Text Study for 3 Epiphany B, 2021

This Sunday offers the only reading from the Book of Jonah in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. I think it borders on homiletical misconduct to miss the chance to preach on Jonah today. Of course, I have been teaching on the Book of Jonah and writing about it for the last twenty years, so I may be less than objective. In the spirit of my enthusiasm, I’ll begin my weekly reflections with the grumpy son of Amittai. Today and tomorrow, I’ll share some excerpts from my little book on Jonah. In the process, since it is the season of Epiphany, we can ask a pointed question. What is revealed in repentance?

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Can anything good come from Nineveh? Let me offer a rough and ready summary of the book of Jonah.  Our standards are not God’s standards.  We are not privileged to prescribe what God should or should not do with God’s creatures—human or otherwise.  Our convenience, our self-interest, and our limited perspectives cannot and should determine the scope or application of the grace, mercy and transforming power of God’s compassion.  Chapters three and four of Jonah describe how the prophet gets one more chance to come to terms with this reality.

Photo by Elianne Dipp on Pexels.com

Jonah is called a “second” time. The adjective comes from a verb that can mean to “change,” to be different from a previous state, or to “repeat, do something again.” On the one hand, this is not a new prophetic call but rather a repetition of the first call. Perhaps now Jonah is ready to consider the nature of that call. At the end of chapter two, Jonah promised to go to the Temple and pay off his vows (whether in gratitude or grumpiness we cannot be sure). It seems, however, that the LORD is not interested in such a transaction.  We hear no more of it.

On the other hand, Jonah needs to get it right this time. So, the call comes “a second time.” Limburg notes that this is not the same “second time” as we might find, say, in Jeremiah, where the prophet gets a new assignment after the first one is completed. “Only Jonah among the biblical prophets,” he says, “has to have his assignment given to him twice!”[1]

“As one reflects on the theological significance of this short scene, the Lord’s patience immediately comes to mind. Without exhortations, without carping or harping, the Lord reissues the charge that was given to Jonah in the first place. This act of reassigning without accompanying critical commentary is an illustration of the characteristics of the Lord soon to be stated in 4:2.”

Jonah appears to get a “do-over,” a gracious reprieve. A second time is also a second chance.

Jonah is, however, unable to extend that same graciousness to the Ninevites. This massive failure of empathic imagination is breathtaking to observe. It is also commonplace among humans.

I find the work of Simon Baron Cohen so helpful in this regard. In order to deal with human evil in a more measurable way, he suggests that we use the term “empathy erosion” rather than the more metaphysical term, “evil.” In simplest terms, Cohen suggests that empathy erosion “arises from people turning other people into objects.”[2] He traces that insight back to Martin Buber. I would suggest that the Book of Jonah is a tragic comedy that illustrates the empathy erosion of the post-exilic community in Judah.

Empathy requires seeing life from the perspective and position of the other. So the experience of empathy is a function of moral, spiritual and emotional imagination. It is a function of how we choose to see the other. Cohen writes, “Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.”[3] When we can see the other in the same light as we see ourselves, then we have the capacity for empathy.

When we exercise empathy, to reverse Buber’s insight, we turn objects into persons. And, Cohen as points out, we have a sort of binocular vision. We see ourselves and other at the same, and in the same frame. “When empathy is switched off,” Cohen continues, “we think only about our own interests. When empathy is switched on, we focus on other people’s interests too.”

It is time for clarity. Jonah longs for genocide. Jonah is not unusual in this desire. The genocidal impulse is as old as human hatred. “What is modern about genocide or about mass violence is the embarrassment about it,” says University of Amsterdam Professor of Social Science Emeritus Abram de Swaan, the author of The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder.[4] Jonah hopes that the hated Ninevites will be removed from the pages of history and the annals of existence. He has deleted them from his moral imagination (if they were ever there) and consigned them to oblivion. He has turned those persons (including the animals) into objects. How does this happen?

If you think this is a topic for academic study, then you are living in a sealed jar. We Americans are now routinely on the receiving end of such epic empathic failures. This is, in part, how the Twin Towers came crashing down on September 11, 2001. This is, in part, how hostages are beheaded on videotape by members of the so-called Islamic State. This is how people are used to send political messages from one organization to another at the cost of their lives. The victims are vehicles for information. Their executioners have ceased to see them as persons.

Of course, this is also how white people kept slaves for hundreds of years. This is also how Europeans deprived Native Americans of land and birthright. This is also how Germans annihilated Jews and gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled, while keeping impeccable records. This is how Hutus murdered Tutsi “cockroaches” in Uganda, how Muslims were slaughtered in the Balkans, how Armenians were exterminated in Turkey, how the Khmer Rouge butchered and buried over two million in Cambodia.

Jonah is hardly an outlier.

Of course, that is our deepest wish—that somehow these murderous monsters are themselves nonhuman in some significant way. We strive to distance ourselves from such acts and such actors. We would never do such a thing, we tell ourselves.

We are wrong.

Simon Baron Cohen builds on the work of other explorers of evil. Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect, is best known for his (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment. In that experiment, he randomly divided graduate student volunteers into prisoners and guards. The details are fascinating and troubling. The outcome, however, was that quite typical people were turned into unfeeling bullies. The experiment had to be halted out of concerns for emotional safety.

Zimbardo’s work would have remained an academic curiosity had it not been for the events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. At that prison, the Stanford experiment was given a real world run for its money. Once again, quite typical people were turned into dehumanizing torturers. The difference this time was that the results of the “experiment” were splashed across print, broadcast and internet media around the globe. The line between good and evil is not between “them” and “us.”

Other experiments and experiences reinforce this point. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and others have studied in depth the lives of ordinary Germans under the Nazi regime. Goldhagen dubbed them “Hitler’s willing executioners.” He and others have shown that these ordinary German citizens did not cooperate in the Holocaust under the fear of imprisonment and death. In fact, when they resisted, they did not suffer many repercussions at all. Instead, they participated willingly.

Stanley Milgram carried out his (again, in)famous Obedience Experiments around the time that Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem for Nazi war crimes. Milgram wondered if the Nazi defense of just following orders could stand up to scrutiny. The result of the experiment was that quite typical people could be induced to administer what they thought were horrifically painful shocks to relatively innocent people, as long as some authority figure told them it was all right to do so. The participants continued to deliver such shocks even when the subjects appeared to be screaming in tortured pain.

Our “empathy switches” are fragile devices that can be nudged toward the off position far more easily than any of us would care to admit. They get nudged toward the “off” position when we limit our vision of who is human. In an interview with Alvin Powell, Professor Abram de Swaan notes, “One could, with many caveats, say that certain characteristics are more likely to occur more frequently with genocidal perpetrators. For example, they have a working conscience, [but] restricted to family, their superiors, and their comrades-in-arms. Everyone else doesn’t count.”[5]


[1]James Limburg, Jonah, page 75.

[2] Simon Baron Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Kindle Location 170. It might interest you to know that Cohen’s brother is the comedian, Sasha Baron Cohen. Sasha has made a career of ridiculing bigots, particularly with his character, “Borat.” Confronting evil in creative and stimulating ways appears to be sort of the family business!

[3] Cohen, Kindle Location 265.

[4] Quoted by Alvin Powell at http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/03/evil-in-the-making/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=03.03.2015%20(1

[5] http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/03/evil-in-the-making/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=03.03.2015%20(1

Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012QGREM2.

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