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COVID-19 As a Prophetic Event

 

The viral pandemic of 2020 is being documented in remarkable depth by cable news media. Story after story demonstrates how a historical event is prophetic by exposing and judging short-comings in our society – and by pointing to necessary corrections to avoid a longer-lasting global catastrophe. Story after story highlights undeserved suffering being met by heroic levels of sacrificial caring. There are also daily events exposing leaders whose pursuit of self-interest makes them agents of death.

A prophetic event, in the biblical sense, stands out for exposing truth about ourselves and society that are overlooked or avoided because they are unpleasant. Dramatic events make news of things we take for granted or flaws we ignore as long as daily living doesn’t call attention to them. To highlight the prophetic nature of this pandemic, this article will make comparisons to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) and Jeremiah’s warning of the destruction of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 26: 1-14).

One truth about American society being highlighted by the media is that thousands of our citizens re-enact the Parable of the Good Samaritan daily. These merciful caregivers are receiving attention because of the overwhelming number of victims by the roadside. These Samaritans work in teams in our hospitals, ambulances, nursing homes, and fire and police departments. They always work tirelessly to save the injured and dying, but today they risk their own lives and endanger their families as they are overwhelmed by cases and lack protective supplies. Their emotional strain is shown in video journals describing efforts to provide meaningful human contact as person after person dies without the comfort of family.

News stories are also telling us that Samaritans are everywhere in our society, not just in the ranks of first responders. They work in supermarkets, provide janitorial services, and serve us in the drive-through or take-out lanes. These are essential workers who are risking safety because we need their services, even though we pay them very little and show far too little respect for their role in society. Today we need them at work – and we need them to follow sanitation procedures to protect our safety.

The news stories have begun telling us unpleasant truths about the victims beside the road and those who pass by without noticing them. A high percentage of the sick are “people of color” doing the lowest-paid jobs and unable to afford good medical care. In parts of the country where there are fewer “people of color,” they include workers in meat processing plants whose low incomes make the grocery bills of higher-paid Americans cheaper. Victims are also the elderly in nursing homes whose deaths from the pandemic were ignored by the federal government until the news media revealed the unheralded decimation of a generation of grandparents. These are all examples of people that federal and state governments have considered unimportant because we keep electing people who find political advantage in the example of the priest and Levite who pass victims without noticing them.

Stories arising from this pandemic are also prophetic in what they show about a larger catastrophe on the horizon. Scientists and international agencies have been forecasting gloomy consequences for global industrial capitalism since the 1970s, to the extent of projecting multi-dimensional catastrophes by 2050. Our current pandemic is just one of the deadly scenarios governments know they should prepare for.

News stories show how economic and social sacrifices are improving atmospheric pollution. Story after story features scientists urging modifications of routine life even when lockdowns end. There is also increasing resistance among politicians and their supporters who refuse to heed scientists. Longstanding opposition to science is coming to a head as some governors and the president emphasize short-term gain as the death toll mounts.

Our situation is not very different from the time of Jeremiah when the leadership of Judah was confident that Jerusalem could withstand the longest siege. Jeremiah went into the temple and did what was equivalent to burning the American flag in the Capitol Rotunda. He announced the impending destruction of Jerusalem and its temple unless its leadership amended its ways. Jeremiah wasn’t executed for treason, but he was treated as harshly as Dr. Li Wenliang who warned everyone about the virus in Wuhan. American medical and scientific experts are not lone voices as their guidance is broadcast in story after story, yet many governors and the president countermand them.

The inadequacies in federal and state leadership are especially revelatory of the indifference to human suffering among some of the more successful people in our country. Today Jeremiah would point to current death rates requiring immediate action – and to long-term decisions for combatting this virus and the survival of human life on our planet. The dominance of political self-preservation at the expense of mounting deaths is exposing many of our leaders as agents of death.

The persistent indifference of the President of the United States and the Senate Majority Leader to a death rate caused by inaction makes a stark comparison to the thousands of Good Samaritans risking themselves and their families day after day.

Prophetic events expose our society to judgment. We are paying a cost for past mistakes. Yet most important, if we recognize it, is an opportunity to overcome shock and face up to difficult tasks. We have taken some corrective action, so let’s stay the course until the most essential changes are completed.

Prophetic events can and should bring a better world through the sacrifices of those who made it possible for us to recognize and avoid future disasters.

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Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and Sunday School teacher in a Presbyterian Church. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two articles in the forthcoming The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider and being published by Wipf and Stock in the summer of 2020.

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