Rev. Dr. James Forbes speaks on ‘COVID-19: A Parable of Plagues before Deliverance’ during lecture series

‘There are harbingers of hope’

By Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

File photo courtesy of Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy

LOUISVILLE — In a lecture series sponsored by Union Presbyterian Seminary and the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation this week, the Rev. Dr. James Forbes spoke on “COVID-19: A Parable of Plagues before Deliverance.” Forbes, considered to be among the most significant prophetic voices in our nation, is pastor emeritus of The Riverside Church and professor emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and has for several decades helped frame the nation’s theological sense of justice.

Forbes opened his remarks by stating, “I hope what we start to say tonight will cause us to think clearly about what we are going to do in these challenging days of the COVID-19 virus and the many other challenges we face.”

Forbes said that about this time last year, as he was preparing an article on the arrival of the first Africans on the shores of this country, he was led almost as if by the Spirit to read a passage from the Book of Genesis. “This is a passage that I am sure I have read many, many times,” Forbes said. “But I had never noticed what I’m now calling the first biblical quadricentennial.”

Reading from Genesis 15:12–14, Forbes focused on the part of the Scripture that reads: “And they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they served, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.”

“Imagine what that must’ve felt like to me,” Forbes said. “I had never paid attention. God says, ‘There will be slaves there 400 years. And afterwards, after 400 years, I’m going to bring them out. First, I am going to judge the nation that they serve. Then, I’m going to bring them out. They’re not going to come out empty handed. You’re going to come out with great possessions.’ I thought, my goodness, it was so startling to me. ‘I’m going to bring them out. After 400 years, I’m going to judge the nation that they served, and then they’re going to have great possessions.’”

Forbes said he sometimes talks to the Scripture. “So, I said to the Lord, ‘Lord, I want to know something. We Black people having been in slavery, emancipated, but then still held in bondage for reconstruction, Jim Crow,’” he said. “And now, continuing forms of oppression and globalization has been 400 years, Lord. But I want to know you love us Black people, as you loved the Israelites in bondage in Egypt. Now I think I heard the Lord say, ‘Yes, I love Black people; I love white people, in fact. I love all my people. And, I intend to do something dramatic towards the deliverance of all of the people who are my children created in my image.’

“So, I was excited about that,” Forbes said. “God, during our quadricentennial, is going to do something dramatic about difference, not just with Black people, but he says, bondage is always binary.

“But I remember something else the Lord told me now: ‘Listen, just as I brought deliverance in ancient Egypt, remember there were plagues associated with that, and there will be plagues this time.’ I started looking for the mighty hand of God at work to bring those who were in bondage to a promised land of freedom and justice.”

Forbes said that in August 2019, the country celebrated 1619, the year the first slaves landed in the U.S. “We had celebrations here and there. I started watching,” he said. “The first thing that caught my attention was what felt like a national backslide from the gains of the civil rights movement, Charlottesville comments about good folks on both sides, brutalization of our people, innocent people shot down in cold blood by policemen, voter suppression. I started noticing a strange, shall I call it ‘retreat,’ from the commitment to freedom and justice for all. Constitutional principles, national leadership seeming to encourage white supremacy and brutalization.” Forbes said that as he continued to watch the occurrences in our country, he asked God if the decline in the commitment to freedom and justice to all was the first plague.

Forbes said 2020 hit us with the COVID-19 pandemic. “Is this a plague that’s going to be a parable to this nation? And if it is a plague, that’s a parable to the nation, is it a plague that will eventually rate into a moment or a season of deliverance?” Thinking he should revisit the Scripture addressing the plagues of the Bible and COVID-19, Forbes referred to the seventh chapter of Exodus: “The plagues, you remember them, don’t you, water through the blood, frogs all over the place, flies, livestock disease, boils, locusts, darkness, gross darkness,” he said. “It is as if sometimes, when oppression has lasted so long and people have grown so accustomed to brutalization of God’s children, that it appears that even God is going to do something. God has to demonstrate that you are not likely OK to let the people go. You’ve just gotten so accustomed to that it’s just so natural,” Forbes said. “It just feels almost like righteous response to the mandate of God. So that phrase, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, suggests that God says, ‘I’m going to fix it. So even when you want to do right, you can’t; I’m going to fix it so that whatever happens, it will be clear that it was the outstretched hand of God that made you do it.’”

Forbes said that God says prolonged oppression requires an action of the divine that even human beings don’t have to consent to. “Seems like a voice said, ‘Yes, there may be more plagues, but you are already beginning to see that change is possible.’ There are harbingers of hope,” he said.

Forbes asked if participants paid attention to the fact that the statues of Confederate heroes are being pulled down and reminded participants that that may be an act just to keep us aware that hope is possible. “Change can come through deliverance not yet announced,” he said. Nevertheless, God is working all the time. “Did you notice the extraordinary diversity that came as a result of response to George Floyd’s murder? Did you notice the diversity there? In fact, I thought that with the murder of George Floyd, the knee on his neck by one officer and other officers on his body reminded me of a colossal elephant sitting on people of color.”

Forbes said that in this situation, the Lord reminds him of the diversity in the people protesting, with Black communities and white communities holding signs reading “Black Lives Matter.”

He said it was a definition of racism that he heard in 1962 while a student in Dr. George D. Kelsey’s class at Union Seminary that affected the way he responded to what happened to George Floyd. “A plague, I suspect. I thought a plague of police brutality, one right after the other.”

Forbes said Kelsey read a definition of racism as a dogma that one ethnic body is condemned by nature to hereditary inferiority and another group is destined to hereditary superiority. It is the dogma that the whole of civilization depends upon eliminating some races. It is the dogma that one race has carried progress for human history alone to ensure future progress. The chief political plan of racists has been segregation, isolation and deprivation, but despite the prevailing practices of segregation, the logic of racism is genocide.

Forbes said the problem of defective humanity cannot be resolved by segregation and quarantine and that faith requires the final solution. Racism is not just who calls people that “N-word,” he said. “It’s not just keeping folks from having a place to stay, health care, decent jobs, decent wages. No, it’s all of that. It is an ideology that has dared to question the truth. You would have the audacity to question by saying that when God made humankind in God’s full image, ‘that part of that was good, us white people, but that the Black ones not so good.’”

Forbes explained that the ideology of racism is that Black people are a diminished form of personhood of humanity.

In closing, Forbes reminded listeners that COVID-19 had exposed many of the injustices and disparities in America. But there is hope for America to become a post-racial society. However, until that day comes, until the word of deliverance is announced, here’s what to do: “Take the vaccine of law. Stop the virus of hate from its global spread; bigotry is a deadly weapon. Love is the only vaccine with the power to really stop the virus of racism.”


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?