized. In the end, reconciliation and justice are to be pursued not because there is hope that they will be fully realized, but because of the escatological promise of God. So, beyond all hope we believe in hope.

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