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What Would Jonah Do?
--- Ishmael, Herman Melville's Moby Dick
Veterans of peace marches throughout the many decades of our aggressive wars have witnessed a placard floating above the heads of fellow marchers like a buoy on a rippling tide of bobbing heads that asks the sad, plaintive, rhetorical question, "What would Jesus do?" But that little question, which pierces the compassionate heart with its obvious and childlike innocence and rightness, is merely a flimsy blade of grass when pressed against the arrogant, iron chest of imperialist hypocrisy. For, it seems an immutable law that powerful people who invoke their Christian God to justify their violence invariably have aligned themselves with the god of vengeance who thrashed his foes in the Old Testament long before the Prince of Peace was born. They have fashioned, like a golden calf, an Abrams Tank for their worship and called it good and persuaded their fearful minions that Christ is in the driver's seat.
So, I've been thinking of another question. It came to mind as I was re-reading Moby Dick, which, if you haven't read it recently, reminds us what constitutes a work of genius. Its imagination, depth of thought, thrilling story, mythic characters, humor, tragedy, and Shakespearean language strike the modern reader with awe. Throughout the tale of Ishmael, Queequeg, Ahab, and the white whale, the parable of Jonah keeps surfacing. Melville uses it as a counterpoint to Ahab's mania to kill the leviathan that bit off his leg. The white whale also grates at Ahab's warped soul as the unknowable reality of nature against which he fulminates in his rage to dominate it. Whittle Dick Cheney's left leg to an ivory peg and he could stump about in the role as well as Gregory Peck.
Jonah, you remember, tried to evade God's will by taking flight on a merchant ship bound for Tarshish. No sooner does the ship weigh anchor than God conjures a terrible storm:
But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.
Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
Reading this I could not resist the metaphor for the current plight of the world. Re-christen Jonah with the name of our very own president. Think of the "mighty tempest" as the swirling brew of climate change, escalating war, species extinction, and resource depletion. Season the seething cauldron with careening debt, exploding health care costs, pathetic education, epidemic poverty, and an economy that fattens on the weapons trade while it craves the expansion of terrorism. And think of our president fast asleep.
I spend most of my time now in schools all around this country. I ask kids, big kids & little kids, what most concerns them as they imagine their futures. Global warming is always the first response, followed by all the hurricane force ingredients of the tempest mentioned above. They seem at a loss to understand why adults who are theoretically mature care so little for their future, are as impotent as tots to affect the necessary change. They seem to sense that an important actor is asleep in the bowels of the ship.
In the biblical story the sailors soon realize that Jonah is the reason for their plight. They demand an explanation. He says, "Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you." At first the sailors refuse; they are appalled at the idea of taking Jonah's life to save their own. Mightily they struggle to row the ship back to port against the storm but to no avail. The winds gather strength. Out of desperation they fling Jonah into the wild sea. Immediately, "....the sea ceased from its raging." And Jonah is swallowed up.
You know the rest. After three days and nights in the belly of the great fish, during which time Jonah prays to God, not for his salvation but to be punished for having failed to obey the Lord, the Lord feels mercy towards him, and Jonah is vomited up on dry land. Surely this is one of the first born again stories. The great fish is the dark womb of nature, miraculous and omni-present, the all encompassing, time-out corner where a failed person has time to reconsider his ways.
No doubt one of the most ennobling and redeeming moments of Jonah's story is his plea to the sailors to pitch him into the tempestuous waves. A corrupt man of hardened conscience would take his chances to ride out the storm. Jonah requests drowning, having no foreboding that God hasn't given up on him.
I would now like to put the question to Mr. Bush, and I trust that I speak for millions of our children, "What would Jonah do?" This is not an idle question, but it is a rhetorical one. Reaping the whirlwind of lies and fear, corruption and cronyism, violence and obfuscation and disregard of the laws of the reality of nature, seeming like Ahab to believe that his reality is greater than nature's, Mr. Bush should be begging the people to heave him over. He should be saying, "If you would save yourselves, feed me to the fishes." It's not for any of us to know how he may further figure in God's plans. But any blind sailor could divine that the storm-tossed ship is sinking and know the reason whereof. Robert Shetterly lives in Brooksville, Maine.