I recently had my third COVID vaccination. Having had two shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this year, I now received the Moderna version as a booster. I am grateful to the scientists and health staff—virologists, geneticists, epidemiologists, nurses, and so forth—that have made this possible in such a short time, many working ridiculously long hours to achieve what some said was impossible, many of whom are Christian believers as well as people from other faiths, highly motivated to use their gifts to help their fellow humans . . . and many based here in my home town of Cambridge.
Rumours and conspiracy theories
So I was, frankly, shocked when I read some of the things that an old friend of mine from the Netherlands was writing online. Claiming to be speaking with God’s voice, he said things like, ‘If you decide to ignore my warning and take this vaccine, do not say I did not warn you! Your death will be on your own head!’ Unfortunately, this man has a high profile in that country and is known for his ‘prophetic’ ministry, a ministry, evidently, characterised by delusion and manipulation but which has led to significant hesitancy among some Christians to have the vaccine. But it is much worse than this. Such opinionated, toxic rhetoric fuels social unrest and has made doctors the target of abuse.
One intensive care doctor spoke of how her colleagues were regularly breaking down in tears as they watched helplessly as yet another patient died gasping for breath. As the crisis worsened, she writes:
“A charming ‘covid sceptic’ sent me this: ‘You are paid to lie and a disgrace to your profession. You have clearly sold your soul and are nothing more than a child abuser destroying futures. I do not consent to your satanic ways.'”
Some time later I found myself singing at a little church in the north-west of England. The guest speaker before me gave a rambling, unprepared talk claiming that ‘God had told him’ that morning what to speak on. And in a passing reference to the current pandemic, he muttered darkly that having worked with nurses and doctors (I confess that as he said this I thought it must have been as a hospital porter) he would not advise taking the vaccine.
I then visited the Czech Republic recently to see my son and family and was shocked by the level of denial in some people about the severity of the disease, a deep suspicion of the motivation of their government in encouraging take-up of the vaccine as if it was a way to manipulate and control people, and unfounded fears that the vaccines had ‘not been tested properly’ and quite likely to have long-term side effects. As a result, only 59% of the population are fully vaccinated in that country. This is not because of a supply problem but because people are suspicious or in denial about the severity of the situation.1 I find it curious (and I’m not just talking about the Czech Republic here) that so many people are quite happy to stuff their bodies full of junk food containing numerous suspect and unnamed ingredients and chemicals (check out the e-numbers) yet complain bitterly when asked to accept a well-researched medication that might save their life. Very odd.
It is not my purpose here to discuss the medical benefits of the vaccine except to say that for those who care to do even the most rudimentary research from genuine sources it is clear that the benefits far outweigh the known side effects (which clinicians have been open about and are almost all short-term)—the benefits being, in the majority of cases, avoiding death, hospitalisation, or ‘long covid’, a debilitating, long-term, post-viral condition that has led to previously fit young people being unable to function normally. My friend in the Netherlands, it seems to me, has blood on his hands.
A social perspective
I would, however, like to make two comments relating to this negative, anti-vax mindset from the perspective of social responsibility.
Now although I have not written much on this blog for a while I have been keeping my ear close to the ground and I have noticed a growing trend among some Christians: an acceptance of, tolerance of, or even alliance with evil on the basis that it comes from God; in other words, that God uses evil to bring about a greater good. A prime example is the Trump presidency. I read recently, for example, that 53% of American Pentecostals supported Trump; that they turned a blind eye to his flagrant immorality as, in their eyes, he was hastening their agenda for Christianising the world by, for example, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. That God can bring good out of evil situations or evil people is entirely reasonable; if this were not the case then none of us could in any sense be used by God. But to suggest God is the source of evil or wields evil as a blunt instrument for good is problematic.
So did God send this virus? I have come across Christians who believe this and that, as God’s chosen ones—his children—they will be immune to its effects and therefore need not get vaccinated. But is it not more obviously due to human abuse of the planet? We are reaping what we sowed. If the former is true, then we are not talking about the Christian God described as light in whom there is no darkness. If the latter, then should we not applaud the fact that God uses Christian scientists and doctors (among others) to bring us relief? And should not we who claim to follow Jesus play our part, claiming as we do to be the salt and light of society—particularly as Jesus used the term ‘salt’ as it was known to have medicinal properties?
Which brings me to a deeper and more troubling issue.
Since the sixteenth century people have become significantly more self-centred; it is sometimes referred to as the ‘turn to the self’ and Christian thinkers are often quick to characterise this as a turning away from transcendence, from the divine; in other words, that it equates to some kind of apostasy. But the problem is that this mindset has also infected modern and ‘postmodern’ Christianity; in fact some argue that ‘selfish’ theology has actually contributed to the problem, not simply been infected by it. Whereas, for example, the biblical story is primarily a tale of God’s interaction with communities, families, and tribes, the modern telling of the gospel tends to focus on God’s dealing with individuals. Many Christian denominations focus on getting individual people ‘saved’ at the expense of any wider perspective or understanding of God as the saviour of peoples.
As a result, contemporary society talks a lot about individual human rights but says very little about social responsibility. The vaccine take-up issue is merely symptomatic of this problem. I am old enough, for example, to remember the introduction of mandatory seat belts in cars. Prior to that, hospitals were full of adults and children—especially the latter—who were maimed for life; the latter because their parents objected to being told what to do by the state as it was an infringement of their ‘personal freedom’. But, of course, after an accident they expected the state to pick up the pieces and foot the bill.
Salt or selfishness?
Let’s return briefly to the subject of God and evil. Just as the Trump presidency was used by God—not, as some had hoped, to Christianise the world but to reveal the bankruptcy of American right wing Christianity—so the pandemic is revealing the selfish nature of modern Christianity. Surely as a Christian—particularly if I am convinced that God will take care of me, even through death—it is my duty to receive a vaccine that may save the life of another—if only indirectly? I am highly less likely to have serious disease if vaccinated, therefore freeing up an intensive care bed for someone else. Knowing how devastating for families, how virulent, and how widespread this disease is (145,000 deaths in the UK . . . and counting), surely it is our Christian duty to—if only metaphorically—lay down our lives for our friends?
But the irony is that it does not involve laying down our lives: it involves merely having a small pin-prick that might result in a day or two of sickness and, for this trivial cost, we might save our own life and the lives of many others. And if I die as a result, so what? Better to die, as Jesus said, that to gain the whole world and lose your soul.
Notes and references
- As I write, the Czech Republic has declared a state of emergency and the present daily death rate is around eight times that of the UK where 80% of the population over 12 years old is fully vaccinated and almost 30% have had a booster dose. These daily figures are as of late November 2021. The situation may change in the long term and it is unwise to compare the response of different countries until some years have passed. It is, though, notable that death rates in many European countries are rising rapidly where vaccine take-up has been poor. I am also not saying that the Czech authorities have done a bad job. It is, though, significant that the outgoing Prime Minister of the Czech Republic is charged by many with corrupt practices and that the ailing President is known for his links with Russia and at one point tried to arrange for the import of the Russian Sputnik vaccine—one that had not been approved by European regulators. This, combined with the memory of prior Russian domination, naturally leads to a hesitancy to believe anything the government says.