I confess to feeling a little unmoored lately. Everyone likes to win, and we haven’t done much of that lately.
Our recent victories, such as the ban-the-box campaign to remove felony status as a barrier to housing, and the Seattle Wealth Tax, which would have raised $140 million annually to fund human needs, were both reversed by the courts before taking effect.
More recently, the Employee Hours Tax — also unanimously voted in by the Seattle City Council — was repealed by the same people who supported it just three weeks prior.
Meanwhile, the misery in our streets, as revealed by the unacceptable growth in unsheltered homelessness, continues unabated while radical inequality rages on.
The temptation, while we know better, is to despair. Over my 30-some years as a homeless advocate, I’ve been in this space before.
A space when the task at hand feels daunting. When love calls us to action, but the when, where and how of that is less than clear.
In these moments, when the fight feels epic but the way forward is hard, I think of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, swept along in the belly of the whale and spit out on the shore, cursing God and petulantly asking, “Why me?”
Who am I, Jonah asks, to be an instrument of God? An agent of history? A holy expression of love?
The story of Jonah appears in the Christian Bible, the Jewish Haftarah, and the Islamic Quran. Within the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition, that’s a mythological grand slam. Clearly, there’s something there.
Something that speaks across the time and space of more than three millennia.
The story goes like this. God calls upon Jonah to do the impossible. Go to Nineveh, he says. Tell the people there — lost in the distractions of wealth and the allures of the flesh — that they must repent or be destroyed.
Jonah is overwhelmed by the task. His logical mind tells him the most likely end game of this calling is his own death.
He flees the call and stows away on a ship to Tarshish, a place far away. A center of commerce. Somewhere that feels safe and perhaps more familiar.
Jonah, it turns out, cannot hide. A terrible storm overtakes the ship and threatens to destroy it. All hands are on deck, bailing water and throwing things overboard.
They find Jonah down in the hold, lost in a deep sleep, cut off from the struggle and hiding from the chaos all about him.
In a moment of deep self-loathing, he tells the sailors he has offended God, and they should throw him over the side. After some debate, they assent.
The sea calms, and Jonah is gobbled by a whale. For three days and nights, he lives in embryonic darkness. The fish spits him out in precisely the place he sought to avoid.
The people in Nineveh hear God and repent, but that’s not the end. Jonah, being human, chooses to sit and pout. He cannot accept that love and forgiveness is God’s way.
In one of his more patient moments, God causes a plant to shade Jonah while he sits and stews. After a time, a worm eats into the plant and causes it to wither and die, which angers Jonah anew.
God asks him why, after all that, he is still more concerned for himself than others?
“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And I should not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, where there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people … ?”
We never get an answer from Jonah, even though God spoke clearly. Jonah is us, sitting in the gap of history, fearful of the call, lost in confusion. Centered on ourselves.
The call to fight on the side of life is never easy, but it’s always there: a choice to be made. And when we listen and accept that which is hard, the way forward will become clear.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.