I have no interest in blaming victims and will take every measure not to do so.
Martyrs in early Christianity were real and we have the Roman Empire to blame. Real people, men and women, were murdered because of their resistance to the empire and refusal to betray their faith. Many of their stories were recorded. Lucky for us, Perpetua, one of the early women martyrs, took it upon herself to record her own visions and intentions up until close to when she was placed before the savage beasts of the Roman games.
Over time, there has been a distortion of just how many martyrs and how essential this historical experience has become to Christian identity. Too often, even in Christian dominant situations, Christians still see themselves as persecuted and victimized. Even in early Christianity, there was not unilateral support for choosing martyrdom. Some felt it could be and should be avoided and was not helpful to the spread of Christianity.
There was some concern about a possible suicidal impulse behind some who actively sought confrontation with the Empire and therefore martyrdom. In the middle ages, there were Christians who could have lived in their communities under Islamic rule in Spain, but could not tolerate the narrowing of their rights and thus would act in ways that provoked the rulers, leading to their execution. Again, the rules are responsible for their murderous actions, but in some (not all) cases, these folks were not pursued, but sought pursuit.
Take the case of Michael Servetus, the 16th century Spaniard, author of the heretical treatise, “On the Errors of the Trinity,” who is often claimed by the Unitarian Universalists as one of our theological ancestors. He was not in Geneva, yet not only found his way to this city ruled by John Calvin and his harsh reformation, which had denounced Servetus, but to the very church where John Calvin was preaching. Servetus’ execution was not pretty – a burning at the stake, though Calvin advocated for the swifter, “more humane” beheading – but it could have been avoided altogether.
In the book of Jonah, it is clear that Jonah has a death wish. Right away in this book of the Bible, Jonah tries to flee from God by boarding a ship. When God brings a big storm to bear on the ship, threatening all aboard, Jonah asks that the sailors throw him overboard – this is not only to save the sailors, but to bring about his own death. We also see the death wish in the final chapter, when Jonah says to God, “please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:3) as well as when Jonah says, “It is better for me to die than to live.” (4:8)
Why is Jonah fleeing? He does so after God commanded him to prophesy their destruction against the people of Nineveh for they are a sinful city. Yet how is it that Jonah, who acknowledges that God made the sea and the dry land, thinks he can flee from God by boarding a boat headed away from Nineveh and towards Tarshish? He can’t really think this will work, can he? Something else must be going on.
I think Jonah is deeply confused. Jonah has learned that God is a merciful god, yet has just experienced God directly intending a wrathful response to a whole, great city. This has to be unsettling and is likely to be the cause of, if not cognitive dissonance, then spiritual. Jonah flees not knowing what else to do.
Jonah’s flight, consciously or unconsciously, is a test of God. If God is as wrathful as God seems to be given God’s plans for Nineveh, then what will God do if Jonah disobeys and attempts to flee? Won’t God destroy Jonah as well? Or will God, perhaps, choose to be the God Jonah has learned about, the merciful one?
In fact, God chooses to be merciful with Jonah: God provides a big fish to save Jonah once he sinks to the depth of the sea. It is after this move by God from a focus on destruction of Nineveh to the rescue of Jonah, not to mention a prayer from Jonah in the belly of the fish (that seems to have been extracted from elsewhere and added to the text), that another change happens: once Jonah is vomited onto the sand, instead of having Jonah prophesy against Nineveh, God commands Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”(3:2) In this “negotiated bargain” (as the theologian T.A. Perry calls it), God has shifted from the wrathful to the merciful, even giving Nineveh forty days to make amends and repent (which God did not give Sodom and Gomorrah).
So despite Jonah’s death wishes and his attempt to commit suicide by The Big Cop, he is unsuccessful. However, it is here we can see some of the best examples of the merciful God of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is also a great foundation for the paradigm of God as a deity with the capacity for evolution and maturation: a God of potential, rather than one of omnipotence.