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The Gift of Righteous Indignation

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(Photo: Kyle Glenn/Unsplash)

Editor’s note: This is part three of a series of reflections on the Book of Jonah. Read part one – Am I My Enemies’ Keeper? and part two – When You Fall Or Feel Like A Failure, Remember Jonah.

The Rev. William Carter once shared an interesting story about a White European woman who boarded a plane, and as she reached her seat, found out that an African would be seated next to her. She asked the man if he was in the right seat, to which he answered yes. She turned around to see if there were any other empty seats in the section, but there were none. Frustrated, she expressed her desire to not sit next to the man. She said to the flight attendant, “Excuse me, as you can see, I’m sitting next to a person whose skin color is different from mine. This is simply unacceptable. Is there another available seat?”

The flight attendant advised the woman that it was against airline policy to move people unnecessarily. The woman responded, “You don’t understand, this arrangement will not do. I have funds in my purse to arrange an alternative.” The flight attendant said, “You do?” “Yes, I do. Would you please go up to first class and see if there is an available seat? I simply cannot sit next to this person.” The flight attendant shrugged her shoulders and walked up the aisle. A few minutes later she returned. She leaned over the European woman, addressed the African man and said, “I’m sorry, sir, I hate to do this. I must make a seating change. If you follow me, we have a place for you in first class.”

Most of us would likely be embarrassed if this type of incident occurred on a flight that we were on. We would feel sorry for the man for the way the woman was treating him. We would also likely feel a sense of vindication for the man as he reclined and began to enjoy the benefits of sitting in first class at the European woman’s expense. We would feel anger, and maybe even sorrow, toward the woman for her outdated thinking about someone of a different ethnicity. We might even voice our displeasure with her. I imagine that most of us would also feel a sense of righteous indignation toward the woman.

Righteous indignation is typically anger and contempt toward someone combined with the feeling that it is our right to feel that anger in the first place. Righteous indignation would be the correct response toward the woman, wouldn’t it? People like her are prejudiced, uninformed, and hold to a worldview that is outdated where people are put into categories of “acceptable,” “those like me,” “unacceptable,” and “below my standards.”

Are any of us willing to think about the fact that sometimes we may exhibit the same mindset, qualities, and actions as this woman? We may not ask for a different seat on an airplane flight. Instead, we move to a different line in the grocery store because we don’t like the kind of person that was in front of us. Or how many times have we said “No, I’ll wait for another elevator car to come” because we don’t want to ride with “those kinds of people?” We may not do it because of a person’s race. Instead, we do it because a person doesn’t fit our standards, or they may look like an immigrant, or they may look poor, or they simply may not look like they were worthy of being among us.

The prophet Jonah experiences a bout of righteous indignation. He believes that his indignation is justified against the people of Nineveh, but God takes the time to talk to him about it. In chapter three of Jonah, the prophet is now out of the belly of the great fish. God has answered his prayers for freedom. But Jonah doesn’t get much time to celebrate because God delivers to him the same message that sent him running in the first place:“Go to Nineveh and preach to them. Tell them to repent or they will be destroyed.”

This time, Jonah immediately does as God commands. He travels to that great city and shares God’s message: “In 40” days, this city will be destroyed!” That’s probably not all that Jonah said to them, but they got the point. Repent! Turn towards God or your city will be destroyed!” The people who hear this message are fearful and they believe him. They decide to fast and wear sackcloth as a means of showing God that they believe and are willing to do what God wants. More people hear Jonah’s words and believe and follow suit.

This process of hearing the message, believing it, and deciding to fast and repent continues until word reaches the king of the city. He too believes the message. He’s so convinced about the truths of the message that he leaves the royal palace in fear and sits in dust as a sign of his willingness to repent. His royal court also follows his example. He eventually commands everyone in the city to get in line and repent. And this was to apply not just to the people, but even to their livestock. Even their cows and horses would have to fast along with their masters. I know the animals were wondering what they had done wrong that would cause them to not get fed for a time. Everyone gets in line and does the same thing. They all pray for forgiveness and repent. And God saw their actions and decided to not destroy the city.

This is the dream of any pastor or evangelist, isn’t it? To preach a sermon and 100 percent of those who hear it believe and start to live according to that message. They tell others who also believe and start to live the way you tell them to. Eventually, the president hears and believes and makes everyone act accordingly. Every preacher that I know would have been happy and doing cartwheels because of this success. But Jonah isn’t happy. Why is Jonah angry? Who is Jonah’s anger aimed at? It is aimed at God. Jonah is angry that God has the audacity to love and forgive another group of people other than the people of Israel.

Jonah can’t get past the past. He is stuck on viewing Nineveh as an enemy city. He’s holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, God will let his enemies die. If not die, maybe their city will at least be ransacked or hit with a tremendous natural disaster. But that wasn’t God’s plan. God wanted to see them change their ways. God wanted to bring this group of people into relationship with the Holy. Jonah couldn’t get his mind wrapped around this concept. God was his God/Israel’s God and God shouldn’t reach out to anyone else.

This isn’t only a problem for Jonah and the people of Israel. It’s a problem that we face today. We live within a country that says if you’re not on our side, and believe exactly like we believe, and aren’t willing to give your loyalty to beliefs we deem most important, you’re not only our enemies, but we hope that something goes wrong in your life.

Fortunately, this isn’t God’s mode of operation. God is patient and longsuffering, even with those who don’t follow the Christian faith. That’s just the way God is. God loves God’s children and God loves all other created beings. The Rev. Carter, who provided the illustration for this column, asks, “When are we going to get it into our heads and our hearts that the Creator in heaven wants nothing more than to stand face to face with every creature beginning with us, but not ending there?”

God’s love doesn’t begin or end with us. It may be more visible through the relationship we have with God, but it doesn’t begin or end with us. We may be blessed to understand and actively participate in it, but it isn’t only for us to have and experience. God commands us, like God commanded Jonah, to show it to others. Our claims for being the children of God are not best verified by the fact that we go to church on Sundays or give money or volunteer time for a building. Our claims to being God’s children are best verified by how we love others, especially those whom we don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with.

Our claims are best verified by our ability to remember that the love God wants to show others has already been shown to us and that we are to embody that love for others. I am thankful for the grace that has been shown to me. I pray that we all would find our own unique ways to show that same grace to others.

Editor’s note: A version of this column appeared in Word and Way Magazine in July 2017.


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    Written by Terrell Carter

    Terrell Carter is assistant professor and director of contextualized learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church. He is the author of multiple books, including the forthcoming volume Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in Diversity (Chalice Press). You can follow him on Twitter @tcarterstl.