I’ve been thinking a lot about justice and compassion, and the book of Jonah.
Jonah is a very short, myth-like, book near the end of the Old Testament.
In it, God asks Jonah to go and help the people in the city of Nineveh.
Jonah doesn’t go to Nineveh, instead he gets on a boat and tries to run from God. A storm comes up and threatens to destroy the boat that Jonah is trying to escape in – so the others in the boat, sure that Jonah’s disobedience is the cause of the storm, throw him overboard.
Jonah survives being thrown into the sea by living in the belly of a fish (which God provides).
Once Jonah arrives on land (the fish vomits him up) God again asks him to go to the city of Nineveh.
This time Jonah goes: he tells the people of Nineveh that God wants them to change their ways, they do so, and in turn God relents from ‘the destruction he had planned.’
The next part of the story is what interests me, in many versions it comes under the heading: Jonah’s Anger at the Lord’s Compassion.
Jonah gets angry: he is annoyed that God made him go all the way to Nineveh, and he is annoyed that God threatened punishment to the people of Nineveh and then did not follow through. Jonah wants to know, why, if God was always going to relent and show compassion, did he need Jonah to go in the first place?
To me Jonah is like the voice of justice – God was always going to save Nineveh, why involve Jonah? Why act otherwise?
At this point in the story Jonah is still hanging around the fringe of the city, it’s very hot. And while Jonah complains to God about how wasteful this whole thing has been, God makes a gourd to shade Jonah from the sun (different translations say ‘leafy plant’, like the whale, not so physically possible, but a beautiful image).
After a short time the gourd disappears and Jonah becomes very angry again, becomes suicidal even, in his anger at God’s arbitrariness: he says, ‘It would be better for me to die than live.’ Better dead than to live in this injustice, in this world which requires journeys to save a city whose sins I did not commit, better dead than trying to live with this inconsistent compassion, which both makes a gourd and takes it away.
I am often Jonah. I am impatient with compassion and eager for justice. I like the consistency justice promises – you will get what you merit, no more no less, a bit like karma. I like the universal nature of justice – an equal, even handed approach for everyone.
In comparison to justice, compassion seems sloppy, without pattern, and deeply unfair. I agree with Jonah, why send the stupid gourd if you’re just going to take it away again? When I encounter compassion, I too am angry.
Yet lately I’ve found myself rethinking my hostility towards compassion. For in the book of Jonah, it is the compassionate God who actually cares for the city of Nineveh. The story finishes with God asking Jonah, ‘And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?’
Jonah never asks after the city, Jonah never speaks of the animals.
I suspect it is often compassion who asks after the little animals.
When I was working in Fiji, a friend who lived nearby told me another story of compassion and justice.
Her host family in Fiji was a mother, her husband and her child. One cold morning the child cried and complained at having to have his usual cold shower before school. The mother heated some water on the stove, poured a warm bath, and gave it to the child who was instantly grateful.
My friend thought about the precedent this would set: would he demand warm baths on all cold mornings from now on? Would the mother be able to keep up this routine? Would the child cry every morning until he got the desired result?
Simply, she asked the questions of justice, of fairness.
But this act was one of compassion – it was never again repeated, nor requested, during the year my friend spent with the family. It was a one-off, a gift. It was an act comparable to the gourd that God provides Jonah in the story above, yet it did not lead to Jonah’s lament: ‘I am so angry I wish I were dead.’ The child simply received the gift.
So I am rethinking the relationship between justice and compassion – which I previously held in hierarchical relation. Perhaps they are better thought of as sisters, friendly and equal to one another.