Discerning our Christian response to Covid and Vaccination
By Rev. Dr. Graham O’Brien, Dean of Nelson Cathedral
Published in Nelson Anglicans
As we journey through this new covid world it is often hard to navigate all the information that is out there and decide what is correct and what is not, alongside how we respond as Christians to all the different issues and points of view. In these brief reflections I am writing as someone who has been an ordained priest for the past 15 years, a theological educator with experience in bioethics, and as a trained scientist including working in vaccine development. I have also included some helpful comments from Assoc Prof Lance Jennings, retired Clinical Virologist at the Canterbury DHB and a Cathedral Parishioner.
First, can I begin with a comment about science. It is important to remember that the science behind vaccine development is technical and not something people easily understand in everyday terms (just like I struggle with the inner workings of a car engine or a computer). To discern the best information, we need to look at peer-reviewed research not people making unsubstantiated claims. Instead, we need to rely on official websites to give us good information. I have included some below.
- InterChurch Bioethics Council http://www.interchurchbioethics.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ICBC-FAQs-covid-vaccine-.pdf
- Christian Medical Fellowship NZ https://www.cmf.nz/covid19
Assoc Prof Lance Jennings on the Delta Variant and how do we know the Pfizer vaccine is safe:
The Delta variant infections are associated with a shorter time to the development of first symptoms, a higher viral load, longer duration of virus shedding and possibly more severe COVID-19 disease. The variant is twice as transmissible as the Alpha virus, spreading much more easily than the virus New Zealand experience early in 2020. On average, in a household or among other contacts, one person infected with the Delta variant may infect up to 6 other people. As it is a greater challenge to contain this variant’s spread, as we are experiencing with the current Delta outbreak in Auckland, it is being referred to as a ‘game changer.’
Over 5.4 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered globally, and a large proportion of these are mRNA vaccines including the Pfizer vaccine. New Zealand is part of a collaborative “the Global Vaccine Data Network”, which collects data from over 17 countries to monitor vaccine safety, allowing the detection of even extremely rare vaccine side effects. In addition, Medsafe closely monitors safety data on the Pfizer vaccine globally and produces reports weekly. Nationally, any adverse events occurring after immunization are reported to the Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring (CARM), and these reports can be submitted by anyone, and summaries are available publicly. This extreme level of safety monitoring shows that the benefits of vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine outweigh the risk of any side effect, the majority of which are mild and short lived.
Just to be clear, the covid vaccines have undergone the same extensive independent testing that all new medications must undergo. The one major difference is that this has happened much faster than normal due to focused international scientific effort, funding, and cooperation which have sped up the process. These medications are not “experimental”. All these vaccines are proven to be safe and reduce infection rates, viral spread, and the severity of disease and hospitalisation. We need to be careful not to confuse any feelings about covid vaccination with the practice of vaccination in general or our feelings about other vaccines. As stated in a resource on the NZ Christian Medical Fellowship website: “Most Christians accept that, historically, vaccination has transformed whole societies for the better. A world in which diseases like smallpox, polio, measles, rubella, and rabies have either been eradicated or controlled is preferable to a world in which diseases like these are rampant. Christians rejoice as they recognize God working through the creativity of scientists and the expertise of the medical profession” (Understanding Covid Vaccination see https://www.cmf.nz/covid19
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made
I have seen some comments that rightfully identify that we are, to quote the Psalms, “Fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and our immune system is a marvellous example of that. But we also realise that we are mortal, and our bodies fail us and are subject to disease. I have been to places in the world where there is no access to modern medicine and so the only option is to pray. But we are not in that position – yes, we need to pray for God’s healing – and accept that one of the ways that God provides an answer to this prayer is to utilise the God-given ability for science and medicine to help when our bodies fail or disease strike. This is not a lack of trust but is being thankful for what God has provided.
The history of healthcare owes an enormous amount to the role of the church in caring for the needy and relieving the pain and suffering of people with illness and disease in body, mind and emotion. Throughout history and into today, such caring is done by Christians at much personal risk to themselves as they care for others. Today many Christian scientists, doctors, nurses, health-professionals, psychologists, counsellors, and social workers feel called by God to minister through the expertise of their profession.
Love your neighbour as yourself
Assoc Prof Lance Jennings on why I should vaccinate if I am healthy:
Although the majority of SARS-CoV-2 infections are mild or without any symptoms, in about 20% of people infected, COVID-19 disease can be severe, resulting in hospitalisation, intensive care support and possibly death. By receiving two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, Delta variant infection is reduced by about 88%, while protection against severe disease, and hospitalisation is reduced by about 96%. As those at greatest risk of developing COVID-19 disease following infection, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions are vaccinated, the risk of susceptible younger age groups being infected increases. Not getting vaccinated puts you at much higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease, being seriously sick for a long period of time and possibly ending up with lasting damage or ‘long COVID’. It is currently impossible to predict if you will develop a mild or more serious disease if you become infected. Vaccination, even if you are young and healthy provides the best individual protection against COVID-19. Further, when New Zealand opens its borders to the rest of the world, travel may be restricted to those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine and have a “vaccine passport”.
We are fortunate, in our Western world that we have huge technological resources that make our lives better. But just as Abraham was blessed to be a blessing to the world (Gen 12:1-3), so I believe it is our task to share the blessing of medical research we have with those who do not have these resources. This is what is meant by distributive justice – we are called to share our resources, so that we act as God’s agents for good in a broken world.
In the New Testament, there is the emphasis on love. In the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; John 15:12, 17). Christianity has never been about an individual ethic, but about community and loving others as God loves us. This can be clearly seen in Luke’s Gospel which emphasises the inclusion of the poor, the oppressed, women, and foreigners. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) also talks about using our resources for the benefit of the others and bearing that cost. We could also add “when you do this to the least of these you do it to me” (Matthew 25). For me it is clear, we are called to share our resources and that can be extended to medicine and vaccines so that those in need can avoid suffering.
In promoting vaccine for personal and communal protection, I believe we are acting in line with the commands of Jesus to love our neighbour. Furthermore, it is right that we offer vaccine to others, especially those overseas. I am also reminded of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) - we are called to use the gifts that God has given us. As the ones who have so much and have the skills to help, we are called to use those gifts and we can do so to assist those who have little, and I think we can extend that to providing medicine to prevent infection and death. Programmes such as “Get One, Give One” supported by the Anglican Missions Board therefore give a valid way for us all to contribute to the benefit of others in need. This is not passing on our discarded medicine but is enabling all, who would like that choice, to benefit from tested and authorised vaccines to avoid the suffering that covid infection can lead too.
Renewing of our Minds
Finally, I would like to comment on our need to be discerning. There are many comments against vaccination that have ultimately nothing to do about science or medicine but boil down to an ideology about conspiracy theories over any other position. Comments about a government cover-up of information, or that churches are being “deceived” have nothing to do with scientific investigation and evidence. Jesus did warn us to be aware of false prophets and Paul talks of a renewing of our minds – and I feel that includes us being discerning about the information we access. The key for me is that we are warned to avoid conjecture and hearsay and can look instead to trusted sources as previously mentioned.
In summary, we are incredibly fortunate to live in a country where covid-19 has not taken hold. May I encourage you to take the opportunities to share that blessing by protecting yourself and others through vaccination and enabling those in greater need to receive that blessing as well. I also recognise there are a range of views on this topic, and we all have freedom of choice to be vaccinated or not and the right to not be judged for that choice. How we live as God’s people while holding our difference is also important, so that the church is a place where we can model love for one another, even if we disagree. Our common aim is the safety and protection of all.