At first blush, the sentiment “mercy is for all people” is as sweet as ice cream. Palatable. Kind. Inclusive. But the more you think about it, the more the ice cream melts in your mouth, and you realize there’s a disgusting pill right in the middle of it. (Did your mom ever do that? Mine would crush up medicine and pack it into ice cream. Really disappointing.)
What about predators? Agents of genocide? Is mercy for them? What about that person you can’t bring yourself to forgive, the one who wrecked your world. Is mercy for him? For her?
By the time the ice cream has dissolved, the pill is still really hard to swallow. Poor Jonah chokes on it through the entirety of his story. Is prejudice ever justified? This is the question we are forced to consider in the book of Jonah.
To put ourselves in Jonah’s shoes, we have to understand the atrocities committed by the Assyrian empire, of which Nineveh was the capital city. It’s hard to read about the brutality, much less imagine it inflicted on your own people — in Jonah’s case, the Israelites. Severed heads on display. Dismembered bodies decorating Assyrian temples. Floors littered with human hands and feet. The Assyrians warred with a barbarianism that can only be described as satanic.
Then one day, God calls Jonah to be a messenger of His mercy to these very people. How would you have responded?
I was walking into Spanish class in tenth grade when the second plane hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. In the weeks to come, I began crafting an article for our school newspaper in journalism class. Our teacher challenged us to find fresh angles on newsworthy stories, so I decided to interview Middle Eastern students on campus to see how they felt in the wake of 9/11. Were they intimidated by the hateful comments in the hallways, the racism masquerading as patriotism? Were they ashamed? Afraid?
Yes, resoundingly so.
When the newspaper went to press, the journalism teacher called me aside after class. “I just want you to know, I put your article on the front page, but I didn’t print your byline.”
I was thrown. “Why?”
My friend, who was standing nearby, answered for her, “So you don’t get jumped in the hallways.”
By the end of the day, I was glad the article was anonymous. It evoked a deluge of emotion, mostly negative. I began to form a working hypothesis: I believe prejudice often blooms from a seedling of truth that’s watered with lies.
True: Al Qaeda terrorists murdered nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. America was devastated and will never forget the attack.
Lie: All Islamic people are extremists and should not be trusted.
Lie: Americans are superior to Middle Easterners.
Lie: Spurning other cultures is an admirable way to foster unity in the US.
If we could get Jonah on a counselor’s couch, his prejudice might have looked something like this:
True: The Assyrians have a history of torturing and murdering my people.
Lie: All 120,000 citizens of Nineveh are worthless and should be held accountable for the sins of the Assyrian armies.
Lie: I am more deserving of God’s grace than they are.
Lie: My standard of justice is superior to God’s standard.
Sometimes when we peel back the layers of our own prejudice, there’s no seedling of truth at all — just sinful attitudes we saw modeled from the time we were young, or more evidence of our own depravity.
In 1998, three scientists created the very first Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure hidden bias. They launched Project Implicit, a non-profit organization under the umbrella of Harvard University. I stumbled upon the test years ago and have been fascinated by it ever since. It measures prejudice in a myriad of different categories, including weight, age, gender, skin-tone, and more.
I’ve taken the test multiple times in a variety of categories and never scored perfectly. My results always reveal some degree of implicit bias. It’s been painfully eye-opening, especially when I myself have been on the receiving end of hurtful prejudice.
Truly, we are broken through and through.
The reality of Romans 3:10 is the great equalizer of all people: “There is no one righteous, not even one.” Overcoming prejudice begins right here, with the humble recognition that we are broken. Wherever we find racism, sexism, or elitism, we will always find arrogance because it is impossible for prejudice to exist without a steady diet of pride. Indeed, that is what makes prejudice horrifically anti-gospel. It deceives us into believing, “I deserve grace, but you don’t.”
As we study the book of Jonah at Grace Church, have you glimpsed yourself in his story? I have. I’ve become deeply invested in this character whose heart so resembles my own. Perhaps this is why the conclusion to Jonah’s story is so dissatisfying. There is no conclusion. The curtain falls abruptly as though someone lost the last chapter of the manuscript.
We’re left to wonder, will Jonah ever repent? Will he experience the freedom found only in submission to God? Will he humbly concede that mercy is, indeed, for all people? We don’t know. But there is one question you and I can answer, and it’s the most important question of all: Will I?