Who God Cares About

I’m in full agreement with Stanley Hauerwas when he says a fundamental problem with American Christian ethics and social thought is that it focuses on America, and not the church, as the place where ethical action takes place.

Because of this I have always been one of those for whom something akin to political theology — politics and social policy built on an understanding of God’s commands to god’s people to order the world in some positive way — is anathema. Now, I admit, this is because when I was Muslims I spent some time as an aspiring jihadist, and the aim of revolutionary violence was to order the world the way God intended humanity to order the world.

And so I concluded — God has left no work undone. It is not the task of humanity to purposefully order the world according to divine demands, command, or covenant. Perhaps I have gone overboard in this, but this is where I am.

This is how I put a few years ago in an essay about a book on covenantal theology in Anglo-American history:

Since a “covenant” is a product of revelation, and since no one can produce any evidence that God has made a covenant with the state (in this case, it would be the American state), I do not and will not believe that any covenant with the civil order exists. The only covenants that God has made are with God’s people Israel and with the church (and they are one in the same). At least Moses came down from Sinai with tablets and Jesus actually called disciples. But the American sense of fallenness and chosenness is merely a self-assertion. Heck, the very Calvinist notion of covenant is a self-assertion grounded in nothing except a transference of “Israel” to the Calvinist polity.

I may have been more emphatic somewhere. But I think you get the point. The ground of ethical action for Christians is not the nation-state (which doesn’t matter to divine history), but the church. The ekklesia. Israel. The called out people of God. Who are a failed polity, subject to the rule of others.

We don’t order the world on behalf of God. We are the gracious recipients of the gift of God’s order. That’s what it means to be subject. The be conquered. To be exiled. To be the eternal guest, with no place to lay our heads.

And I still believe this. But a few months ago, something occurred to me as I was reading the Bible that made me at least consider alternative possibilities.

Specifically, I was reading Jonah, the prophet sent to preach judgment upon Ninevah.

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days ‘journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-10 ESV)

Nineveh is not the people of God. It is not Israel. It is not the church. It is a giant city, the capital of Assyria, the nation that in 2 Kings 17 conquers and settles the northern kingdom of Israel and in 2 Chronicles 32 ravishes Judah. They are the enemy.

More importantly, they are a polity. A polity that is not Israel. God cares about this nation enough to demand Jonah preach judgment. God cares enough about Nineveh to avert the promised doom — Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown! ע֚וֹד אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְנִֽינְוֵ֖ה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת — when Nineveh, beginning with its king, repent.

As God later tells Jonah:

And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle. (Jonah 4:11 ESV)

This isn’t quite a covenant, not the one many Western Christians have transferred from Israel onto their nation states (and the notion that underlies American exceptionalism). But God cares enough about Nineveh to proclaim judgment, and accept repentance. (The prophet Nahum would have a much longer, and much harsher, judgment for Nineveh, which would perish at the hands of Babylon.)

It’s that last bit that matters — accept repentance. In the case of Nineveh, it’s a corporate repentance. That begins with the people hearing and understanding their sinfulness, the king himself (either because he feels it or fears just how widespread this is) ordering mourning and penance for the city’s sins.

It’s never specified what these are. War? Conquest? Greed?

I think something similar is at work with Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 & 19. These are not the people of God (though Sodom is described as Israel’s “sister” in Ezekiel 16), and they have no relationship with God (aside from maybe the same covenant all humanity has thank to God’s promises to Noah). Indeed, God has to “go down” to investigate Sodom’s sin. Which leads to Abraham interceding on that city’s behalf, getting God to promise to save Sodom if ten righteous people could be found there.

I find this all unsettling. Not that God cares about people — or communities — that have no relationship to God (are not called as God’s people), but rather that, in the case of Nineveh, a people can collectively and politically repent. I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. It suggests there is room for a prophetic politics that pronounces judgment, even demands change (and accepts it), of a people who are not God’s people.

Jonah doesn’t do anything but proclaim doom. (In Hebrew, it’s a five-word sermon.) The people of Nineveh see their sin, repent, do penance, and are saved. But the program isn’t Jonah’s, anymore than the program to save Sodom is Abraham’s, who is merely giving advice to God, and bargaining on behalf of people he’s likely done business with. He waged war on their behalf a few chapters earlier, in Genesis 14. Sodom isn’t saved from the consequences of its sin (anymore than Benjamin is from a nearly identical sin in Judges 19-21).

All the same, there is a room here for a politics to and amidst people who are not Israel and not the church. There is a ground for ethical acting by the church in and toward the world. I don’t like it, and I wish it wasn’t this way, but there it is.