A Fara reading of Jonah on Interfaith Dialogue in Fiji
Date added: 28/06/2017
FARA: A DANCE OF INTERCONNECTEDNESS IN REREADING JONAH 1:1-16
By the Rev Geraldine V. Wiliame, Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma
One of my favourite songs that I loved singing while growing up was Alpha Blondy’s song called ‘God is One, God is Great.’ The lyrics are
Some call him Allah, Some call him Adonai, Some call him Jehovah. Jesus, Hiave, Buddha, Krishna, But he’s one, yes he’s one. Like a tree with many branches, Many in One. Hallelujah, God is Great, Hallelujah, God is One. [i]
Back then, these lyrics were just plain words. Today, these lyrics speak aloud in Fiji’s multiracial and multireligious context. It speaks of what Interfaith Dialogue could, and in my view should be, as this paper will propose. It denotes the multiplicity of God found in different religions.
The chosen text to explore Interfaith Dialogue is Jonah 1 which is a popular reading in our Pacific churches. To reread Jonah 1, I will use fara as a reading lens to address the issue of universalism and particularism in Interfaith Dialogue. I call fara, a dance of interconnectedness because fara exhibits the Rotuman understanding of what is communal: that a community is ‘IN’ an individual and an individual is ‘IN’ the community. In other words, an individual and the community are not separated but are found ‘IN’ each other. To participate in this dance is to be connected and relational. The argument for this paper is that, to be Interfaith means to embrace both our togetherness with other faiths and our distinctiveness and diversities. This argument challenges the receptive notion of universalism and particularism understood in Jonah 1 and Interfaith in Fiji.
1. Definition of Interfaith
Three basic definitions of ‘Interfaith’ are offered as helpful basic building blocks for our Fara proposition. Interfaith is ‘the gathering of different faiths seeking mutual understanding and to learn about each other’s faith tradition (Struchen 2102, 3). Interfaith is about building stronger communities (Bhagwan 2014, 2). Interfaith is the meeting of persons who believe (Hall 2005, 1). In this case, Interfaith is the dialogue between faiths: communities that believe. These definitions all call religions to pursue unity not division. The question that arises is ‘why the book of Jonah’ in exploring Interfaith in Fiji?
2. Why the Book of Jonah?
There are three reasons for choosing the book of Jonah as a text in Interfaith. Firstly, Jonah emphasizes universalism over particularism. In the Book of Jonah, God is universal (Fretheim 1977, 21). It denotes a God who is not confined within the boundaries of Israel’s religion and culture. The aim is to eradicate the narrow mindset of the Israelites towards others. The book of Jonah represents the transition from narrow tribalism to a non-ethic, non-territorial conception of God (Levine 1984, 237). In other words, the author of the book favours universalism over particularism. Secondly, Jonah 1 argues that there was no religious conversion to Yahwehism. Thirdly, the book challenges the relationship within the Israelite community; a tension between the returning and remaining community. Although the audiences are Israelites, their relationship is at stake due to their understanding of God and identity. The problem back then is diverse but in this paper, I will focus on the issue of universalism and particularism as problematic in Jonah 1.
3. The Problem of Universalism and Particularism in Jonah and Interfaith
One of the burning issues in the book of Jonah was the issue of universalism over particularism. On one hand, universalism is usually understood as ‘one’ or ‘to turn towards one’ (Park 2003, 9). In Jonah, the universalistic view argues that God is for everyone and not only for Israel (Fretheim 1977, 237). The reason is to reconstruct a social identity by providing a new form of social incorporation (Alexander 2012, 27). It is a time when the audiences of the book were struggling with their understanding about God and identity. Its audiences are Israelites who are exilic returnees and the remainees in Jerusalem. The current reading locates Jonah 1 in a post-exilic period which gives a clue to the rhetorical context in which the Book of Jonah is set in the Judean region under the Persian Empire (Carroll 1992, 82).
This ideology is currently practised by Interfaith Dialogue which promotes the move towards collectiveness and togetherness. Fiji, in its multireligious context also upholds the ideology of universalism in declaring Fiji a secular state and having a national identity. This ideology embraces everyone irrespective of ethnicity and religion.
On the other hand, particularism is usually understood as ‘a small portion or small part’ (Park 2003, 10). In etymological sense, particularism has the connotation of privileging only a small part of the whole (Park 2003, 10). In Jonah, the particularistic view stressed that God belonged to Israel alone and that salvation is destined to the chosen people Israel (Antwi 2013, 83). This view is nationalistic and ethnocentric (Spangenberg 2013, 6). The returning community see themselves as superior and purer than the remainees (Carroll 1992, 82). The step towards restoration of identity by Ezra and Nehemiah means to cut off the foreigners from God’s people (Antwi 2013, 83). This ideology was also practised in Fiji during the first three coups (two coups in 1987 and one in 2000) which promoted the idea of ethnocentrism between the Indigenous and the Indo-Fijians. This resulted in torturing; looting of Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, fear of losing cultural identity to name but a few aspects. The aim back then was ‘to safeguard the culture and identity of the Indigenous people. In other words, the particularistic view fosters the uniqueness of one’s cultural and religious identity.
The problem of universalism and particularism found in Jonah 1 and Interfaith is that both are emphasized separately. In emphasizing merely universalism is to neglect the uniqueness and distinctiveness of one’s own culture or religious identity. In emphasizing only particularism would be problematic as it neglects that everyone is part of each other. To challenge and reread this issue in Interfaith and Jonah 1 is to use fara as a reading lens.
4. Fara: A Reading Lens
Fara is a Rotuman annual event celebrated in December to mid-January. Entertainers go in groups to dance, sing and sightsee around the island, and entertain from house to house. Their sheer joy and spontaneity is an expression of thanksgiving and appreciating the wonderful gift of life and togetherness. Etymologically, fara derives from two root words: fa and ra. In singularity, fa refers to ‘man’ but in plurality, fa also means ‘men.’ In other words, the word fa is an expression of both singularity and plurality. The word ra also means ‘a branch or branches.’ When joining fa and ra, the word fara itself would mean ‘one’ that exists within ‘many’ and within the ‘many’ there exists a ‘one.’ In other words, fara expresses the notion of interconnectedness of life which is found in both. They are inseparable. To hyphenate fa-ra will be problematic in the dance of interconnectedness.
4.1. Strengths of the Fara approach
Fara is a symbol of Rotumaness, culture and community spirit because it involves all age groups irrespective of ethnicity or religion.[ii] It is done in openness and respect. It also creates and fosters new relationship bonds with non-Rotumans holidaying in the community. For some, fara symbolizes a time for reciprocity where the entertainers endeavour to sing their hearts out and to show their best moves and in return, are garlanded, perfumed, powdered and served refreshments. It is a time for sharing one’s space, talents and time and celebrating that unique moment in life.
4.2. Limitations of the Fara approach
One of the greatest fears about participating in this dance of interconnectedness is losing one’s identity. Identity here refers to the religion and culture. For instance, for staunch Christians, dancing would mean distorting spiritual lives and our relationship with God. To participate would mean detaching from God’s teachings of purity, giving space for immorality. Such fear fosters ethnocentrism among Christians. To be Christian would mean forfeiting one’s own culture such as fara. For staunch traditionalists, non-participation in fara dance would mean ‘being detached from one’s cultural identity.’ To be true Rotumans, means to dance in fara.
4.3. The focus of the Fara approach
Despite other lens of using fara, I chose fara as a dance of interconnectedness where universalism and particularism are inseparable. In fara approach, the dance of interconnectedness challenges this ideology of universalism versus particularism. The fara approach sees universalism and particularism to be found in each other. To be universal means to be collective, relational, and communal yet within this universality, particularism is also present and vice-versa. An individual is not separated from the community. It means that within our own particularity; own culture and religion, the notion of universalism is present. Through this lens of interconnectedness, I will use fara in three phases to reread Jonah 1.
5. Fara-nizing Jonah
In fara-nizing Jonah, three phases of fara are employed for discussion. The first phase is fara talk. For islanders, conversation is a two-way process: being able to talk while the other listens, and being able to listen while the other talks (Vaāi, 27th May, 2017). In Jonah 1, fara dance creates a space for the reader and the text to converse with each other, challenge and reshape one’s worldview. The conversation between Yahweh and Jonah offers three twisting-styles of dancing to the traditional call narrative. Firstly, in a normal call narrative, the prophet is to convey on Yahweh’s behalf to a particular audience, usually Yahweh’s covenant people Israel (Youngblood 2013, 52). Secondly, a prophet is never commissioned to visit a foreign nation (Youngblood 2013, 43). In Jonah 1:1, Jonah is commissioned to Nineveh. Thirdly, the predicate וַיְהׅי ‘it came’ usually appears in the body of a narrative, yet in this case, וַיְהׅי ‘it came’ appears in the beginning which indicates the unexpected and sudden nature of the commission (Youngblood 2013, 52). These new twisting-styles exemplify breaking new grounds in Hebrew prophecy (Youngblood 2013, 52). It sets the narrative and develops it in such way that makes the dance of interpretation more interesting. Interfaith needs to break new grounds of understanding each faith.
In popular readings of Jonah 1, Jonah’s commission is always seen as ‘to convert the Ninevites by preaching the message of doom. Conversion in this case is understood as ‘changing to Yahwehism.’ The question is ‘can conversion be redefined in Jonah 1? Firstly, Yahweh’s commission is a call for Jonah to converse with the Ninevites. This dance of life requires Jonah to serve beyond his ethnicity and religion. It reminds Jonah that everyone needs an ‘other’ one. Through conversation, new knowledge is learned. Secondly, Yahweh’s commission is a call to covert the wickedness of the Ninevites. Conversion in Interfaith is not encouraged. However, in Jonah 1:2, conversion refers to moral conversion (change from evil to good) and not religious conversion (changing to Yahwism). Interfaith is about moral conversion not religious conversion. Thirdly, Yahweh’s conversation with Jonah is an invitation to strengthen the relationship between the Israelites and the Ninevites before God. קוּם ‘arise’ is often found in the imperative mood where the speaker requests that his hearer, be it God or man, take immediate and dramatic action (Tucker 2006, 64). Merrill F. Unger and William White, Jr., state that, sometimes קוּם is used in an intensive mood to signify empowering or strengthening especially an inevitable occurrence of something predicted or prearranged (1996, 6). Jonah requires strength, courage to carry out his new mission. Interfaith requires strength and redefinition of mission. Fourthly, the recognition of Nineveh’s wickedness before Yahweh indicates a shift in understanding Yahweh; from being a city God (1:1) to a universal God (1:5) on whom everyone can call. This illustrates God’s concern for Nineveh and poses the question ‘whether God is also found in Nineveh?’ One can argue that God is also present with the Ninevites because the Ninevites’ wickedness has come before Yahweh. In current readings, Nineveh is an enemy of Israel. In this text, Nineveh symbolizes the remaining community because the audience of the Book of Jonah are the post-exilic returnees and the remainees; and Israel during the 5th century does not associate with Nineveh (Levine 1984, 238). Interfaith should not limit God to familiar understandings but rather embrace how great God is.
Furthermore, the second phase is the fara challenge. This phase speaks of critiquing the status quo and the entrenched ideologies that solidify such a status quo. It decolonizes the notion of individuality in the sense that individuality is only possible within community (Vaai 27th May, 2017). Therefore, it denounces the idea of the ‘one true ideology’ that promotes hierarchy to benefit the one at the expense of the community (Vaai 27th May, 2017). The challenge that fara poses is that ‘Is Jonah willing to go to Nineveh? Is Jonah willing to step out of his comfort zone and to converse with Nineveh? Jonah’s flight offers an interruption in the narrative.
For many years, Jonah’s flight has caused a lot of speculation among readers. Many scholars suggest that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because of: disobedience (Dascalu 2015, 42-71); self-preservation, concerned about his status, ethnocentrism (Bolin 1997, 39) and the universality of God (Green 2007, 150). Dennis G Shulman argues that Jonah flees because Jonah sees Nineveh as underserved and in need of divine rescue (2008, 345). In fara dance, Jonah’s flight can be an interruption which the current interpretations are against. According to Upolu Vaai, ‘Jonah’s retreat was perhaps meant to be a fixing or affirming of his own particular identity before he is groomed to fix the world of the Ninevites. Maybe the problem is not Nineveh but Jonah himself’ (27th May 2017). I agree with Upolu Vaai’s interpretation because during the 5th century, identity needs fixing. This is a period where the tension of identity looms between the returning and remaining community. In other words, Jonah’s flight indicates that knowledge begins with particularity. Interfaith begins with oneself rather than with others.
The confession of Jonah, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the God who made the sea and the dry land’ (1:9), indicates Jonah’s first response with the outside world and he describes himself as a Hebrew. For Elizabeth Boase, Jonah’s statement is quite ironic since in 1:3 Jonah flees from the presence of the Lord, yet in this verse 9, Jonah acknowledges that he serves the God who created the sea and the dry land (2013, 13). The structure of Jonah’s confession highlights ‘Jonah’s ethnic identity in the first clause “I am a Hebrew” (1:9a) and the identity of Jonah’s deity is placed second “I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land’. Phyllis Trible believes that Jonah intentionally states his cultural identity first before revealing his religious identity (1994, 140). In fara dance, I see Jonah’s confession as an embracing of both his cultural and religious identity before the sailors. His confession denotes that despite our move towards collectively, there is a space for distinctiveness and diversities.
The third phase of fara-nizing Jonah is fara fluidity. It is about the freedom of movement and progress which is portrayed in the dance styles. All movements involve a rhythm. This triggers the rhythm of life as life revolves around the rhythm within a particular movement so vital in a communal set up. The fara fluidity is seen three ways in the text. Firstly, the conversation between the sailors and Jonah signifies the freedom to call upon God (1:5). Secondly, the captain’s request for Jonah to call on his god represents an invitation to reconnect with God and a cross-over from ones own boundary to another’s. This depicts that one needs to cross-over ones boundary in order to dialogue with another. Thirdly, the interchangeable use of the divine names from Yahweh (1:1) to Elohim (1:5) and then to Yahweh again (1:14) does not indicate that the Israelites’ God is inferior to the sailors’ array of gods but rather an indication that Elohim is also a term for both Israelites’ god and the sailors’ gods. This expresses the multiplicity of the existence of God in the text. God is not confined to culture and religion. Interfaith is not the imposing of ones faith but rather an exploration how great and vast God is in one’s religion and culture.
6. Fara-ness of Interfaith
Interfaith in Fiji is like a dance. It has diverse movements of faiths and tunes of religious interests. This dance of interconnectedness could aim to build Fiji a home for all its citizens and embrace moral values in society. On one hand, the dance of interfaith in Fiji is quite unappealing to religions because it seems to dance towards collusion with the denial of one’s faith. This has caused some religions to withdraw from this dance. On the other hand, Fiji’s society is also embracing the inclusiveness of every citizen with less promotion of ones own culture and religion. In my opinion, for Interfaith to be effective, a few aspects found in Jonah 1 could be very helpful.
Interfaith is about fara talk, a conversation between faiths. It is about openness and respect, listening and talking, sharing with each other. It is about moral conversion and not religious conversion. Interfaith is about breaking new grounds of understanding each other; seeing each faith as a vessel to contribute to nation building in Fiji.
Interfaith is about fara challenge. It critiques anything that divides and draws boundaries between faiths. Interfaith is about embracing both: being an individual within a community and not to denying ones own faith in order to be Interfaith.
Interfaith is about fara fluidity. This freedom of movement is expressed in the fara dance. Upolu Vaai states,
There is a freedom to move ‘IN’ to join other faiths and to dance with them in their dances of beliefs, rituals, worship and ways of expressions. There is also freedom to move ‘OUT,’ to be ourselves and to embrace our own given faith traditions. So Interfaith is like a fara dance, it should be fluid. It must be confined by one’s own faith’s boundaries and beliefs but is able to progress and move out to embrace the other who is different from us (27th May, 2017).
In other words, Interfaith is about freedom. Interfaith is about exploring how deeply we are rooted in God. God must not be limited within the boundaries of culture and religion. This is why the western scholars believe that promoting particularity would be problematic. In fara dancing, God can be found, experienced in any place, culture and religion.
In conclusion, Jonah 1 calls for practical steps in the dance of interconnectedness in order to build Fiji as a home for all its citizens. The practical side of Interfaith is to be issued-focussed rather than doctrinal focused. The relationality of God in calling and sending is not just within religious boundaries but outside and beyond.
Alexander, J. 2012. Trauma: A Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity.
Bolin, T.M., 1997.Freedom beyond Forgiveness: The Book of Jonah ReExamined .JSOTSup, 236;Copenhagen International Seminar, 3; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Boase, Elizabeth. 2014. “The Traumatised Body: Communal Trauma and Somatisation in
Lamentations.” In Trauma and Traumatization in Individual and Collective Dimensions: Insights from Biblical Studies and Beyond, Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.
Carroll, Robert. “The Myth of the Empty Land” in Semeia 59 (1992), 79–93.
Dascalu, Raphael. 2015. “Between Intellect and Intoxication: An Exploration of Tanhum”
In Ha-Yerushalm’s Commentary to the Book of Jonah. Vol. 105. No. 1. 42-71.
Fretheim, Terence E. 1977. The Message of Jonah. Minneapolis: Augsburg.
Green, Barbara. 2007. “Beyond Messages: How Meaning Emerges from Our Reading of
Jonah” in Word and World 27: 149-56.
Levine, Etan. 1984. Jonah as a Philosophical book. New York:Walter de Gruyter & Co.
Park, Eung Chun. 2003. Either Jew/ Gentile: Paul’s Unfolding Theology of Inclusiveness.
London: Westminster John Knox Press.
Shulman, Dennis G. 2008. “Jonah: His Story, Our Story; His Struggle, Our Struggle,
Commentary on Paper by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg” in Psychoanalytic Dialogues 18: 329-64.
Simon, Uriel. 1999. The JPS Bible Commentary Jonah. Philadelphia: The Jewish
Spangenberg, Izak. 2002. Perspectives of the Bible: God’s Word in ordinary language.
Pretoria: Protea Book House.
Trible, Phyllis. 1994. Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method and the Book of Jonah.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Tucker, W. Dennis. 2006. A Handbook of the Hebrew Text: Jonah. Texas: Baylor University
Unger, Merrill F,. White, Jr. William. 1996. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of the
Old and New Testament Words. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Youngblood, Kevin J. 2013. Jonah: Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament.
Bhagwan, James. 2014. “Unity among Faiths” in The Fiji Times 4th of September.
Hall, Gerard. 2005. “The Call to Interfaith Dialogue” in Australian Journal of Theology 5.
Hereniko, Vilsoni. 2006. The Oceania Dance Theatre in Context. Suva: University of the
Struchen, Shirley. 2012. Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue. Washington: Interfaith
Conference of Metropolitan.
Aylon, Milton. Theology of Dance. choreograph.net/articles/lead-articl-theologt-of-dance-cached – Similar, 25th May, 2017.
Turner, Diana. Theology of Dance. Dianaturner-forte.com/blog/?-Cached – Similar, 25th May 2017.
Tulavu, Eseta Mateiviti. 2017. “Interview.” By Geraldine Wiliame, 25th May.
Vaai, Upolu. 2017. “Discussion.” By Geraldine Wiliame, 27th May.
[i] Music and lyrics available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ghl9aSBAfFM, accessed 16 June 2017
[ii] This inclusiveness involves all age groups, physically healthy or physically disabled.