By Rev Scott Thomson
With reaction growing among the ‘un-jabbed’, especially from some smaller or conservative Christian groups and individuals, how might we articulate a faith perspective on immunization? Where might we find Jesus in our current situation?
Jesus is well known for his healings. How we might understand each healing in medical terms and how Jesus managed these great works is a study in itself. The overall impression made on the disciples was so great that Christians became healers. Christians later created hospitals to care for the ill. What we can say with confidence is that Jesus’s healings usually required people both to have faith and then act on it. The first three gospels all recount the healing of a woman with a long-term hemorrhage. Mark (from 5:25) comments that she had spent everything she had on healing and it only got worse. She had faith and faith led her to Jesus and to her healing.
Modern healing still requires faith. Most doctors know it is no good prescribing medicine if the patient has no confidence in it and doesn’t bother to take it. However, undue emphasis on ‘faith’ is not good medicine or good theology. It sometimes has a very hurtful effect on the patient. ‘If you had more faith, you would get better’, says the well-meaning friend. Or if we had more people praying, God would be forced to take notice of your case! That puts God at the level of a career politician.
Not all treatments work and not all conditions are curable. In the end, the death rate is 100%. In some biblical cases healing does not follow. Few Biblical characters seem to have had more faith that Paul. What exactly Paul’s ailment was we don’t know, although there has been plenty of speculation over 2,000 years. Paul asked God to help him get rid of it. The answer seems to have been that it was something Paul had to put up with. Paul however had a much loved doctor in his personal team: Luke (Colossians 4:14). Maybe Luke’s skill kept Paul going. While we strive for better health, the rule of life is gradual disintegration, and death. The Christian answer to this is outside this study.
COVID-19 Social Trends
Three disturbing trends have emerged as New Zealand struggles to contain COVID.
a) COVID seems to be increasing social division.
Each night TV gives the vaccine target figures for European, Maori and Pasifica populations. Partly the lag in Maori figures reflect the general trend for the young – there is a higher percentage of Maori youth – to ignore warnings. The figures reflect different educational levels, impacting people’s ability to distinguish between mainstream medical opinion and bogus or slanted social gossip. The figures reflect poverty: COVID spreads more readily in over-crowding. The figures reflect an unwillingness of some to have their movements traced. In terms of the Prime Minister’s “Team of 5 million”, there is a significant number who don’t see themselves as part of it.
Social isolation of the un-jabbed may follow, much as the lepers were socially isolated – rightly or wrongly – in the time of Jesus. Jesus crossed the leper/clean divide, and his care for lepers has been reflected in Christian missions specifically to lepers, with the happy result that there is now medical treatment for those diseases. An interesting sidelight may be Jesus’ cleansing of ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). Only one came back to say thank you. Was he the only one with good manners? Did the other nine regard their common affliction as a sort of group identity badge? We just don’t know. I am aware of a network that encourages anti-vax behavior. Like any minority it may feed on itself.
Thus, the under-side of New Zealand society is a matter of concern, both in compassion and in terms of social order.
b) Some people react against the rules.
Acting on medical advice, the New Zealand government – and other governments – make rules to combat COVID. In 1 Timothy Christians are urged to pray for rulers who make rules for the good of all. In Romans 13:1-4 Paul urges Christians to obey rulers. “Do what is good. Obey your rulers.” This is very direct stuff from Paul, who was entirely ready to take on earthly rulers who usurped the power of God. It is one thing to resist evil government (eg. under Hitler) and quite another to be deliberately rebellious against a government working for the general good. The fact that some in a democratic state may not like a particular leader or party does not give them the right to disobey or put fellow citizens at risk.
There can be no reasoned support for an attitude that does not respect civil authority based on scientific medical authority. Because some person, or group, has felt marginalized does not give the right to put others at risk, much less just have a ‘stir’.
c) Some seem to regard rejection of vaccination as a badge of Christian loyalty.
This has been more obvious in the USA among fundamentalist groups. ‘God will look after me’. In many cases the inconsistent mental processes are clear, especially if they are gun-lobby activists. There is absolutely no theological justification for this attitude. Such an attitude is a huge insult to the many devoted Christian doctors, nurses and missionaries who have worked sacrificially to bring healthier life to millions.
The whole story of Jesus’s temptations in Matthew 4 resonate with the refusal of Jesus to be a miracle man who puts God to the test. Expectation that God will do something ‘awesome’ and miraculous to prove His power and an individual’s ‘faith’ is strictly off limits for Christians.
The Blood of the Lamb
In the example of Jesus facing death we can put our hope of something more than oblivion, and meditate on the phrase ‘the blood of the lamb.’ From the beginnings of the church, Jesus’ death has been understood to have a sacrificial and saving power. In the metaphysical sense it is perceived a saving from sin and indeed from death and the power of death. Christian liturgy incorporates a moment for reflection on our own shortcomings and those of the world. It is then followed by a word of forgiveness. On the moral and personal level Jesus death has a vaccinating quality. Jesus encouraged his followers to see his life/death in this way, by enacting the Jewish ritual of Passover – the basis of the Lord’s Supper. The blood of Jesus is identified with the blood of the sacrificial lamb in Jewish history, and the Jewish practice of his day.
The Jewish Passover is recorded at length in Exodus chapter 7 and following. The memory of this ancient ritual was powerfully re-enacted by Jesus. As wave after wave of plagues swept over Egypt, the Israelite slaves were told to sacrifice a lamb and put the blood over the door of their dwellings. Like vaccination, Exodus 12, especially verse 11, has a strongly preventative flavor.
For Christians, Jesus becomes the Lamb. He is the saving representative of God who wills life for his people. Jesus, the healer, stands in the succession of those who seek God’s will for creation by pointing them in the direction of healing, however this healing is accomplished. By many and various ways thoughtful people in every age have looked for ways through the health issues of their time. To do so is not an abandonment of faith in God. It is an act of reverence towards all life, and the universe, created by God, wonder-filled, consistent and beneficial.