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24th January 2021

Speak up or keep quiet?

Passage: Jonah 3;1-10 and 4;1-3


Speaking out is good-isn’t it? Over the last year or so, we have heard Greta Thunberg speaking out about climate change; we have heard prominent actresses speaking out in the MeToo campaign against sexual abuse; we have heard angry voices calling for justice after the death of George Floyd, in support of Black Lives Matter. And we say, “good for them.” We have both a human right and a human duty to speak out against danger and against wrong.

But what about 6th January, when a host of angry rioters stormed the Capitol Building in Washington in support of Donald Trump and in protest at what he had called an unlawful election. Six people died and the world condemned, but rioters, when interviewed were unrepentant. So far as they were concerned, they were speaking out against injustice. They were standing up for what was right. And they would do it all again.

In our own news recently we hear of laws being put in place to prevent the destruction of statues or other works of art which are thought to support racism, slavery, injustices of the past. This is a reaction against the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston-a notable slave trader- in Bristol. Some say statues such as that deserve to be destroyed, being funded by what you could call blood money. Others can see this campaign being carried to greater and greater extremes until we have barely an historic building or artwork left in the country.

There is a saying, isn’t there, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. So, at what point does speaking out or standing up for what is right and just become terrorism? It is a complex question.

Jonah, at the start of his story, did not want to go to Nineveh, a city notorious for violence and corruption, to tell those people that the wrath of God was about to fall upon them. This was nothing to do with qualms about terrorism but about his own personal safety. He was scared stiff- and who can blame him?
But his story, did you notice, in the end, turned out to be more complex; more about what I would call a “them versus us” syndrome, a syndrome which IS at the root of terrorism.

There was an old black and white film called “School for Scoundrels,” starring Ian Carmichael. Carmichael is a pleasant enough young man, but he allows himself to be pushed around both at work and in his social life. He enrols in what is called a college of lifemanship and is taught that the world has always been divided into winners and losers. What you need are the skills to turn yourself into a winner and everyone else into a loser.
It was a corny old film and no real harm in it, but why should becoming a winner- being good and confident about who you are and what you do-mean that everyone else has to become a loser?

I can remember reading magazine articles about how to get ahead and -at a time of high unemployment back in the eighties- how to make YOUR CV stand out so that you get the job which fifty other people have applied for. Again, there is nothing wrong with putting your best foot forward but I don’t remember reading anything questioning a society in which there would be one job available for fifty people, asking what was going to happen to the other forty-nine, some of whom might never get a job, with industries being closed down all over the country? All that mattered was that my CV was the winner. The world is about winners and losers.
And this is what so much of human history has been about: wealth gained by plundering or exploiting others; power gained by eliminating others, making the rest of the human race your rivals or your enemies. Winners and losers.

We need to understand that this was where Jonah was coming from. His nation of Israel had been through a difficult time with other nations trying to take over their territory. But now things were better. They were living independently; they had regained their confidence that yes, God loved them, and God was with them. But this belief in God’s favour, coupled with their recent difficult experiences, led them automatically to assume that God must have rejected all other nations. If Israel was now the winner; other countries were now the losers.

Which is why, once Jonah had got over his fear of preaching the wrath of God to a powerful city, he really quite enjoyed himself. “Losers! You think you are so big, but my God is going to smash you to pieces.” He even went and sat down outside the city to watch the destruction. And when it did not come; when the people of Nineveh repented and God forgave them, Jonah was furious: “I might just as well be dead.” Because, if Nineveh was not, after all, the loser, then he, Jonah, was not the winner. Them vs us.

Jonah simply could not get his head around the possibility that God’s compassion for other nations might not be robbing Israel of any blessing He was giving them. Jonah could not understand that people might be very different, yet all of equal value in the eyes of God. He could not believe that God’s forgiving other people their wrongdoing would not in any way invalidate his own ministry.
Most people nowadays have a few issues with the story of the great fish swallowing Jonah and I am not getting into them but what I can see and what I hope we can all see, is that Jonah was swallowed up in the darkness of fear and hatred and prejudice. If you are able to take delight in the mass destruction of adults, little children, animals- no matter how bad the reputation of their city- then you are in a very dark place indeed. And now you are talking terrorism. You are talking genocide. And this-as I see it- is where the acceptance of a world filled with “winners and losers” will take you.

A lot of people found and still find the cross of Jesus a senseless or even offensive symbol of a loving and powerful God. I mean, why proclaim someone who died one of the cruellest deaths ever invented as God “saving” the world?
But in the story of Jonah we get some idea of what the alternative might look like. There is a great deal that is destructive about the natural world and about human nature. A large part of any human life is going to be spent battling against those destructive forces. We need to be “winners” if the world and the human race are to continue. And right now, we are celebrating-quite rightly- those who are winning against the horrifying destruction of the Corona virus.

The challenge, I suggest, lies in identifying the true enemy. For once we decide that “the enemy” is another human being or group of human beings; once we make up our minds that we must kill or be killed, destroy or be destroyed; win the battle or lose the battle against them, we are in dark and dangerous territory. The fear and hatred and prejudice, which were swallowing Jonah are swallowing us too.
It is fear, hatred, resentment, jealousy, greed, prejudice, cruelty- that are the real enemies. They can destroy every single one of us from the inside out by turning the rest of the human race into either our rivals or our enemies and by writing the pages of our history in blood.

But if it is our right and duty to speak out against evil, how do we do this? If you think of prominent people who spoke out against evil and injustice without resorting to hatred or violence, you are looking at Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King who ended up dead or Nelson Mandela who spent years of his life in prison. Yes, and you are looking at Jesus Christ who ended up on the cross rather than submit to the way of violence and discrimination. God wanted only one victim in the fight against evil and that was Himself.

God never intended a world filled with winners and losers. God never wanted a world in which what looked like peace and justice was only achieved through mass bloodshed. God did not want a faith in which those who came to believe themselves His, could only maintain this belief by condemning the rest of the world to damnation.
God wanted all peoples to be saved, all people to win the battle against destruction, all peoples to stand together, to pray for forgiveness so that they might be able to forgive others. And in order to bring this about, He was prepared to suffer the cross; to become what looked like “the loser” in the hopes that we might be reconciled to Him and in his strength become the winners

“Yes, I admit it,” wrote St Paul, “the cross looks like utter stupidity. Jewish culture wants signs of power from God; Greek culture wants a superior wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified- the power and the wisdom of God. Did any of you call yourselves “winners?” God has chosen that which is weakest in the eyes of the world to reveal the truth so that no-one may boast or claim superiority over another. You are in Christ Jesus, who has become our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness, our salvation. If you want to boast about anything, boast in him.”

If you just think about where we are now- the whole of humanity battling this pandemic: unless we can overcome hatred, prejudice, fear, one-upmanship- we shall all perish. So let us speak the truth but speak the truth in love and in the hope of salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.