02 February 2015

Reading Jonah in Ninewa

Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

One of the most fascinating things about the ancient Christian communities of Iraq—in my mind, at least—is that they mostly identify not as Kurds or Arabs, but as Assyrians.  This seems curious because ancient Assyria was, by most historical and biblical accounts, the original Evil Empire of the ancient Middle East. From their capital in Nineveh (present-day Mosul, capital of Iraq’s Ninewa governorate and current ISIS stronghold), the Assyrians pillaged and murdered from the Tigris to the Nile.  Other empires did the same, but the Assyrian kings recorded their feats of torture with remarkable thoroughness and glee.  The Babylonians are famous for the Hanging Gardens; the Assyrians are known for mass deportation.   

The Assyrian flag, adopted in 1971.
This way of putting it is a bit hypocritical and condescending –after all, no people group is innocent, so who am I, an American, to question someone else’s far distant ancestors?  My question, I suppose, is a bit more specific.  What is it like to be both Assyrian and Christian, given that being a Christian means reading the stories of ancient Israel? Assyria destroyed the ten northern tribes of Israel and decimated or displaced dozens of other nations.  The Aramaic language came to be widely used across the Middle East in part because the Assyrians forced the Aramean people to scatter in pockets across the Assyrian Empire.  You could say that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and many Christians in Iraq still speak a dialect of Aramaic, because of the state-sponsored terrorism of the ancient Assyrian Empire.  So what is it like for Assyrian Christians to seem themselves portrayed as the bad guys in the Bible? 

I got one very direct answer this week.  Three weeks before the start of Lent, all the traditional Iraqi churches celebrate “The Intercessions of Nineveh,” a 3-day fast and nightly mass to remember not only the story of Jonah but also the prayers of the people of Nineveh to be spared from God’s wrath.  When I read the story, I usually identify with Jonah.  When they read it, they are the Ninevites.   Assyrian identity gets enacted in church as the memory of rescue from their ancestors' ways of murder and domination.  Reading Jonah is a reminder that they were, by the grace of God, saved from being Assyrian—or at least, rescued from what was wrong with being Assyrian. 

This year, the story of Jonah took on a special urgency.  The center of the fight against the Islamic State group is Ninewa governorate and its capital, Mosul.  Just like in the story, it looks like all hell is going to break loose against that city in about six months, as Kurdish Peshmerga forces narrow in, coalition airstrikes intensify, and the Iraqi army completes its training of special brigades to take back the city Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” says Jonah.  ISIS is undoubtedly preparing to make its defense of the city as costly as possible.  Praying an ancient story about the delivery of Nineveh could hardly be more fitting, and more hopeless.  The world’s judgment hangs over Mosul, and this time there is no Jonah.  In any case, it is hard to imagine IS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in sackcloth and ashes.  But, “who knows? God may relent and change his mind...so that we do not perish.” 

st. joseph church
St. Joseph's church in Ankawa, like many Iraqi churches and Assyrian cultural buildings, is modeled after ancient Babylonian and Assyrian architecture.
But still, the analogy is all wrong here.  Mosul is not Nineveh.  In three thousand years, the barbarity of ISIS won’t be remembered; the American empire will.  I hope our reputation is better than the Assyrians, but either way, a present-day Jonah preaching divine destruction would be heading to Washington, not Mosul.  This wouldn’t be a bad way for American Christians to read Jonah. Who we are in the story makes all the difference, and in this story, I am an Assyrian.
These are the things I like to think about.  For the most part, though, I have no idea what real Assyrians think when they hear this story now.  On Wednesday evenings I teach English to high-school students who fled from Mosul and Qaraqosh, a large Christian town just outside Mosul.  Last Wednesday we did an activity with the story of Jonah.  At the end I asked them why Jonah was so angry that God didn’t destroy Nineveh.  “Because of the fish,” said one.  “Because of the plant,” said another.  Wrapped up the in geo-political reading of the story, it had never occurred to me before that Jonah was just tired of being pushed around and manipulated.  Whichever part in the story the people of Mosul have—whether Christians forced from their homes, or Muslims now trapped in them—none of them got to choose.  It is going to be a tough spring.       

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