Fear of Forgiveness
This last Sunday the story of Jonah appeared in the lectionary readings. Specifically, it was John 3:1-10, which is the part of the story where the Ninevites express their belief in God. More importantly, they expressed that belief in a performed way.
In my PhD I drew upon theo-dramatic theology (Hans Urs von Balthasar and others) and performance theory (Richard Schechner and others). In this part of the story, the Ninevites are warned about their behaviour and respond by seeking forgiveness. Actually, they want God to change God's mind.
In classical theism God doesn't change. It's one of the defining characteristics of the divine nature. Here, though, the King of the Ninevites expresses something that seems to contradict that kind of theology; "Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish" (3:9).
To seek this change they perform what we would call, in performance theory, an "offer." In improvisation, an "offer" is extended between two or more performers and there are three possible responses. "No," "Yes [but]," or "Yes, and." The first to function to block the offer, either explicitly or implicitly (respectively). The third option accepts the offer and takes it in a new direction. New meaning is created and the story advances. Here, the offer consists of a fast, putting on sackcloth, and crying out collectively to God. It is an embodied offer that is performed fully by all people in the city.
The offer is extended to God... "who knows?" It is up to God as to what response God provides. Classical theism points towards a God that doesn't change. That God would respond with a "No" since the word of the Lord was given that the Ninevites would be "overthrown" (3:4).
Yet, that is not how God actually responds. The passage states that "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it" (3:10).
The story is taken in a new direction. Where punishment was threatened, grace was given.
And Jonah didn't like it.
When I was a kid, hearing the story of Jonah in Sunday School, it was always framed that Jonah was running away in fear of the Ninevites. He was told to go to Ninevah to proclaim the message of destruction and, fearing for his life, Jonah goes in the opposite direction.
But that's not what the text says. In reality, Jonah was running away from God. Seeing God change God's mind, Jonah was displeased and "he became angry" (4:1). He even says "This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment" (4:2).
He knew what God was like and he knew that God would change God's mind. He'd be embarrassed and made to look like a fool... or so he thought.
He feared forgiveness. Not for himself, but for those who he considered his enemies. He wanted them to feel the wrath of God but he also knew that God is not that sort of God. God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in love.
And that's what God did.