The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.Jonah 3:5-6
One thing that has stood out to me throughout this year is how little we as a society know how to have periods of collective lament. Much as we have often been united by shared grief, there has been little public expression of this: collective frustration, perhaps, but often not collective grief. Memes comparing 2020 to grotesque flavours of chips or combusting portaloos have been more common than lament. And while there’s value in this kind of shared gallows humour, it seems we might be the poorer for not sitting in shared lament.
In particular, we do not really know how to collectively repent. Often we turn instead to laying political blame or defending our treasured positions. We are unwilling to recognise where we as a society have to share the blame – not for the pandemic, but for the greed and selfishness that was often revealed when the pandemic came, or for the failure to love our neighbours as ourselves that lay at the heart of so many tragedies and conflicts in our year.
Here, in Jonah 3, we see all of Nineveh, “from the least to the greatest”, united in lament and repentance. When does that happen in our world today? We either unite in blaming our leaders or blaming someone else – another people group, another philosophy, another country, another creed. When do we sit together in sackcloth and say that we as a society have done wrong?
It won’t cure the virus. It won’t answer every grief or fix every wrong. But who knows what it might accomplish, if people from either side of the political spectrum, from different classes and post-codes could be united in recognising that our world is not as it should be and that we must share some of the blame?