Miracles: Careening between Justice and Mercy

I don’t feel particularly somber or cynical or snarky today, and neither am I feeling particularly enlightened, hopeful, or grounded, so I am not sure why this poem – one of my favorite passages from Leaves of Grass – has caught in my throat.

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles…

But there it is, stuck and not availing itself to the swallow mechanism, so here I am, writing.

It is early May, the end of the semester, and I have one final class that meets in a week and a half.  It is the final session of my course on an interreligious dialogue on the books of Job and Jonah.  So, I am reading a sh*tload about Jonah.  Talk about “miracles:” Jonah is swallowed by a big fish and does not die.  Yes, not a whale (though we have tried to make it such, as if that would make the story more believable!), but a fish.

To me, the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion of the waves

– the ships with men in them

Since I am reading about Jonah, this means I am reflecting on repentance (it is the main reading on Yom Kippur) and God’s mercy and grace.  I am wondering whether the Book of Jonah is a commentary on Jewish/Gentile relations and capacities.  And because this topic resonates so strongly for me, I am engaging what it means to be not only a reluctant prophet (most of them displayed some degree of hesitancy when chosen), or a prophet who argues with God (Moses does, Abraham does, Job does BIG TIME), but one who attempts escape so ridiculous, it invokes Monty Python’s retreat from the killer rabbit: “run away, run away.”

Supposedly Jonah runs away from prophesying against the great city of Nineveh not because he doesn’t want to be the bearer of bad news or part of the impending destruction.  Jonah does this because he does not want God to be merciful, since the Ninevites deserve God’s punishment.  Jonah does not want to be a tool of God’s grace, particularly when that grace is granted to people Jonah feels are unworthy.

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,

The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

Even though I don’t believe in God, I especially don’t cotton to the overwhelmingly wrathful, jealous, devastating God of the Hebrew Bible.  So you would think that I would like this depiction, from the same source, of God as merciful.

Yet, I also get Jonah here.  Personally, I can get stuck on the justice side of things and resent being pulled towards mercy and forgiveness.  The closer to me, the harder it is.  I think I am not alone in this.  There is no indication in the text that Jonah had any personal sense of violation by the people of Nineveh that would help us understand his uncompromising approach to justice and mercy.  He is very much like the relentless character of Javert in Victor Hugo’s, “Les Miserables,” (or at least like the Javert in the musical and movie versions; the Javert of the novel is, not surprisingly, more textured).  Maybe I get Jonah because I also get Javert – I find his character and his struggles equally as compelling as I do the protagonist, Jean Valjean’s.  (It does not hurt that I was first introduced to Javert via the depiction by Australian Phillip Quast in the musical, rather than the New Zealander, Russell Crowe, who botched it in the movie, I am sorry to say).

In the process of becoming a minister, it is something (add it to the growing list) that I am examining because it’s kinda huge: how does one strike a dynamic, humane balance between justice-seeking and compassion (mercy)-embodying?  Maybe others know how to do this without much thought, but this is definitely one of my personal edges.

Perhaps, as I try to find the cohesion of this particular blog train of thought, this is where the concept of miracles enters in.   So let me say quiet thanks to the poet, Walt Whitman, on this miraculous day.

Miracles

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge
of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with anyone I love, or sleep in the bed
at night with anyone I love,
Or sit at the table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honeybees busy around the hive
of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining
so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon
in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread
with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim-the rocks-the motion of the waves
-the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

~ Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass)

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0 Responses to Miracles: Careening between Justice and Mercy

  1. C. says:

    I’ve had this post open in a tab since yesterday trying to figure out how exactly to respond. I guess it just caught my attention – “justice and mercy” has been a recurring theme for me this past year (which has ended me up in seminary, starting in the fall.) My own sense has been that justice and mercy are not separate things but like the yin and yang they are a piece of one another: justice lacking sufficient mercy is rigid and brittle and destructively restrictive; mercy lacking sufficient justice is flaccid and ineffectual and destructively permissive. And there is no constant, easy formula for latching onto the constantly shifting balance point between them.

    • irrevspeckay says:

      C~ Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I think what you write is spot on. It is up to me not to careen, as if in a centrifuge, but to swim as if underwater, gracefully moving from one to the other. ~ Karen

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