Jonah, the whale, the Ninevites, and the far right

There’s a story in the bible about this guy named Jonah. You’ve likely heard of him. And, you’ve likely heard of his encounter with a whale, or big fish, or the Loch Ness Monster. Whatever. This story is largely immaterial; it’s a preamble, like The Hobbit is to Lord of the Rings. However, unlike LOTR, most people never get to the important part of Jonah.

The whole whale incident was because Jonah was very reluctant to go and preach hell and damnation to the people of Nineveh. After he was thrown into the sea by frightened fishermen, swallowed by something, then spat out onto a beach smelling of dead fish, he had a change of heart, and went off to preach.

After he got done doing his Jonathan Edwards bit, lo and behold, the Ninevites repented! You’d think Jonah would have a bit of job satisfaction, or even pride at his powerful delivery, but no–he was torqued. He had really been looking forward to God smiting those guys, and after all he went through, he was ready for some real fire and brimstone. But, God forgave them, because after all, they repented.


Lately I’ve been reading and listening to some of the far right political nonsense, and the attitude started reminding me of the Jonah story. I’m not correlating liberals with Nineveh, or anything like that, and definitely not suggesting that the far right have been asked by God to preach whatever they’re preaching. What I’m noticing is the tribalistic attitude. With Jonah, it was him and God against the Ninevites (whether they repented or not); with the far right, it’s them and God against the liberals/Democrats, whether they’re right or not.

It’s pure tribalism. If a Democrat did anything that a Republican would have done a couple of years ago, it’s still socialist evil. It doesn’t matter that Bush, Bush, or Reagan did or said the same thing. If a Democrat says it, it’s evil, and they need to be destroyed. It seems that Democrats could even agree with the Republicans, but somehow they’d still be wrong.

Two can play…

I know that you’re already out there thinking, “Democrats do the same thing!” and, yes, they do. Tribalism runs both ways, and it’s always wrong (at least the attitude). Tribalism is nothing more than a big ad hominem–judging the man rather than the argument.

However, most liberals I know would gladly agree with a conservative–even a far-right conservative–should they be on the same side of any issue. I’ve even spoken positively about Trump the 2 or 3 times he did something I could support. It’s not common, but he has made a couple of good calls in the last 3 years. And, there are quite a number of Republicans who have said and done good things, and that needs to be celebrated.

The far-right media, however–Fox, Breitbart, and dozens of youtube nutjobs–have created such a divisive situation that for a Republican to ever agree with a liberal (heaven forbid Obama!) would be tantamount to treason. The result is the same kind of tribalistic attitude that our friend Jonah had about the Ninevites.

And the moral of the story…

If we are ever going to get back to working together, we (all of us) need to stop demonizing those different from us. At least listen to what they’re saying and judge the words, not your emotions. Don’t be like Jonah. No one wants to hang around with someone who smells like dead fish.

The Fear of Doubt

It seems that one of the greatest fears of many religious people is the fear of doubt. There are many types of fear, and there are many kinds of doubt; most of us, I think, are familiar with both. However, I don’t think many people stop to recognize the fear of doubt, which is not uncommon among those identifying with strong ideological groups. They fear their own tendencies to doubt, but also fear doubt in others, because of the potential for awakening their own doubt. As I write this I am reminded of a song off Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Coil album, “Don’t Fade,” which deals head-on with this: 

How could you forsake the love of God that way?
Don’t fade, you’re staying here with me
Don’t fade, I need to know that someone still believes.

Following up on my prior post on Why I Am Not a Joiner, the fear of doubt challenges our perceived commitment to an ideological group such as a church, as well as to the ideology (such as belief in God) itself. I would hazard to guess it is more common among more conservative groups, which are conservative simply because they have laid down extraneous qualifications for belonging, such as a belief in inerrancy, literalist interpretations, and doctrines such as Calvinism or dispensationalism. The more fundamentalist a group gets, the number of extra qualifications for membership increases, as does the opportunities for the fear of doubt, which becomes the worst sin imaginable for the group.  Immorality, for example, can be tolerable and even forgiven. Doubt, however, is like a plague that must be eradicated. What’s worse is that these extraneous doctrines become so associated with faith itself, that when people do lose faith in, say, Creationism, or Biblical inerrancy, they will throw the baby out with the bath and walk away from Christianity altogether.  

This fear of doubt often becomes cyclical: The fear of doubt, and the need to maintain control, causes leaders to insitute more rules about belief, beleiving that setting up these rules will keep doubters and non-believers out of the group. This in turn results in a strong group-think, which then causes a fear of doubt among the members, because doubt is the greatest enemy of belonging. And belonging is important. It’s so important, in fact, that the fear of doubt even plagues those who self-identify with a particular group, even if they have no direct ties (an example would be someone who is a “follower” of a TV faith preacher).   

The fear of doubt can also keep people insulated from the outside world. Truth becomes secondary to the prescribed beliefs of the group, so any challange, no matter how well-reasoned or supported (like the earth rotating around the sun) is matter-of-factly rejected by the group. Truth, it would seem, should be everyone’s goal, and encourage everyone to work together to acheive that goal. However, tribal mentality puts the tribe before lofty goals like truth or the well-being of others, to the detriment of everyone. 

I’m a fan of truth. I’d rather not believe in something that isn’t true, especially if it matters. On the other hand, if I choose to believe that the Vikings could actually win the next Superbowl, there’s no real harm done, except to my eventual disappointment. Facing the truth when it conflicts with your current beliefs is often uncomfortable, especially if you’ve found some type of security in that belief. However, I believe that reality and truth are good things, especially where you will have to eventually face the truth anyway.

I have, at times, suffered from a secondary fear of doubt; that is, a fear of doubt in others. I would expect this is common for people who are parents or who have served in various pastoral roles. However, I’m getting over it.  After years in communities where doubt was a bad word, I find discussions of doubt now to be a breath of fresh air. Doubt is at least honest; proclamations of belief are not always.

The following is, I think, an amazingly honest treatment of faith and doubt, by Kasey Chambers. The video features her son, Talon, who inspired the song by telling her that he believes in God when he’s with her, but doesn’t when he’s at his dad’s house.  In some ways this whole post serves as an intro to the song:

Apparently there’s a problem in my embedding so here’s the link:

Why I Am Not A Joiner: A Confession of Sorts

I say “of sorts” because my purpose here is not to discuss me; rather, I’m using myself as a jumping off point to discuss the larger issue of what it means to join a group, even informally.

I’ve never been what you could call a “joiner.”  (Cue quote from “PeeWee’s Big Adventure: “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”)  I’m not one to rush after the latest fad, follow the crowd, or jump on bandwagons. If I do happen to find a parade going my way, it’s more of a synchronistic happening.

I usually haven’t taken “the road less traveled” with much forethought or design. Often, it’s just because I don’t like crowds. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, where I could see the horizon in all 4 directions. I still like to have a 360-degree view of things, even on the interweb. 

Another reason why I am not a joiner is that I usually find that I simply don’t fit in with many groups. Part of it is my natural tendancy toward introversion, but over the years I’ve discovered that I tend to think differently than other people. If there’s a different viewpoint in the room, it’s more than likely to be mine. I almost never agree completely with the general consensus on many issues, often to the bewilderment and frustration of more single-minded thinkers.  Unless it’s important, I often keep my opinions to myself, which is not that hard, being a man of few words anyway. 

One of the things I have begun to understand over the past few years as I have pulled away from some things that I had “joined,” is that joinging involves, to some extent, a loss of self.  If you are going to fit in and be a true part of a group, even only internally identifying with a group or ideology, there are things about yourself that you have to give up.  This can often be a very good thing; for example, learning to put others first involves putting some of your own interests aside. When I got married, and then we had children, this was essential.  Refusing to step out of the spotlight results in destruction of the family, etc. 

However, occasionally joining a group, especially when it’s centered around a certain ideology, requires a sacrifice of a part of yourself (unless you’re already bent in that direction).  You can’t maintain a “solo-think” and at the same time adopt the “group-think.”  And let’s face it – it’s so much easier to just adopt the group-think, especially if you already lean that way and respect other people in the group.  

All over the web, there are sites which preach to the choir, reaffirming the extremist group-think. Pretty soon, those who take up residence in these tribal territories begin to see the world in such a way that the extreme appears to be centrist and “balanced.” They may even believe they are the free-thinkers, but in reality they are only free from the gravitational pull of the other point of view. Politically, theologically, and socially, I have some basic conservative views that I’ve held since I was young. I also have some basic liberal views that I’ve held as well. This tension has caused even more tension, at times, but it has served me well by protecting me from becomeing sucked into one vortex or another. 

I am not free from the need to belong, even if I am something of a recluse. There are times I have wanted to belong, and found for one reason or another that I just can’t, at least for an extended period of time. And at times I’ve occasionally immersed myself in a group that I later realized was just wacko, and to be honest, I’m fairly embarrassed that I let myself be sucked in. Not wanting to be embarrassed in the future is a good motivator to look before I leap. So who knows – my reluctance to be a joiner may be a little wisdom layered on top of a personality defect.  However, I am blessed to belong to a wonderful family, and that’s a tribe that I can give myself whole-heartedly to, and which in turn I find satisfying. 

The point of all of this, again, is to say that becoming a true part of a tribe involves a real loss of a part of yourself. Joining a tribe is not something to be taken lightly (unless it’s something just for amusement, like playing music or joining a sport). It’s good to be sure that what you are gaining is both valid and is more valuable than what you are sacrificing.