Hindsight is 20/20: Pandemics, Promises, and Possibilities

Hindsight is 20/20: Pandemics, Promises, and Possibilities

“And so the Shortest Day came and the year died.” -From “The Shortest Day” by Susan Cooper

Today is December 21, 2020. It is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere—the shortest day of the year regarding the proportion of daylight to night light. Susan Cooper’s poem, “The Shortest Day,” illuminates the mystery of this day and speaks to what so many hope. Namely, for the year 2020 to die. For most, today is the shortest day in what has felt like the longest year in a century. 

Looking back on 2020, I’ve discovered promises and possibilities within this year of the pandemic. These promises and possibilities were found during moments of significant meaning-making. Many made meaning by looking to sacred text for some parallel experience to the pandemic’s plight and impact. The foremost prolific biblical scholars of the last half-century released their own reflections. In April 2020, Walter Brueggemann released “Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty.” N.T. Wright released “God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath” in June 2020. Both writers offered reflections on the possibilities and promises of a pandemic.

The biblical text that has captured my imagination and shaped my meaning-making process most recently is Noah and the flood. In many ways, it captures the essence of my experience of the dual pandemic: coronavirus and racism. Genesis 6 describes the divine grief and sorrow experienced after witnessing humanity’s shortcomings. After 40 days and nights of rain, the global flood reached all of creation and spared only those of Noah’s household who had followed the instructions to shelter in place within the ark. God promised Noah that there would be new possibilities after the global pandemic: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (‭‭Genesis‬ ‭8:22‬ ‭NRSV).‬‬

Although the promise to “be fruitful and multiply” was extended to Noah and his sons, the possibilities would not be enjoyed equally. Sometime after the flood, Noah planted a vineyard, made and then overindulged in its wine, and fell into a drunken stupor. Ham, the youngest of Noah’s three sons, saw his father’s nakedness and told his older brothers. To avoid the shame of seeing their father’s nakedness, Shem and Japheth walk backwards into their father’s tent and cover him.  When Noah awakes from his stupor and learns of his exposure, he shames Ham by cursing him and his descendants to serve his two older brothers and their descendants in perpetuity.

As Isabella Wilkerson, in her most recent work “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” explains, Ham and his descendants (Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan) were cursed not only to servitude but also to black skin. This understanding would be co-opted by Eurocentric readings of the text in the Middle Ages  to inform the first pillar of caste: “Divine Will and the Laws of Nature.” Since then, white superiority and black inferiority have been thought of as edicts of divine will following nature’s laws. This false promise has fueled the global racism pandemic’s brutal possibilities for at least the last 400 years.

My personal reflection on the dual pandemic’s impact in Genesis 9 reveals what people of African descent had experienced time and time again. We uncover the nakedness of the majority culture’s shortsighted use of and indulgence in the possibilities of the promises of “seedtime and harvest” before being cursed and subjected to a subservient class within the social caste. As a result, we are disproportionately impacted by preexisting conditions as essential workers from the past plantation to the front lines of essential industries today.

What hopeful possibilities and promises can be found when those who reveal the naked truth of our forefathers’ vulnerability are cursed and shamed, while those who hide this truth are blessed and dignified? On this shortest day of light, I look again to my biblical ancestors’ for a glimmer of hope. Hindsight affords us a re-reading of the biblical text to discover the promises and possibilities therein. All of the descendants of Ham journeyed south to the continent of Africa. They took the promises extended to Noah’s descendants and made use of the possibilities afforded to them, including taking dignity and pride in their black skin. In hindsight, my re-reading has revealed the many insights to be gained from making biblical Africans great again.

There are 5 (the number of grace) such examples of biblical Africans that provide models of excellence worth noting— The Queen of Sheba, King Tirhakah, Ebed Melech, Simon of Cyrene, and the Ethiopian eunuch (a court officer of the Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians). I will reflect on these biblical African models throughout 2021. In these personalities, I see the possibilities–purpose, power, posture, position, and passion–within the promises of life before, during, and after a pandemic.

On this shortest day, just hours after the setting sun, we bore witness to the “Christmas Star,” that is, the “great conjunction” and solar passing of Jupiter by Saturn. Some 400 years had passed since the last occurrence of this celestial event. Unlike the temporary promise of annual vaccinations or even celestial meetings, the promises of Christmas are eternal. They address all sides of the problems we face and speak to the need for salvation. Salvation offers us a glimmer, no a beam, of hope through the possibilities of knowing that God is with us.