New Book Examines Jonah Story from the Underside of Oppression


The Old Testament story of Jonah is more than a fairy tale about a man being swallowed by a whale, and even more than an evangelical call to preach the gospel to those in foreign lands, but instead a model for reconciliation between the haves and the have-nots, says a new book.

In Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethic of Reconciliation, EthicsDaily.com columnist Miguel De La Torre suggests that the reading of Jonah he learned in Sunday school--that God is calling America, as the most powerful nation in the world, to carry the light to those in darkness--is upside down.

The power in the Book of Jonah is the Assyrian Empire, brutal conquerors of the Israelites whom Jonah and his contemporaries likely viewed with hatred and scorn. Reading the text from the perspective of the disenfranchised, De La Torre says the United States is not the hero but the villain.

De La Torre admits many American Christians would not be flattered to think of America as an empire.

While colonial empires of the past established rule through military force, he contends, the American empire relies on the power of economics to oppress and exploit the two-thirds world. Those structures, he says, are behind the question asked so often following the 9/11 attacks, "Why do they hate us?"

De La Torre, an associate professor of social ethics and director of the Justice and Peace Institute at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, told EthicsDaily.com the idea for the book came when a Euro-American colleague asked him if any liberation theologians had written on Jonah.

"After some research, I couldn't find any," he said. "So I decided to do so."

"Till now, most who write on reconciliation do so from the perspective of those in power," De La Torre said. "But what would reconciliation look like from the perspective of U.S. marginalized communities? This is the question this book attempts to answer."

De La Torre says it isn't enough for the marginalized to seek liberation for themselves. The message of Jonah, he says, is that oppressors also bear the image of God.

"I am convinced that those of us from marginalized communities are called to be prophets, like Jonah, to today's beneficiaries of empire, carrying the gift of salvation and liberation," De La Torre writes in the book. "The primary spiritual gift that marginalized communities can offer the privileged of the empire is the discovery of their souls and humanity."

It is not enough for members of dominant cultures to feel sorry for sins of the past, he says, but rather to work to dismantle systems of privilege. De La Torre says he is pessimistic about seeing such change in his lifetime, because there has never been a case of an oppressive culture voluntarily surrendering power.

He told EthicsDaily.com he hopes the book will prompt "honest dialogue on the difficulty, if not hopelessness, to reconcile after centuries of oppression."

Whether or not short-term reconciliation is possible, De La Torre said, all Christians must "move toward justice" so that reconciliation can take place.

The book is written in accessible language targeted for use in both undergraduate classrooms and church study groups. The final chapter includes case studies from current events looking at tensions from the perspective of both the oppressors and the oppressed.

An ordained Southern Baptist minister, De La Torre is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and former pastor for Goshen Baptist Church in Glenn Dean, Ky. His academic work focuses on social and political ethics in contemporary American thought, especially how religion affects race, class and gender oppression. Previous books include Reading the Bible from the Margins, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins and Lily Among the Thorns: Imagining a New Christian Sexuality.

De La Torre says marginalized classes are called to be "an evangelist" toward their oppressors, not in the traditional understanding of evangelism, but to proclaim God's message of reconciliation in the relation between God and humans, among humans and between humans and God's creation.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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