The Past is Precedence
If your inbox looked anything like mine in 2020, almost every email you got—save maybe the ones from Target—greeted you with, “I hope this email finds you well in these unprecedented times.”
If your church was anything like mine in 2020, many of the prayers your pastor prayed started with something like: “Lord, your people find ourselves dazed and confused in these unprecedented times,” with an added “But we know you are still in control” for a little sanctified razzle-dazzle.
If you got your news from the same places I got my mine in 2020, your correspondents started each story with something like, “Well, Jerry, we are certainly living in some unprecedented times.”
As I read and heard the word “unprecedented” over and over again throughout 2020, and even spilling over into 2021 following the Birth of a Nation-esque insurrection, it disturbed me how easy it was for people to fall for this dishonest language of ambiguity. What many accepted as the most effective way to describe our ongoing collective suffering, I recognized as tragically missed opportunities to tell the truth about this historic moment and to tell the sobering truth of how we got here.
So how exactly did we get here? By ignoring the warnings of scientists, historians, activists, organizers, and oppressed people everywhere; by buying into the myth of American exceptionalism; by forgetting that America is a largely reactive empire and when it reacts, it does so to preserve its exploitative powers of whiteness and capitalism, not to protect the powerless and vulnerable.
Ecclesiastes told us there ain’t nothing new under the sun, yet many were still fooled into thinking any of this is new. Every single moment we have struggled through collectively since February 2020 has had precedence rooted in the past.
While 2020 certainly gave us an awe-striking performance more dramatic than every episode of This Is Us combined, we’re not being honest if we keep describing its events and the events we’re already experiencing in 2021 as “unprecedented.” We’re simply hiding behind language that’s safe to avoid offense.
If we are to commit to being truth-tellers in 2021, we must find ourselves dissatisfied with this language. Truth-telling demands that we name things for exactly what they are. Truth-telling can’t be bothered with trying not to offend. Truth-telling requires that we follow our spiritual ancestors’ examples, the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament Apostles.
Amos didn’t prophesy with empty platitudes when he exposed Israel’s idols and injustices and warned them of their coming destruction should they refuse to repent. The apostle Paul didn’t mince his words when he laid bare the corporate sins that grieved him about the Corinthian Church. And Jesus certainly didn’t care which scribe or Pharisee he offended as he pronounced woes over them and called them hypocrites.
The truth inevitably offends those it exposes and those who are hell-bent on side-stepping it, but that’s the risk we must take if love and justice are our clarion call.
Let’s commit to being faithful truth-tellers and rejecting the dishonest language of ambiguity in 2021 and beyond.