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Body Politics: Christian Theological Reflections on Vaccination
By Joseph Mangina
Oct 19, 2021
It never really occurred to me to not be vaccinated. On learning that effective vaccines against COVID-19 would soon be on the horizon, my initial reaction was: “Where can I sign up?” No doubt my eagerness can be explained in part by a sheer hunger for human connection, after months of lockdown existence. The lockdown had been taking its toll. I wanted to teach my students in person again, I wanted to meet up with friends at the pub, I wanted to travel. Receiving the vaccine seemed the simplest thing I could do to help make these things happen.
But did I also have reasons as a Christian to be vaccinated? If getting the vaccine itself seemed obvious to me, so was my sense that it was the “Christian thing to do.” But was it? Did this thing that seemed so obvious rhyme with my convictions as a follower of Jesus Christ and as a member of his body, the church?
Getting vaccinated: the Christian thing to do?
I won’t hold the reader in suspense: I believe that for those for whom it’s possible, getting the vaccine is the Christian thing to do; and beyond that, that the church broadly speaking should be in support of vaccine mandates for public meeting places, and other steps intended to stop the spread of the virus. But I also think we need to make these affirmations with our eyes wide open, so that we don’t make the mistake of doing “the right deed for the wrong reason,” as T.S. Eliot famously put it in Murder in the Cathedral. Otherwise stated, the meaning of any action is determined (among other things) by the larger story of which it forms a part.
As a place to begin, I emailed an ethicist friend of mine, asking how she would go about making the Christian case for vaccines. She helpfully laid out two broad principles. On the one hand, she cited the duty of responsible self-care. God, the Author of life, has made the body, and we are the body’s stewards—not owners! This involves taking prudent steps to care for the body, including heeding the advice of doctors and public health officials.
On the other hand, my friend spoke of the Christian’s obligation to protect the common good. Human beings are social creatures, “all the way down.” Our very lives have been made possible by the contributions of others. A basic sense of social solidarity, then, demands that we avoid doing things that harm the people around us, and, more positively, doing those things that will benefit them. This is an extension of Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. The divine Law, too, points in this direction. As Martin Luther wrote, in his wonderfully earthy exposition of the Ten Commandments: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”
Taken together, these two principles seem to create a strong presumption in favor of Christians receiving the vaccine. In the words of a recent policy statement by the bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada, “We have a moral obligation to protect others and to set an example to the communities we serve. There is one crucial way we can love our neighbours, and that is to vaccinate ourselves against COVID-19 if we are able to do so.” Significantly, this was said in the context of mandating proof of vaccination for clergy, employees of dioceses, and parish employees and volunteers. By contrast, no vaccine passport will be required for those who show up at church on Sunday morning wishing to hear God’s Word and receive the sacrament. I believe that was a wise move indeed, as the church’s body must always be open to welcoming the stranger—even the unvaccinated stranger.
All this makes a great deal of sense to me.
Who would quarrel with the duty of caring for the body as a gift from God, or the demands of neighbour love? The difficult thing is that there are Christians, indeed thinking Christians, who cheerfully grant these principles and yet come to a different set of conclusions about vaccines, and especially vaccine mandates. There are those, for instance, for whom the body’s standing as a gift from God is precisely a reason not to be vaccinated. Some see it as hubristic overreach on the part of governments and the medical establishment. Some argue that we should worry about possible long-term effects of the vaccines, especially given the extraordinarily compressed time-frame in which they were developed, and the novelty of the technologies involved. The two mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) are viewed with particular suspicion in this regard. One may grant the effectiveness of the vaccines, but still feel that the choice should be left up to the individual, and that it’s unreasonable to make vaccine compliance a condition of participation in civil society. On this view, love of neighbour means protecting the neighbour against unjust forms of coercion.
As I indicated above, I come down in a very different place on these matters. I think the vaccines’ benefits do outweigh any potential risks, and that the vaccine mandates, although raising worrisome issues of civil liberties, are warranted under our present circumstances. But I wish to underscore that I arrived at this pro-vaccine stance because I’ve made a particular set of judgments about the facts at hand. The Christian moral life is from one point of view a matter of utter clarity—there is no arguing with the command of God or the teachings of Jesus—and from another point of view extremely messy. The messiness is oddly enough a good thing, reflecting the truth that we are embodied creatures who must feel our way forward through time, figuring things out as we go along. In the case of the pandemic, things are extremely messy, given the bewildering complexity of the scientific, medical, and public health issues involved. This is why we need to resist the urge to demonize those who think differently about these matters than we do.
One upshot of all this is that we cannot reduce difficult decisions about vaccines, mandates, and lockdown measures to the incoherent slogan “the science says….” With regard to the key decisions that govern our common life, “science” doesn’t say anything. No doubt it’s a good idea to consult the scientists. But we should not try to outsource to science (as if science were simply one thing!) decisions that properly belong to all of us, the body politic. That sort of thinking is the quintessence of technocracy: the imagined substitution of technical expertise for the hard work of living together in community.
Story as a context for moral action
I said earlier that it makes a great deal of difference what story we are telling as the context for our moral actions. In a recent article in First Things, David Cayley raises this issue. Cayley, an articulate opponent of vaccine mandates, cautions that vaccination—modern medicine more generally—reflects a particular story about what it means to be human. Although allowing that “not every vaccinated person feels this way,” he argues that vaccination “belongs to a larger scientific worldview that tends to see nature as ours to control and reshape as we will, death as an enemy to be overcome, and life as a resource to be maximized and extended at all costs.” This modern story likes to pretend that it is the only option on offer, the one rational way of being human. Whereas in fact there are “other worldviews, with different accounts to give of the nature of health and the end of human life.” Although Cayley does not say so, one of these alternative accounts is surely that of traditional Christianity.
Cayley is absolutely right to raise the question of rival stories about the ends of human life. There are vast pressures in our society to embrace the beliefs he outlines. (The same crop of billionaires who are currently sending tourists into space are also exploring ways of insuring humankind’s, or at least their own, immortality.) This technocratic religion can be squared neither with the Christian doctrine of creation nor with the gospel of grace. As Jesus said to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).
On the other hand, Jesus also said: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Simple biological life may not be an absolute good, but it is a good, and one that Christians have a very large stake in defending. Life matters. Just so, death is a threat that must be taken seriously. While it does not lie in our power to defeat death—that is Someone Else’s job—it is central to our Christian calling to mitigate the effects of death and illness in the human sphere.
Receiving the vaccine need not mean buying in on “other stories” about human life. On my reading, it is merely the simple, practical, and right thing to do under the present difficult circumstances. May we all be given the wisdom and humility to live this moment faithfully.
This is part 2 in Wycliffe’s blog series on “The Vaccination question: a theologian reflects.” See part 1, a reflection by Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology, here.