Today’s reading about Jonah and Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-10), reminds me of New Babylon New Nineveh, a collection of historical essays by South African historian Charles van Onselen. Subtitled Everyday Life on the Witwatersrand 1886-1914, it is an insightful look into social attitudes, petty crime, corruption and politics in Johannesburg during that era. As one reads Jonah and Jesus, one can imagine them prophesying in early modern Jozi – and being ignored, no doubt, just as our present day prophets are ignored. Political commentator Noam Chomsky’s observations echo this admirably, and we know from scripture how many prophets – and Jesus – suffered the fate he describes.
We are faced today with corruption at an almost epidemic level in our society. Those who follow the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index know that we slipped from 25th least corrupt nation on earth to 73rd between 1995 and 2018. What is perhaps even more chilling is how we have come to take this for granted – to treat it as the way we live, indeed for some to see it as an entitlement given us by our position in society, by our political connections, or by an excuse of ‘previous disadvantage’.
Many simply do not care – until they become corruption’s latest victim. Most give up. Some excuse it by retreating into one of the last refuges of the scoundrel – the appeal to ‘culture’ (a concept treated as God-given, unchanging and unchangeable, but in fact none of the above). Those who speak out against corruption are looked upon as strange, envious (because they can’t get their fingers in the pie, no doubt), or – when the prophets of clean government target members of the ruling party – unpatriotic.
We were saved from falling into the abyss of wholesale systematic State Capture by courageous citizens like Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, the judiciary, and ‘whistle-blowers’ all of whom suffered derision and worse for standing up to power and speaking the truth: the prophets’ reward, indeed.
We know that in Jonah’s case Nineveh’s king repented. Will the New Nineveh repent? Not unless we become a nation of prophets who use our voices and votes to change things. If we don’t, we should blame none but ourselves when our New Babylon falls.