Vaccine Mandates, Authoritarianism, and the Spiritual Malaise of the West

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

C.S. Lewis

 The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good — anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers’. We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.

C.S. Lewis

Authoritarians rarely recognize their own authoritarianism. To them, authoritarianism looks like simple virtue.

― Ben ShapiroThe Authoritarian Moment: How the Left Weaponized America’s Institutions Against Dissent

As I write this, the country of Austria is in complete lockdown to stem the rise of COVID. Initially, it was a lockdown of the unvaccinated; now it’s for everyone. But the really astonishing point with respect to Austria’s measures is that on February 1 vaccines are mandatory for everyone. Not only health care workers or those in vulnerable care sectors. Everyone. Hopefully there is the possibility of certain kinds of exemptions, at least. As it stands, invitations for vaccinations to the unvaccinated will be sent out. Those who do not comply will receive fines upwards of $4000. Apparently the double vaxxed will also be fined if they refuse getting a booster shot. The government will begin requiring all of its citizens to receive a specific kind of medical treatment–whether the person in question wants it or needs it or not. And it will seek to penalize those who opt out.

I gather that other European nations are considering similar measures. Australia is using what I would describe as extreme measures, including sending people to guarded quarantine centers and denying legitimate vaccine medical exemptions. Other smaller nations, like Micronesia, have already mandated that it’s entire adult population be inoculated. Of course, there are many places where certain sectors of a population are now required to be vaccinated, including health care workers who were touted as heroes during the pandemic when vaccines weren’t even available.

In what possible world is this remotely ethical? And even though US President Biden’s vaccine mandate for all businesses with more than 100 employees has been stopped by the courts for the time being, the current (but outgoing) mayor of New York City has just mandated that all private business employees have to be vaccinated. Shortly after President Biden announced his mandate, theologian Peter J. Leithart wrote a thoughtful article over at First Things regarding Biden’s mandate. As other experts and medical professionals debate Austria’s measures (see here, here, here, and here), others suggest that even mandatory vaccine passports are not necessarily an effective means of dealing with a pandemic. Indeed, both proof of vaccination measures and mandatory vaccines often lead to deeper mistrust of governing authorities and social division. Neither is good for any nation. One wonders about the long term effects not only of COVID itself, but the measures various governing authorities have taken to ameliorate its impact.

In a recent article at The National Post, Chris Selley writes: “We have been living with uncommon restrictions on our freedoms for the better part of two years now, of course, and some of them even made sense. But too many people enjoyed slapping those restrictions on the unwilling, and governments that score points off limiting freedoms tend to get a taste for it, regardless of the circumstances.” Once our governments have exercised this kind of authority with respect to vaccinations, what makes us think they won’t do so in other ways? Do we honestly attribute that much benevolence and competence to those in power?

Here’s the thing: No government policy, especially policies that buck up against individual rights and require coercive measures to be implemented, will ever receive 100% buy-in from a population. No amount of persuasion, incentives, or penalties will convince all those who are adamantly resistant. There will always be people who say, “No.” Perhaps very rightly so. That in itself should tell us something about how we ought to approach such situations.

Because the obvious question is this: When a government puts such a measure in place, how will it enforce it? Or what will it do with or to those people who refuse to comply? It’s not as though people who choose to remain unvaccinated have committed criminal offenses. They have made a very unpopular medical decision. Often such decisions are incredibly well-researched, thoughtful, and deliberate. Not everyone saying “no” to the COVID vaccines are anti-vaxxers or conspiracy theorists. Unfortunately, in our current cultural climate, sharing one’s independent research and thinking on such issues often is seen as, to coin a phrase, “misinformation.” That term–misinformation–becomes a catch-all excuse to dismiss legitimate concerns over the vaccine mandates and even concerns some have over the vaccines themselves. Some of these concerns are genuine and cannot be simply slapped with the label “misinformation” and remain unheard.

Whatever case is made for vaccinations, a case weakened by their waning protection and a seemingly continual need for “boosters,” medical decisions are still personal decisions. For those who attempt to make analogies with seatbelts or other such laws put in place to protect citizens against one another, the difference here is that receiving a vaccination means putting a substance inside of one’s body. And a law that restricts external behaviour is not the same as a mandate requiring a specific form of medical intervention. What’s frightening is how these mandates are only actually possible because governing authorities continue to maintain a state of emergency, whether warranted or not. Otherwise, legally and constitutionally such mandates would likely be untenable. My question is: what is the standard for a state of emergency? On what basis can a government maintain a state of emergency and what are the specific conditions for lifting it? And why aren’t more people vocal with such obvious questions?

As a Christian (and as a pastor), I am concerned over the expectations some have of churches with respect to vaccine mandates. For example, the Salvation Army is now dealing with a shortage of volunteers and with losing some staff because of its mandate that anyone working or volunteering for the organization must be fully vaccinated. I know there are churches of all sorts that are requiring all of their staff to get vaccinated and are checking people for proof of vaccinations in order to attend Sunday worship services. While I understand that even Christians and Christian leaders are doing their best to navigate these challenging waters, the decision of some congregations to turn people away from corporate worship, Christian community, and, perhaps most importantly, the hearing of the good news of Jesus on the basis of vaccination status is a deeply troubling one. If we consider how for the better part of two years we’ve complied with mandates involving masks and social distancing, and have done so without even wondering about the vaccination status of others, wouldn’t we rather continue following those guidelines than exclude someone–anyone–from attending a church service?

One of my biggest concerns is this: When it comes to vaccine mandates, what’s going to happen in towns, cities, countries, workplaces, churches, and in families around the world between those who see things profoundly differently? You don’t have to look very long to find hateful, even aggressive language being used of those who are unvaccinated. Once COVID moves from being a pandemic to endemic, what will the vaxxed and unvaxxed do with one another? Will those who were vaccinated resent the unvaccinated? I suspect the more heavy-handed the measures, the more severe the consequences will be for the population in question. I wonder if governing authorities and health officials are even asking such questions. COVID is not the only pandemic afflicting our globe at the moment.

Throughout this post there are links to several articles and videos. But one of the videos I watched recently is actually below. It is an interview with a man named Paul Kingsnorth. I thought it worth placing right here in the post itself. It’s an incredibly thoughtful conversation that probes more deeply than pretty anything you’ll get in the news. One of the fascinating aspects of the converation are the philosophical and spiritual themes that are drawn from our response to the pandemic. For instance, they discuss the “apocalyptic” nature of the pandemic, but probably not in the way most would expect. They actually use the word “apocalyptic” in the theologically correct way! And they talk about how western civilzation no longer has a story or narrative which everyone shares and how this connects to the extreme polarization we see in our world. And agree or not with the analysis, I think you’ll at least find it thought provoking. People who think differently than what we see and hear in mainstream media are often worth giving a listen.

Hear me: I understand full well what is happening around the world with respect to COVID. I have no desire to underplay the seriousness of the pandemic or the heavy grief of the lives lost. I am not an “anti-vaxxer” or prone to fall for conspiracy theories. I don’t tend to jump to conclusions or make rash judgements. I am, I think, a measured thinker, willing to consider different points of view. But I confess that I am less than trusting of governing authorities, mainstream media, and large pharmaceutical corporations (who are pulling in billions of dollars through these vaccines but have almost zero accountability). And I only wonder if some of the measures we have taken to save ourselves from the virus will not only not accomplish that end like we’re told they will but will end up costing us in ways many have yet to realize and appreciate. What price are we willing to pay? And what lies beneath our willingness to pay it?

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