I’ve started an online urban ministry course. Part of the assignment I am working on was to listen to a presentation Ray Bakke gave to the Christian Community Development Conference. He had a really good interpretation of the books of the Bible from Iran and Iraq. The books of the Bible written in Iran are Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. The books written in Iraq are Jonah and Daniel. He called these books the Gospel from Iran and Iraq. Then he took the theology he developed to apply it to ministry in the city today. Below is my summary of what he called the Gospel from Iraq. If you have time, go listen to the whole thing. It is very thoughtful and very good.
The Gospel from Iraq begins in Israel with Jonah. God commands Jonah to go to Ninevah and “cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah does not want to go and for good reason. Ninevah is the capital of Assyria, and Assyria is the ancient world’s Nazis and terrorists. They are brutal and show no mercy. They have been attacking Israel and killing its people for years. God has just told Jonah to go to his worst enemy and “cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Jonah does the exact opposite: he jumps on a ship and heads in the opposite direction. But God sent a storm that threaten to break up the ship. The sailors on board were praying to their gods when they find Jonah asleep. The wake him up and tell him to start praying to his god. They cast lots to see who was causing the calamity. The lot fell to Jonah, and he tells them that he worships Yahweh, the God of the heavens, land, and sea, and he confessed that he was running from what his God wanted him to do. The description of Jonah’s God frightens the sailors, and he tells them to throw him overboard. The sailors try to row back to land, but they can’t make it.
On the ship we see that common grace that is given to people who don’t know God. This shows us that people of good will can work with people of good faith in their community to promote God’s peace in the city. The sailors tried everything they could in order to save Jonah. But the storm strengthened, and the sailors threw Jonah into the sea. God sent a fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah repented and the fish vomited Jonah on dry ground. God told Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim God’s message.
Jonah went to Ninevah and for one day proclaimed, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it. Nothing more. Then he went outside of the city and sat down to watch and see what would happen. Jonah did not love the Ninevites, and he wanted to see them burn. He preached judgment then left. Does that sound familiar? There are many pastors and ministries who will come into the city, preach their judgment and leave. They have no intention of getting to know the people and finding out what life is like for them. They have no intention of hanging around and seeing God’s grace.
One of the greatest surprises in Scripture happens here. The people repent, and the largest revival in Scripture happens. The revival does not happen in Israel, Judah, or Jerusalem: it happens in the pagan capital of Assyria. Ninevah repents, and God forgives.
The climax of Jonah is the prophet pouting because he cannot handle the grace of God. It’s too radical for him. The last verse in Jonah is enigmatic to modern readers: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” The 120,000 who do not know their left hand from their right are children. There are 120,000 children in Ninevah. But why does God mention the animals? Because the animals are the economy of Ninevah. The animals provide money, food, and clothing for the people. God wants to know why God shouldn’t be concerned about 120,000 children and the economy that provides for those children. After all, it’s all of God’s creation.
The hero of this book is not Jonah. The hero of this story is a loving God trying to get God’s message to a violent, pagan city. As we noted above the Assyrians had been murdering the Israelites and other peoples around them for years, but God wants God’s message to get to them. The message is that there is forgiveness. The Gospel from Iraq is that God wants redemption for the entire community–even the communities of our enemies. God wants redemption for our cities.
The Gospel of Iraq continues in Daniel. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are taken into captivity to Babylon, which is 80 miles south of Baghdad. They are teenagers in a pagan country and a pagan court. “They were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans.” Ray Bakke says that his hero is the person who got hold of these kids and taught them it was okay to master the culture while rejecting the values and lifestyle. Bakke says this is the model for urban education.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego learned all the wisdom of the Chaldeans without compromising their faith. They rose to leadership positions in the government and served God within this pagan court. Daniel was not from a priestly family. He was a lay-prophet who served a pagan king, and not just any king. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego served Nebuchadnezzar, the king who destroyed Jerusalem and took the Jewish people into exile. Daniel shows that Christians can work within the ungodly structures of society to change the unjust ways people are treated by the system because of their color, race, ethnicity, and gender. Daniel shows that Christians can work in the world and not be of it. Daniel also shows that Christians can work in the world without condemning it.
But the roots of the Gospel from Iraq go back further than Jonah and Daniel. Abraham was from Iraq. Abraham was from Ur of the Chaldees, which is in southern Iraq. The father of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths was originally from Iraq. In Matthew 2 people from Iraq come once again to Judah. But this time it is not soldiers to Jerusalem. This time wise men from the region come to worship the Messiah at Bethlehem. After this a Christian church in Babylon was the first church to send missionaries to China on the silk road in 615 A.D. All of this means that Israel is not the only fatherland to the Jewish and Christian faith. Iraq is also a fatherland to the Jewish and Christian faith. And this is the Gospel from Iraq.
The picture is Bernini’s sculpture of Daniel in the Lions’ Den.