THE AVERAGE child was sent to at least a few Sabbath and Sunday School classes where he learned about the Jewish prophet Jonah, who was gobbled up by a big fish and subsequently spat out. The scenario is fantastic for kids hungry for adventure, intrigue and danger. For the believers, it is an account of God's punishment, providence and his ultimate deliverance. And for religious sceptics, it's a crazy concoction that defies biological explanation.
But the most important point coming out of the book of Jonah is one man's belief that some people should not be accepted by God. And this tradition of parochialism has certainly filtered down even to this generation.
Believers of different denominations, but serving the same Christ, still set up religious barriers, preach confrontational messages of fire and brimstone, and spend more time tearing down each other than addressing the social ills crippling the country.
Jonah was more interested in preserving Jehovah as the God of the Jewish people, procuring for Israel a special and exclusive salvation. The prophet was, in Jamaican parlance suffering from 'serious bad mind'. If Jonah refused to go to the city of Nineveh because he felt his life was in danger, it would have been a perfectly human response. When the fear factor takes over, we tend to revert to the axiom about self-preservation being the first rule of survival. But Jonah, the mouthpiece of God, had the heart of the devil when he would rather Nineveh to be destroyed than experience a spiritual revival.
Listen to what the Scripture says: "But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, 'I pray thee, Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and repentest of evil'."
Jonah thought that he had the copyright, trade mark and deed on who God was, who He should include and who He should exclude. And isn't that how some ministers and church members behave?
I remember my high school days vividly as a young Christian in sixth form. There were lots of Christians in our class. Many were committed believers and strong members of their particular denominations. And boy, were we religious.
There were Church of Gods, Jesus Only Pentecostals, Adventists, Kingston Church of Christs and a few others. But instead of combining the forces of our respective faiths and developing a strong bond of unity, some of us gathered ourselves into cliques and groups and the walls of division were icy cold. More time was spent declaring who was godly and who was not. Things came to a head when our weekly grade devotions became the platform for denominational dogma to be unleashed on unbelieving sixth-formers who were only interested in games, 'gals' and going home before school was over.
Those of us who were conservatives concentrated on the simple message of salvation, without touching denominational precepts and staying far from condemning any one of other persuasions. But in the space of one week high drama swept down and turned devotions into a laughing stock. A Pentecostal friend of mine delivered a stirring sermonette on salvation that would have made St. Peter proud, but as Jesus Only adherents never fail to do, declared that the only right road to salvation was by being baptised in Jesus' name. The stage was set.
Seven days later, at our next grade devotions, all hell literally broke loose. A member of the Kingston Church of Christ preached his own evangelistic rebuttal in defence of his faith. The atmosphere was tense like when a cowboy kicked open the saloon doors in a Western and everyone stopped drinking. Then the unthinkable happened. A Jesus Only, who claimed that he was under the anointing of the Holy Ghost, exploded into a trembling 'move of the spirit' and started rebuking the speaker as a liar and an agent of Satan. And in a sharp retort, the Church of Christ speaker started calling the Pentecostal a satanic liar. And thus did our devotional exercise end in complete and utter disgrace.
Each side got its chance to cast aspersions at each other. But in the end, amid the hung heads of shame and disappointment and the mocking laughter of unbelievers who got first-class blockbuster entertainment, I felt that morning that the devil had had the last laugh. We have got to get beyond the name-calling and finger-pointing. Too many Christians become more consumed with dogma and defending the church than engaging in constructive KINGDOM-BUILDING. We need to give God a bit more credit in his ability to preserve His church.
So many members arrogate to themselves the power of condemnation and excommunication because persons have slightly different doctrines or their lifestyles are not up to our standards. Jesus is pretty lucky that he is in heaven already or else some Christians would not give Him approval because of his radical beliefs and the immoral characters who were his close friends.
By André Wright