As the United States and the rest of the world struggle to contain and overcome the coronavirus pandemic, the “handwriting on the wall” figure of speech has stayed in my mind.
People who are not well versed in the Bible may not know that this figure of speech is taken from a legendary event recounted in the fifth chapter of Daniel. The passage recounts how a Babylonian ruler named Belshazzar staged a banquet for thousands of his lords to celebrate Babylonian power. While under the influence of wine, Belshazzar ordered that sacred vessels plundered from the temple in Jerusalem during the conquest of Judah be used as wine goblets.
The New Revised Standard Version provides this rendering:
“So they brought in the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
“Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching as it wrote. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him.”
The sight of the disembodied hand writing on a plastered wall during a state banquet immediately transformed the mood from festive to grim. The mood worsened when none of the king’s “wise men” could read the writing or interpret its meaning. But the queen-mother (the only woman who speaks in the entire book) identified Daniel, one of the leaders among the exiled Jews, as someone capable of reading and interpreting the bizarre inscription.
“Time will tell if prophetic people like Daniel will be heard as they decipher the meaning of the handwriting on our wall.”
The king summoned Daniel to the banquet hall and offered him a reward and a promotion if he could decipher and interpret the inscription. Daniel rejected the royal offer, and then recounted Babylon’s history of conquest over other nations. He boldly accused the king of sacrilegious debauchery in the use of religious vessels as instruments for his narcissistic celebration of the Babylonian empire.
Lastly, Daniel deciphered the Aramaic handwriting inscribed on the wall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. He announced to the Babylonian ruler “that God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end … you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting … your kingdom is divided.”
This is the origin of the phrase “handwriting on the wall.”
The phrase is moral wordplay about an imminent danger or threat that someone cannot recognize and from which there is no escape.
The United States has long craved the status of empire. After World War II the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed for world dominance until the Soviet Union collapsed. From that point onward, U.S. presidents and other politicians from every political persuasion have boasted about “American exceptionalism.” At the conclusion of his farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989, President Ronald Reagan fondly spoke of the United States as a “shining city on a hill,” a phrase borrowed from one of the Pilgrims named John Winthrop.
Across many generations, the U.S. has considered itself “indispensable” to world security, prosperity and freedom. And, like the Babylonian ruler in Daniel 5, our nation has long employed sacred objects and references as props for imperial aspirations, power and chauvinism. (Do we dare admit narcissism?)
Think of how politicians of every persuasion routinely end their speeches by saying “God bless America.” President Donald Trump is merely the last national leader to invite us to engage in the blasphemous act of invoking God to represent, promote and defend attitudes, policies and practices that advance greed, bigotry and violence.
Like the disembodied hand that disrupted, disturbed and discomforted the festive mood of the Babylonian banquet narrated in Daniel 5, the coronavirus disrupts, disturbs and discomforts us. Although the world has long known that outbreaks of infectious illnesses happen, the United States now resembles the startled Babylonian ruler and his banquet guests when they saw the hand write an undecipherable message on a plastered wall.
Try as he might, President Trump cannot bluster the coronavirus away. His team of advisors cannot spin a way out of it.
And it is not only Trump and his advisors that have been measured, weighed and demonstrated to be lacking in this moment. America’s idolatry of capitalist greed and white religious nationalism has been laid bare.
Trump’s obsession about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the stock market demonstrates the idolatry of capitalist greed. His insistence on calling coronavirus a “Chinese virus” is the latest brazen display of his racism and cultural incompetence.
“America’s idolatry of capitalist greed and white religious nationalism has been laid bare.”
The self-professed evangelical conservative pastors, congregations and politicians who disregarded warnings and pleas from scientists and physicians about the need to practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings have shown how white religious nationalism – what I term “hateful faith” – is making people physically sick in the same way that it has sickened the moral and social health in the U.S. and across the world. And Trump’s haste to term himself a “wartime president” exposes his penchant for militarism.
Have you noticed that Trump’s religious advisors, like the Babylonian wizards in Daniel 5, seem to have little by way of comfort, counsel and clarity as Trump’s bewilderment and incompetence, along with his well-known dishonesty, narcissism and militaristic obsession, have been on daily display to the country and the world?
I am not someone who considers COVID-19 to be a plague from God, and I will not use this commentary to argue about that subject. What is beyond debate is that this global pandemic, like the handwriting on the wall in Daniel 5, has interrupted the long-running U.S. imperialist and idolatrous banquet of materialism, racism, white religious nationalism and militarism that Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically identified as lethal threats to the country and the world in his speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967.
The banquet has been interrupted by a source the U.S. and other nations did not invite and cannot ignore. Time will tell if a Daniel presence will be sought and heard to give moral and ethical meaning to this unwanted visitor.
In the meantime, one thing is clear. Despite however much President Trump and others pretend that things are under control and will soon return to business as usual, sober-minded people know that they are wrong. Things won’t be the same after this.
People who’ve seen a disembodied hand write on a wall can’t forget what they’ve seen. Even if they aren’t sure what the inscription meant, they know an important – and perhaps ominous – event has occurred.
Time will tell if prophetic people like Daniel will be heard as they decipher the meaning of the handwriting on our wall.
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