There’s a story in the Bible, in Numbers 21, about the people of God. They are in the wilderness, in tents, facing an epidemic: “fiery serpents” come among them and bite them. Many of God’s people die.
God tells Moses to make a statue of a fiery serpent like the ones biting the people and put it on a pole. God says, “Anyone who is bitten shall look at the serpent and live.” Moses makes the statue, and anyone who looks at it lives.
Imagine: a serious, systemic problem that could be cured just by looking. A statue that, if anyone infected by what it represented would merely look, would be healed. Who wouldn’t look?
At this moment in American history, we are living through two pandemics: racism and the coronavirus. Four days after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin suffocated George Floyd to death, Twitter user @ziwe remarked, “can’t believe corona blew a 28-3 lead to racism.” @trackallan replied, “Corona’s the visiting team. Racism is on its home field.”
Corona's the visiting team. Racism is on its home field.— Tracy Gies (@trackallan) May 29, 2020
Yet many in this country refuse to look at either racism or the pandemic. They stuff their fingers in their ears and refuse to know that the infection rate and the death rate are increasing. White Americans refuse to acknowledge what we already know: that to be Black in America is still to be a second-class citizen.
This weekend is the Fourth of July, a celebration for a country whose ideals include the words “all men are created equal” and “liberty and justice for all.”
But many refuse to look at the bronze serpent representing our nation’s original sin of racism, or the serpent representing the continued spread of a deadly pandemic that could be slowed to a halt with appropriate measures. It’s more pleasant to pretend there are no fiery serpents slithering around the camp biting and killing our fellow Americans.
Is it enough to look? Of course not. When we look, what we will see will require action. But we will never take that action so long as we refuse to see the truth.
We have all been bitten by the deadly snakes of racism and the reality of this pandemic, though most of us have not yet died from either. And while there is life, there is hope.
Look at the serpent.
This column appeared in The Herald-Palladium on July 3, 2020.