By: Sharon R. Fennema
The language of apocalypse has accompanied the COVID-19 global pandemic from the beginning, as communities wrestled with the far-reaching impacts of the virus on the shape of our daily lives. We experienced new layers of uncertainty within an already growing sense of catastrophe, fueled by climate crisis, economic inequities, and racialized violence. Now, a new coronavirus mutation is sending waves of fear across the world, renewing a sense of impending doom in many. As some theologians have pointed out, however, despite its popular association with world-ending disasters, the word apocalypse centers around uncovering or revealing.
When South African officials alerted the World Health organization to what has come to be known as the omicron variant of the coronavirus, wealthy and Western countries responded by imposing bans on travelers from countries in southern Africa. Numerous studies have shown that such travel bans are ineffective in stemming the spread of COVID-19, and that these kinds of policies end up mostly impacting the economies of banned countries. As South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa said in a speech on Sunday, “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic.” What’s more, despite confirmed cases of the omicron variant in Asia, North America and Europe, only African countries have been targeted with travel bans. The omicron apocalypse continues to uncover our world’s deep roots in the antiblackness and Afrophobia that have both fueled and emerged from the logic of white supremacy. It reveals and exploits our existing biases and prejudices under the guise of safety, security, and protection.
The story that apocalypse tells in the Christian scriptures, especially through the Jesus movement represented in the gospels, is a story of cataclysmic destruction. The gospel writers accompany images of the sun going dark and the stars falling from the sky with tales of division, wars and devastation. And they issue warnings about the temptation to get distracted by coping mechanisms, weariness and false hope. Reading these texts (e.g. Matthew 24 & 25, Mark 13 and Luke 21), feels eerily familiar these days. Yet, catastrophe is not the point of apocalypse in the gospels. These texts weave a story of God drawing near, a moment to stay awake and pay attention to the Holy uncovered in our midst. “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28, NRSV). What if divisions, prejudices and white supremacy are only part of omicron’s apocalyptic revelation? What if these ruptures of Beloved Community and transnational solidarity are pointing us toward God drawing near and uncovering pathways of redemption?
Despite its potentially deadly consequences, when we stay awake to what the omicron variant might be uncovering, its incredible capacity for adapting could be one redemptive pathway being revealed. Scientists marvel at the unprecedented collection of mutations that make up the omicron variant. It is learning to adapt and layer change upon change in order to survive. It is adapting in innovative ways towards life. Adrienne Maree Brown describes adaptation as, “how we live and grow and stay purposeful in the face of constant change” (Emergent Strategy, 69). How might omicron be pointing us toward the sacred work of moving toward life, toward racial justice, toward liberation in the grace-full act of adaptation? The global pandemic will only amplify the level of change in our world. The omicron variant reveals that adapting to those changes offers a pathway to new life. Perhaps, as with vaccines, the illness is also the medicine. Perhaps God draws near to us as we discover new ways of allowing a vision of a life of flourishing for all creation to move us with intention as we adapt and adapt and adapt again. What if, instead of clinging to a nostalgia for a “normal” that never supported life for all of us, we practiced adapting to change as a way of rediscovering the belovedness of each and every person, and the steadfast love of God? Then maybe we could shed our reliance on white supremacy to foster safety and shift to a global solidarity that brings healing and flourishing to all.
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