Happy New Year!... Well, sort of.
Perhaps, it is only a "Happy" New Year for some merely because it is not last year anymore. The countdown to fireworks symbolizes a turning of a corner, a desire to just get over, get out of, get beyond – whatever language you choose – the kind of year last year was.
Certain leaders have spoken of the year in euphemisms: "Wow, 2020 has been an interesting year!" "Interesting" is not the right word. "Interesting" is the word you use to politely describe the haircut your wife gives you during lockdown. "Interesting" does not begin to describe last year.
"Tragedy" is a word that comes to mind ("hot mess" is a valid substitute).
The pandemic, the lockdowns, Black Lives Matter protests, the unsanctimonious gong-show of the American election – for many, this has been a year in isolation spent doom-scrolling through Facebook.
We are the lucky ones, of course. For instance, I do not know anyone in my immediate social circle who died from the virus, but so many others have not been so fortunate. With 16 000 deaths in Canada and a staggering 350 000 deaths in the U.S., those statistics should leave us at a loss for words.
A certain church on the road I drive down to get to work has a bright and cheerful message on it about how plagues are part of the end times, and hint, hint, that time is now. I can tell you that I have been fighting the brooding urge to deface that sign ever since I saw it. But by leaving it up, part of me thinks that church is doing any hapless church visitor a favour in providing an accurate warning about what kind of church it is. Hint, hint: not a seeker-sensitive one ("not a gracious one either" is a valid substitute).
While the sign indeed is founded on an untenable literalism that reads every fear and anxiety on to the symbolism of the Book of Revelation, ignoring the book's own historical and literary context, one notion is correct about this sign. If the term "apocalypse" means "unveiling" or "revealing," then there has been something revealed to us during this pandemic. Something has been exposed, laid bare, and made plain – plain for those, perhaps, who have eyes to see and ears to hear (or at least don't believe everything they see on Fox News).
Perhaps one reason this year has been so tragic is because this has been a year of inequality. The pandemic has shown us just how vulnerable our society is, how susceptible we are to the corrosion of the fake-news over social media, and how unwilling some of us are to do the decent thing, of something small like wearing a mask or "staying the blazes home" or more challenging things like looking deep inside ourselves and reckoning with our racial biases.
It has exposed the fact that many of us live not as a community (a common-unity), where everyone gives up a little liberty to lift each other up in mutuality and reciprocity, but rather, we live as a collection of autonomous individuals, who see their lives as nothing more than a bundle of obsessive liberties, disconnected from anything resembling moral obligation to the common good, to those who are more medically vulnerable, to those that particularly face prejudice due to gender and race.
The year began with the injustice of George Floyd's death, who was killed by a police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd's neck. It continued with sparing over indigenous lands in B.C., over the proposed pipeline, which reverberated throughout the country as railroads were blockaded. Then, fighting in St. Mary's Bay here in Nova Scotia as settler fishers turned in harassment and vandalism against indigenous fishers over out-of-season fishing and moderate-livelihood treaty rights.
This year has exposed a dark side of human nature where when pricked with inconvenience or prodded with expectations of sacrifice, some of us simply do not rise to the better angels of our nature.
These, of course, have been visible and disturbing events, highlighting the inequality in our world. However, there is much that never reaches the news cycle. There are reports that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women, who often bear far more childcare responsibilities than their male counterparts. Women, who live in abusive relationships, have been trapped and shut-in during lockdowns with even fewer means of signalling for help to others.
This past year we have become further aware that there is inequality in our world, lying below the surface or sometimes in plain sight. With lament, with mourning, and with anxiety, our hearts yearn for something different. I felt my heart groan this Christmas over the beauty of Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and now, for this new year, my thoughts turn to the promises Jesus proclaims in Luke 6:20-23:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.
You, who are afraid of how we are going to make ends meet…
You, who are sad, depressed, anxious, in mourning…
You, who are still doing the right thing, speaking truth, living some modicum of justice and mercy in an age where the dominant message is to look out for oneself…
To you, Jesus promises his kingdom because his kingdom upholds the dignity of all people.
This year has made plain also that the work of equality is holistic. We cannot talk about equality without talking about accountable government, effective democracy, reliable news reporting, proper confidence in science, etc. We cannot talk about equality without talking about just usage and access to technology. We cannot talk about equality without looking at people's financial, medical, and emotional needs. We cannot talk about equality without talking about the history of how we have treated those that look racially different from us. We cannot talk about equality as some abstract principle. Equality always involves our bodies. It is all our work, for it affects all of us.
All of this has reiterated the necessity of the work that organizations like the Atlantic Society for Biblical Equality have set out to do. Sometimes the work seems overwhelming, but that is why many of us chose to support this organization, to work to revamp it. Our hope is that it can be a helping hand and guiding light in seeking particularly to elevate the status of women and racial minorities in our churches.
For many, the new year is greeted with a sigh of relief: a vaccine is one the way, and hopefully, life will just get back to normal, the way things were before. But this year has revealed that the way things were before was not right. We should not want to go back. The appropriate response must be a breath in, a standing tall, a squaring of the shoulders, and a resolve that realizes that it is a new year: we have work to do.
Will you commit to the work of equality this year?
Will you pray for God's kingdom, not merely to get out of here and escape, but as the Lord taught us to pray: that his will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven?
Will you commit to searching the scriptures afresh, listen to careful exegesis rather than simple proof-texts? Can you read God's Word with the wind of the Spirit?
Can you have those tough conversations with your fellow Christians in our churches and organizations?
Can you look with eyes and hearts open to those in our communities that need help, support, even empowerment?
Perhaps, that end-times sign need not be entirely wrong. Perhaps the pandemic can lead to an end: to the end of inequality, to the end of hate, to the end of apathy. I would be naive to think that it can be done in a year or will be done in a year, but it can start. Prejudice and pride can end in me. I can resolve to do the work of equality with God's help in a new way this year. There will be no better future without taking up our crosses now, living the self-sacrificing way of Jesus this year. With that in mind, this year can be a year of renewed commitment to seeing and living the kingdom of God. May it be so for all of us.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!