Initiating Jonah at Pollsmoor by Robert Steiner

Initiating Jonah at Pollsmoor by Robert Steiner

During the last seven years of our prison ministry at Pollsmoor most of our courses have been geared towards helping young prisoners awaiting trial to re-imagine their lives in the light of a God who is interested in them and is willing to forgive and help restore what is broken. More recently I have become aware that within a male prison context the Christian themes of conversion, rebirth and discipleship need to be made relevant to what Richard Rohr would describe as ‘the Wild Man’s Journey’. This journey, as Rohr envisages it, consists of two parts: the ‘heroic’ journey or ‘ascent’ and the ‘wisdom’ journey or ‘descent’ – the first characterised by the discovery of one’s own potential, the second by the awareness of one’s limitations. An ongoing process of ascent and descent is necessary to develop a healthy self-identity. Initiation lies at the heart of learning how to channel power, which paradoxically ultimately leads to an ability to relinquish power and control.
This pattern is reflected in the spiritual journey of Jesus, who redefined power and authority as servanthood – poignantly illustrated when Jesus, urged to prove himself with a powerful miracle, resists such a display of power. Instead he points to ‘the sign of Jonah’ as the only sign of his authority. The Gospel of Matthew recalls the encounter:
‘At this some of the scribes and the Pharisees said, “Teacher, we would like you to show us a sign”. He answered: “It is a wicked, godless generation that ask for a sign, and the only sign that will be given it is the sign of the prophet Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the sea monster’s belly for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the bowels of the earth. The men of Nineveh will appear in court when this generation is on trial, and ensure its condemnation, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and what is here is greater than Jonah”’ (Matthew 12:38-42).
There is an urgency and finality in his response that resonates with my own experiences at Medium A in Pollsmoor, where we join prisoners at their most vulnerable and desperate in the belly of the whale. Jesus’ audience hoped for a miracle of transformation that would dispel their uncertainty about his authority and clearly indicate that the days of the oppressive powers which terrorised their society were numbered. They expected a miraculous intervention, but Jesus only promised the sign of Jonah – the mysterious truth that in death lies new life.
We tend to look at ‘the sign of the prophet Jonah‘ only as a promise, fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it is also a warning to be heeded by every generation. We cannot passively wait for miracles to usher in a sudden transformation of our society. Jesus calls us rather to acknowledge the difficult reality that new life is always preceded by death; he tasks us in our yearning for change first to face the brokenness in our individual lives as well as in our communities. The sign of Jonah reminds us of dying and rising as a fundamental spiritual experience that needs to be embraced as a mystery at the heart of human life.
At Pollsmoor among our young students the sign of Jonah has its strongest impact when read as a powerful male initiation experience. In an environment where gang initiation is a daily reality, the story of Jonah helps us to discover how central the idea of some form of initiation is to our own Jewish-Christian heritage. Baptism and confirmation can be seen as the earliest Christian initiation rites, even though their present liturgical and institutional practices struggle to convey the dramatic and life-giving transition associated with initiation. The challenge facing those of us raised in a Christianity shaped by Western culture is to reclaim initiation as a vital spiritual experience.
In their book The Wild Man’s Journey Richard Rohr and Joseph Martes outline ‘five great messages [that] are communicated by word, trial, community and symbolic woundings’ through male initiation. In a nutshell the five messages are: (1) Life is hard, (2) You are going to die, (3) You are not that important, (4) You are not in control, (5) Your life is not about you. These five messages go against much modern therapy and self-esteem work but instead of just affirming the primacy of the individual self, Rohr and Martes perceive the strength of a religious initiation rite in centring the individual in a God ‘who saves us from our small selves and our lonely search for significance’. It is through the process of a symbolic dying and rising that the initiated young man experiences his own power and potential in a way that directs the ‘heroic’ journey towards a healthy self-identity characterised by an ‘appropriate sense of one’s own boundaries, a sense of self adequate to let go of the self’. The grain of wheat must die in order to bear fruit, otherwise it remains just a grain of wheat (see John 12:24). Hand in hand goes the discovery of ‘duty, responsibility, hard work, delayed gratification, and black and white worldviews’. Above all, the initiated man learns to exercise his power in responsible and non-abusive ways. Conversely, without an experience of initiation a young man is in danger of never experiencing his own power and potential for goodness and instead abusing the power he has to hurt and humiliate. Rohr and Martes describe him as the ‘angry young man’. I am therefore not surprised that the lack of ability to control one’s anger and the desire to understand the origin of overwhelming anger is a recurrent topic during our discussions at Pollsmoor. The kind of initiation that gangs offer to young people fulfils their desperate need for recognition and tragically channels them to exercise power in destructive ways. The ‘angry young man’ stays angry and is encouraged to experience his power through the use of violence, which is turned against those who do not belong to the same group and ultimately against the group itself. Furthermore, the ‘five great messages’ of male initiation mentioned above are abused to create submissiveness and ensure absolute loyalty to the gang culture and leader.
Can the Christian tradition offer a strong counter-narrative to such misguided and destructive forms of initiation? What potential does the story of Jonah hold to convey those ‘five great messages of male initiation’ and thereby help us to rediscover initiation as a vital spiritual experience? How can such a process prepare our students – who are between the ages of 16 and 21, and often already initiated into a gang – to be initiated into Christian discipleship and thereby redirect their power in healthy, constructive ways? My hope is that in our weekly classes our exploration of the story of Jonah through words and images may offer our students the opportunity to discover ‘Jonah within them’, the angry young man who turns out to be a hero in the making by beginning to understand the mystery of dying and rising.
In prison it is not difficult to identify with Jonah trapped in the frightening and roaring darkness of the sea monster’s belly and faced with the sudden certainty of death. Like a stubborn and egocentric teenager he has tried to run away from his parent God. Refusing to grow up and assume responsibility for his particular calling, Jonah is determined to resist the new demands made upon his life. But he is not allowed to escape the truth about himself. Violent storms appear which endanger those around him and wake him abruptly from the comfort of his sleep of denial and oblivion. The casting of lots on the ship in order to find the guilty party forces him to confess a bitter truth. For the first time in the story he assumes responsibility for what he has done. He pleads guilty. From then on his descent continues literally and psychologically: from the ship’s hull into the depths of the sea and finally into the sea monster’s belly. Jonah’s prayer gives expression to the despair and powerlessness he experiences:
‘You cast me into the depths, into the heart of the ocean, and the flood closed around me; all your surging waters swept over me. I thought I was banished from your sight and should never again look towards your holy temple. The water about me rose to my neck, for the deep was closing over me; seaweed twined about my head at the roots of the mountains; I was sinking into a world whose bars (sic!) would hold me fast for ever.’ (Jonah 2:3-6b)
Our students find it easy to make the connections between Jonah and their own life stories of rebellion, running away and restlessness. Their lifestyles have also endangered their own families and friends. And they know the sinking feeling when sucked into the destructive spiral of drugs and violence. However, Jonah’s willingness to plead guilty and accept the consequences meets with resistance, as their fellow prisoners and lawyers advise them to plead ‘not guilty’. And yet within the safety of our group discussions – where they do not have to be afraid of being judged or condemned – mistakes are acknowledged and truth is spoken and confessed. It is critical that the Jonah within them is willing to embrace the difficult and painful truths of initiation: that life is hard and we have to assume responsibility, make difficult choices and not blame others for our failures; that death in all its different forms is always present as a threat and a source of wisdom; that in the greater scheme of things we are not that important and that such humility is the starting point to build respectful relationships; that ultimately we are not in control of our lives and often have to suffer tremendous powerlessness; that life is not just about us, but that we are part of a wider community whose wellbeing calls for unselfishness and sacrifice. Without such initiation there cannot be any progression on the ‘heroic’ journey – only stagnation or regression.
Such acknowledgment needs the unspoken assurance that whatever is said and confessed will not lead to rejection and disrespect from our side, the pastoral facilitators. Such unconditional acceptance prepares the ground for an understanding that the God who trapped Jonah in the fish is a God of life and not of death, of salvation and not damnation. This is beautifully expressed in those artistic portrayals of ‘Jonah in the whale’ which depict the belly as a womb and Jonah in the position of an embryo ready to be born again. The tomb becomes a womb as a new life of greater maturity and responsibility is birthed. The tomb becomes a womb for our students as they recall and recognise God’s grace and compassion in the patient and suffering love of their desperate mothers who continue to visit and care despite their anger, disappointment and pain. The tomb becomes a womb as they experience a place of community where they can share without being immediately judged and condemned and feel that they are heard. The tomb becomes a womb when they start discovering their potential for goodness and God’s calling in their own lives. The tomb becomes a womb when they realise that fear and violence do not have to be the determining factors of their lives. The tomb becomes a womb as together with Jonah they turn to God in trustful prayer and know that they are heard, noticed and not forgotten: ‘In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me; from deep within Sheol I cried for help, and you heard my voice’ (Jonah 2:2). This prayer marks an important turning point and illustrates the paradox of new hope in the midst of the crisis. Aware of the contradictions that characterise his life, the prayer helps Jonah to open himself up to a process of transformation. His own inner transformation is connected to a transformation of his view of God. God is no longer someone he needs to run away from, no longer someone who intends to catch and trap him. But the transformation is incomplete. Even after God’s gracious response to Jonah’s prayer and his liberation from the fish’s belly, he attempts to limit the wideness of God’s grace. Reluctantly and half-heartedly he follows the commandment to proclaim judgement to Nineveh: we are told that Nineveh is a vast city that takes three days to cross, but Jonah only takes a day’s journey into the city and then speaks but seven words which do not mention the possibility of repentance and conversion. He goes on to express great disappointment and even anger at Nineveh’s subsequent decision to repent. His fantasies of the city’s destruction come to nothing and the reasons for his flight from God in the first instance are justified: ‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, long-suffering, ever constant, always ready to relent and not inflict punishment’ (Jonah 4:2b). Such knowledge evokes Jonah’s death wish. The grace he had come to accept for his own life is not granted to his enemies in Nineveh. Jonah’s own belief continues to need the certainty of a merciless God. Ironically, God does not give up on Jonah and finally uses a withering climbing gourd to unmask Jonah’s self-pity as pathetic and selfish. If Jonah cares so much about the tree how much more must God care for the whole of his creation?
We do not know how Jonah’s story ends. We are impressed by Nineveh’s swift repentance. We are comforted by God’s willingness to turn around and transform his anger into mercy. It seems that Jonah’s experience of dying and rising is an ongoing process that must continue beyond the belly of the whale. The story only marks the beginning of his journey towards a new identity. The initial initiation experience needs to be revisited continuously. This is of course also true for those who finally find themselves outside the gates of Pollsmoor, spewed out onto dry land, so to speak, and praising God with the words of Jonah: ‘But you brought me up, Lord my God, alive from the pit’ (Jonah 2:6c). Will they find the courage and strength to live out their new calling? Will the community welcome them back and acknowledge their change of heart and identity and be supportive? Will they know the wideness of God’s grace and compassion and be keen to share it with those deemed ‘enemies’? There is no certainty.
As facilitators we too are drawn into an experience of dying and rising, of hopes and dreams broken and restored. This article only covers the first part of ‘the wild man’s journey’ and highlights the significance of initiation. The second part, which will have to wait for another time, is the ‘wisdom journey’. As Rohr and Martes remind us, if the heroic journey is not followed by the wisdom journey we might not end up with the ‘angry’ but certainly with the ‘shallow’ male!