Don’t Be a Jonah

As a teacher in a Christian high school—and a social studies teacher at that—the past few years politically have been a little tough. No matter your content area, you may have experienced one of these situations in some form:

  • You give a few minutes for students to present about the news each week and ask for their input on recent stories. A student raises his hand and asks if you are “woke.”
  • A parent reaches out to you about a list of content you are teaching in US History and wants to discuss it at parent-teacher conferences. 
  • A relative goes on a political rant on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or the like and tags you in it. 
  • A student hands in a reflection paragraph based on a class period and the paragraph is full of politically driven imagery that is not really connected to the class, but they clearly have drawn their own connections about class materials. The reflection ends with “my teacher is so biased.”

You can fill in your own scenario here. As an educator, I know that many of us instantly dread these situations and spend the next twenty-four hours obsessing about them, weaving a narrative about the home of this student or relative, preparing our talking points, and really doing all we can to win the conversation. We engage in an “us versus them” type mentality that mirrors our collective culture. We may think about “them” as proverbial losers for allowing this narrative to be their reality and feel superior for our approach. 

We engage in an “us versus them” type mentality that mirrors our collective culture.

Maybe you draft an email that breaks down point by point why they are wrong and circulate it among your colleagues. Or maybe you freeze. You melt. You collapse in your classroom. You avoid talking to the student or person who raised the situation. You hide. You don’t tell anyone about it and adopt a “woe is me” victim attitude. Or maybe you spend the next twelve hours telling everyone you come across in your building about the situation, building a coalition of people who will most definitely be on your side, and it’s a gossip fest. 

For most of us, reactions to these types of situations are negative—at least at the outset. I would guess you lose sleep, cry to your spouse or a friend, or question your identity as a teacher. Maybe your reaction is none of these emotions I have listed above—you feel like you did a great job defending your point and sleep well at night knowing you won that argument.

I’m not sure that any of these reactions are hospitable because they reveal self-pity, self-righteousness, and some contempt. 

I’m not sure that any of these reactions are hospitable because they reveal self-pity, self-righteousness, and some contempt.

I recently read through the prophet Jonah’s story and was struck by how much of myself I could see in his story. Jonah’s call from God was to tell his enemies to repent and turn back to God. Jonah does this, but he does it after running away, never apologizing, and generally being a terrible person. He even delivers his message, sees the people repent, and then sits on a hillside waiting for Nineveh to get burned up in holy fire. His own self-pitying reactions at each step of the story stood out to me as a reflection of myself in political conflict. In addition to the self-pity, he’s self-righteous, dramatic, and not embodying the redemptive message he brings. Ultimately, he’s filled with contempt and a very dualistic view of “us and them.” Upon reflection, I realized that people whom I have viewed as my political enemies are the people for whom I was wishing destruction, from whom I was running away, and about whom I was then crying when they got something right. Self-pity ran rampant, and I was repeatedly making the story all about me and how I felt that the story should go. I was not at all focusing on God’s love and mercy, and I was certainly not thinking about the well-being of the people I felt positioned against. 

Contempt is an important reason why we find political conflict today exhausting and degrading. 

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Kelli Boender is a teacher, wife, and mother who desires to see God’s justice brought to a world that is hurting and crying out for him. She enjoys a good book, gardening, and learning new things.