“The blood of Jesus is my vaccine”, read one protestor’s sign during the recent Sydney anti-lockdown demonstration. It’s such a pious statement, but it’s a misguided one too, propagating a position that is neither well-founded nor widely embraced by Christians. In my view, Christians protesting vaccination campaigns need to be challenged, because they are contending for a position that is both scientifically and theologically misinformed.
It is unfortunate that these days, unlike when I was growing up, a new voice has emerged to try to sway those making up their minds about vaccination: COVID-19 conspiracy theorists. As a theologian, I find them troubling because these new prophets are “leading the sheep astray”. I would like to address a few of their arguments briefly in order to bring the sheep back to the fold. But before, I do, perhaps it’s a good idea to explain where I’m coming from.
I grew up in an anti-vax Christian family. Those two positions were not mutually dependent. In fact, the anti-vax commitment belonged more to a philosophy of holistic medicine, partly steeped in pseudo-New-Age spirituality than anything Christian. My grandfather was a chiropractor, and he believed the body could heal itself with right realignment. As I grew up, I examined the scientific evidence and realised that much of the anti-vax position was dependent on bogus data. Modern vaccination has seen the successful treatment, control, and even effective eradication of some of the world’s worst diseases.
Thankfully, as I came of age, I didn’t have to contend with religious objections to vaccines. They existed, but not in my circles. But these days, COVID-19 conspiracy theorists tout several unhelpful ideas. Let me address some of these in turn.
I’ll begin with the fear that the vaccine is the “mark of the beast”. This “mark” is mentioned in the last book of the Bible and serves as a warning to Christians not to align with the regimes of the world that are antagonistic to God. But to take this image wholesale as referring to any activity in the world — or any advice of the government — is not in keeping with the teaching of the Bible. The Bible celebrates the role of government exercising care for society. So, health advice for the common good should hardly be construed as antagonistic to God. On the contrary, Christians should give thanks for the provision of health care.
Some faith communities, moreover, believe that the virus presents no real threat to Christians, because the blood of Jesus is powerful to save them from the disease. Sadly, this position finds little support in the Bible’s teaching about what Jesus’ blood is effective for. Christians do believe Jesus’s blood is powerful, but not for curing physical diseases. It’s for treating the spiritual root of all human problems — sin. Extending the life-giving effects of Jesus’s blood is like saying chemotherapy will cure your broken finger: it misappropriates one treatment for a serious problem to a totally different disorder. Such a view hopes for more (or rather, less) than was ever promised to Christians as they struggle in this life now.
Others morally object to the vaccine because the stem cells employed in its development originally came from aborted foetuses. Last year, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, my church leader, raised concerns about these ongoing practices in medical laboratories. But his taking issue with this practice was not also discounting the importance of vaccination, or the necessity of being vaccinated. Instead, he sought to highlight the ways in which abortion continues to be upheld as a “good” and normal practice in society. His desire was to end any dependence upon or valuation of this practice.
Others still claim they are entitled to autonomy — “My body, my rights” — and freedom of conscience. This argument is closely related to moral objections concerning the genesis of the vaccine. Some feel that taking the vaccine will make them complicit in the act of abortion, because they will benefit from that act. Freedom of conscience is a very important societal good — one that should be upheld in liberal democracies. Certainly, we don’t want anyone to suffer coercion, because this would be tantamount to living in a totalitarian state. However, when it comes to the rights of individuals over their own bodies, Christians have the freedom to act selflessly. In particular, they must take seriously the ethical example of Christ’s treatment of his own body: at the very moment he needed self-protection, Jesus laid down his life for the benefit of others. Following this selfless act, his injunction upon Christians is that “we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16).
I was raised anti-vax and Christian. I have remained Christian, but now I am vaccinated. As people make decisions in the freedom afforded in this country, I hope they do so while being well informed. For Christians, anti-vax is not the way.