Vaccine Mandates, Abortion, and the Cognitive Dissonance of Bodily Autonomy

Cognitive Dissonance: A term from psychology referring to the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

He had very few doubts, and when the facts contradicted his views on life, he shut his eyes in disapproval.

German-Swiss poet Herman Hesse (1877-1962)

We have currently have national political leaders–Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Joe Biden–who believe in unrestricted abortion rights and vaccine mandates. Herein lies a quandary. You see, pro-choice political leaders advocating for mandatory vaccinations have a problem they will never admit to having–or perhaps be unable to realize even exists.

The problem is that of bodily autonomy. The idea of bodily autonomy is that each individual person has the freedom to choose what they will or will not allow done to their own individual body. No one can impose upon an individual a procedure or act upon a person in a way that violates that person’s choices with respect to their own physical body. And these two issues–vaccine mandates and abortion–connect because they both relate to the notion of bodily autonomy.

For example, the other day President Biden announced that all private businesses in the US with more than 100 employees must require proof of vaccinations (or weekly COVID tests) of those same employees (or risk significant financial penalties). The very same day VP Kamala Harris made remarks defending abortion (no doubt in light of the recent pro-life law passed in Texas) as a woman’s right to do what she wants (or does not want) to do with her body.

For many who advocate for a woman’s right to have an abortion, the argument of bodily autonomy remains fundamental. In other words, a woman ought to have access to abortion services (regardless of how far along a given pregnancy may be) because she can do what she chooses to do with her own body. To restrict abortion access, even in the earliest weeks of fetal development, is to violate a woman’s bodily autonomy. Such autonomy is sacrosanct.

Indeed, the pro-choice position is seen as the height of our culture’s rhetoric of individual bodily autonomy and personal freedom. It has taken on an almost mythological status. Whereas in the Clinton-era Democratic party, the view was that abortion ought to be “safe, legal, and rare” (there were those on the left who were more moderate and open to having restrictions based on the stage of fetal development), now the word “rare” is not only never used, but now abortion is very nearly celebrated as an intrinsic good.

So here’s the problem. For those who advocate for legal abortion on the basis of bodily autonomy, does not the principle of bodily autonomy extend to COVID vaccines? Do people not have the freedom to decide whether or not they will inject a substance into their bodies? Moreover, is it ethical for a government to impose restrictions or put mandates in place that punish or shame people for upholding the principle of bodily autonomy, a principle that most political leaders otherwise advocate for vigorously (especially in the case of abortion rights)?

Now, hear me clearly: I am not interested here in debating the efficacy of COVID vaccines or to make a case one way or the other about whether people should get vaccinations. I am not even arguing for a particular position regarding vaccine mandates. I simply want to point out the disconnect that so many political leaders either seem oblivious to or choose to ignore. How can someone say “your body, your choice” on the one hand but not on the other–that is, push for or support legal requirements that (in their view) respect bodily autonomy when it comes to abortion but then push for legal requirements that violate bodily autonomy when it comes to COVID vaccines? Why don’t they see the inconsistency?

Complicating this ethical quagmire is the fact that with respect to abortion, the whole “my body, my choice” argument is so out of date as to be laughable. Our present scientific understanding of fetal development makes absolutely clear to anyone willing to be intellectually honest that any child in any woman’s womb is not simply a part of that woman’s body. A child in utero is an individual human being, and has a body that is distinct from, even if dependent upon, that of its mother. Everything we know about human biology verifies this. Of course, the principle of bodily autonomy has never really applied to abortion, but those who continue to use such language in defense of unrestricted abortion rights are not doing what they would otherwise have the vaccine-hesitant do: that is, follow the science (Ah, the mantra of our age!). Those who argue for the pro-choice position because of the principle of bodily autonomy do so with no basis in scientific fact. On the other hand, those who argue that government leaders have no authority to mandate COVID vaccines (especially to maintain one’s livelihood and provide for themselves and their families) can easily stand on the ground that this principle provides.

If the argument for vaccine mandates is that they are needed in order to protect other people from harm, the only way for anyone to also support abortion is to advocate for the fatal harm of the unborn child. Indeed, if we were to talk about the need for vaccine mandates as necessary for protecting the most vulnerable, truly there is no one more vulnerable than an unborn child. Anyone who argues that vaccine mandates ought to be put in place should also be among those who advocate most vocally for the protection of unborn children. Put simply, to those who advocate for the mandates and for abortion rights: you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

What I really find striking about all of this, therefore, is the cognitive dissonance that must (or should) exist for those who advocate for both abortion rights and vaccine mandates. Either we can choose to do what we want with our bodies without legal ramifications or not. Which is it? You can’t have both, not if you’re actually thinking it through carefully. Those who try to have both are either disingenuous or delusional. I don’t know how else to put it. Because when I hear Prime Minister Trudeau belittle another party leader for not requiring (actually, he used the word “forcing”) his candidates to get vaccinated (to have a needle poked into their bodies) and also say that we need to protect a woman’s right to choose (to kill another human being who has their own body), my head spins. I feel the cognitive dissonance. Why doesn’t he?

The conversation–not to mention the partisan arguments and the protests–surrounding vaccine mandates are front and center at the moment. However, underlying this conversation is a whole series of deeper questions that are complicated but fundamental. They involve what it means to be human, what it means that we have rights and freedoms as individuals, what authority do we want (and therefore allow) our government to exercise in our lives, and what our responsibilities, duties, and obligations are to one another. In an age of tweets and sound-bites, most of this gets lost in the media, as politicians and pundits alike banter back and forth. There is virtually no public forum where conversations of sufficient depth take place with respect to such fundamental concerns. As a consequence, trust in public institutions is understandably at a low point. These are challenging times. There are no easy answers that will satisfy everyone. But I certainly wish those who are our political leaders would at least show more signs of recognizing, if not the cognitive dissonance I’ve pointed out, then the genuine concerns those with whom they disagree have about these important questions.

Life Above (and Below) the Surface

Not too very long ago, during our second COVID lockdown, I ran into someone from my church in the grocery store. He’s been a part of our church most of his life, much longer than my just over 7 years as pastor. We chatted for a couple of minutes about COVID restrictions and then went our separate shopping ways.

Afterwards, I was struck by how ephemeral so many of our human interactions are. Of course, I get that some of this is unavoidable. But this particular experience left me feeling like our lives actually allow very little space for more meaningful conversations.

So often the words we exchange represent only the tip of the iceberg of our lives. Our hopes, our struggles, what we believe, and how we’re getting on in the world, unaddressed. Or at least unacknowledged. Perhaps even by us. Because of the unreasonably fast pace of life, many have become practical introverts, leaving large swaths of who they are out of view.

It’s almost like we don’t have the permission or maybe even the vocabulary to talk about the most important things. Our lives have been stripped of the transcendent, and we’re often without a connection to something (Someone?) larger than ourselves through which (Whom?) all the disparate aspects of life find their coherence.

We content, or maybe even resign ourselves, to living disenchanted lives, cobbling purpose and meaning together out of a hodge-podge of sources. Our lives lack a narrative arc that gives the varied experiences a sense of wholeness. Life—our lives—get reduced to their component parts. Everything gets compartmentalized; nothing hangs together.

Even in church, there is often a real lack of genuine spiritual conversation. The very space where people should have the opportunity to make deeper connections, to ask questions and to share their thoughts about meaning and how matters of faith intersect with everyday life, becomes another experience of rushing past the personal and skimming along the surface.

Where is the place or the time to articulate in community, in conversation, those nagging feelings of uncertainty, or the longing for a more meaningful experience of God? Where is there space and time to talk about the personal frustrations about our lives and how God is (or doesn’t seem to be) involved?

Are we content with leaving matters of such profound personal significance on the margins of our everyday lives? Or if that itself is a frustration, what do we do about it?

Am I alone in wanting space and time and freedom for leisurely conversation with others about stuff that deeply matters? Do you have a desire to spend unscheduled time with friends over coffee, wine, or iced water just to be you—in all of your brokenness and longing?

Too much of life is lived on the surface. There is more to each of us—and the part of the world we inhabit—than meets the eye. There is a great deal below the surface. Wouldn’t it be nice if more of our conversations, our time with fellow human beings—Christian or otherwise—reflected this?

Living as Christians in a Crazy World

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world? By what you see on Facebook, in your newsfeed, on TV and social media?

I think about Afghanistan.

I think about Haiti.

I think about our Canadian Federal election and politics in general.

I think about the situation with COVID and the way it’s been politicized.

I think about how so many people are so polarized and divided and how it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have sane, thoughtful conversations.

I think about how social media like Facebook, despite its limited value, has many people attached to their phones and computers and the way in which this connects to the rise of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among young people.

It can all be too much at times.

How do we as Christians process all that we’re seeing and experiencing in the news and on Facebook and all around us?

I want to suggest that whatever else is going on around us, there are three things we need to remember while as Christians we go about living in this crazy world.

First, every human being is made in the image of God, and therefore has an intrinsic worth and dignity.

Consider Genesis 1:26—27: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.

We as human beings were created and are called to make something of and to steward well the world God has given to us.  Every human is also loved by God, even those hated by us. No one is beyond hope or redemption while alive in this world.

Think of someone like former US president Trump. His very name is an immediate lightning rod for the most extreme emotions and opinions. But you know what the most basic fact about Trump is? He is infinitely loved by the God who made him and seeks to bring him into eternity.

Here’s the thing: each one of us is broken and sinful. The image of God in us has been tarnished and cracked. Sin has profoundly weakened our capacity for love and compassion. But being Christians means being conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). Apart from Christ, no one can be who God fully intends and desires them to be. God seeks to restore his image in us through Jesus. Including those we can so easily decry and mock and harbour ill feelings about;

How do we think about and talk to and treat those with whom we disagree? Do we treat them as people made in the image of God? Our desire ought to be to become more and more like Jesus. And that those we know who do not know and love him would have their hearts changed.

Second, God is sovereign over all human affairs whether we see him at work or not.

In Colossians 1:16—17 it says: For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And in Job 42:2 we read: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

Our world is full of turmoil and violence and uncertainty. All we have to do is mention the names Haiti and Afghanistan as current examples to demonstrate this. So we can wonder: where is God in all of this?

But just because we can’t see God at work doesn’t mean he isn’t. And even if we can’t imagine the reasons God may have for allowing the sin and suffering of the world, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his reasons. Though it likely means our finite human minds would not be able to comprehend them.

And because God is sovereign, we should also be careful about depending too much on politics, politicians, or political parties.

Like it says in Psalm 2: Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the Lord and his Anointed One: “Let’s tear off their chains and throw their ropes off of us.” The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them.

But not only is there the world around us; there’s also the world within each of us. God’s sovereign extends to our own personal circumstances too. Romans 8:28—29: We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

This verse from Paul is often misunderstood and misapplied. What people often hear him saying is that God will use the bad stuff to bring about the good stuff. In this way, we define what is good. But when Paul talks about the good of those who love God, he doesn’t mean good on our terms. The good to which he refers is being conformed into the image of Jesus. And being conformed into the image of Jesus by necessity involves suffering and hardship. It is the pattern of life Jesus laid down for us.

Speaking of Jesus, God’s sovereignty also means looking ahead to the glorious return of Jesus. 1 Timothy 6:15—16 says: God will bring this about in his own time. He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see, to him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

The way things are is not the way they will always be. There will be a new heavens and earth. There will be both cosmic and personal resurrection. God in his sovereignty promises and guarantees this.

Third, our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus as Lord, not to anyone or anything else in this world.

In Colossians 2:6—7 the apostle Paul says: So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in him, being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.

Christians often are excited and ready to think of Jesus as Savior. But to think of him as Lord? That’s another matter. This means he is our authority. We seek to live according to his will, and not our comfort or desires. This ought to set us apart. When tempted by Satan in the wilderness to worship him in return for all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus said “It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” These words are ones we need to take to heart too.

People are built to worship. Everyone worships. But not everyone worships the Lord Jesus. People can worship money, pleasure, comfort, career, success, sex, popularity, family, and all kinds of things. These days, many seem to worship or to give their ultimate loyalty to politics. We should never be entirely comfortable with any of the leaders, institutions, systems, or ways of this world. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to think we have to give our loyalty to anyone but Jesus or that giving our loyalty to this or that political party is the only way of being loyal to Jesus.

This means we are called not only to believe in Jesus, but to reflect his character to those around us. This means we have to get to know Jesus and not just make assumptions about him. Who is this Jesus? How does he relate to the people he encounters? How does he live out the will of the Father? What do we learn about how to follow Jesus by watching Jesus? This means we will seek and pray for the coming of the kingdom in our everyday lives, for God’s will to be done in simple, everyday ways.

Now, here are a few simple ways to apply some of these thoughts.

First, fast from technology and social media for a morning, an evening, a day, or a weekend. Take a break from the news and Facebook. Use the time you would have wasted online to read the Bible, go for a quiet walk, write a letter to someone you miss, or start a prayer journal. Get rid of external distractions. Become more comfortable with boredom.

Second, pray for people who annoy you, with whom you disagree, or who have disappointed you. Pray a silent prayer for the waitress who brings you food, the cashier who rings your items through the checkout, or the telemarketer who calls you at supper trying to sell you something. Ask God to help you see them as people made in his image, that he loves, that he wants to see come to his Son, our Lord, Jesus. 

Third, maybe invite someone out for coffee or over for lunch. Show hospitality. Seek to bless others not only with kind deeds but with gracious, enjoyable conversation. Build relationships. Get out of your comfort zone. Pay attention to the people around you–perhaps you might notice someone who needs a friend.

We live in an increasingly crazy world. We can find ourselves overwhelmed. We have as much access to news across the globe as we do to news in our own community. And we don’t always know how to discern what to give our attention to. But maybe we don’t always need to know what’s happening in other parts of the world. Maybe sometimes it’s ok to live for Jesus right where we are, to learn to be present with the people who we live with, who we encounter day after day.

We wonder sometimes if we can really make a difference, if our lives can have a meaningful impact on others. I’ve been a pastor for nearly 20 years and I still wonder this! But if you’re a follower of Jesus, your life is a holy life. God can and does use you right where you are. You don’t need to be someone else. You don’t need to be somewhere else. I heard someone say years ago: “Bloom where you’re planted.” Live as a follower of Jesus right where you are. Even with everything else that’s going on around us, maybe that’s something of what it means–or even mostly what it means–to live as a Christian in this crazy world.

Peace in Our World?

For the last two weeks the images coming out of Afghanistan have been awful. Whatever your political persuasion, the sight of a mother handing her child to US soldiers over a wall for the sake of that child’s safety is heartbreaking. The death of 13 US soldiers and dozens of Afghans as the result of a suicide bomber was devastating. Any peace that may have existed in that country on account of the presence of the US and its allies has evaporated. The people of Afghanistan and those who have yet been unable to get out safely need to be in our prayers.

Peace is precious but elusive in our world. Nations can be torn from within and without. This is one of the reasons we pray, as Jesus taught us, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Or as it says in Revelation 22:20: Come, Lord Jesus. Because to whatever extent God’s kingdom and will are becoming a present reality, ultimately they point us to the day Christ will return “to judge the living and the dead.” Only when Jesus comes again will the kingdom of God arrive in its glorious, peace-filled fullness. Only Jesus the Prince of Peace can secure lasting peace.

Living in the meantime always means living in the tension between “the now and the not yet.” We live in between the times, between the first and second coming of our Lord Jesus. While we look forward with hope to a future that will be conflict and violence free, human history will continue to be riddled with gunfire and soaked in blood. There is a Cain for every Abel. No amount of diplomacy, uneasy ceasefires, and political maneuvering will change this.

We need God himself to usher in his peace.

When I was growing up as a Roman Catholic, each Mass included the passing of the peace. We would turn to those around us and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” The other person would respond by saying “And also with you.” In most Protestant churches we have turned this into a time of shaking hands and greeting one another. But they are not the same thing. To pass the peace is to declare and share the source of genuine peace. Peace comes from outside of us. The passing of the peace is a prayer and a perspective.

In the Bible, Jerusalem is the city of God. It is both historical and symbolic. Psalm 122:6–9 says this: Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure; may there be peace within your walls, security within your fortresses.” Because of my brothers and friends, I will say, “May peace be in you.” Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will pursue your prosperity.

One of the interesting shifts we see from the Old Testament to the New Testament is that all of the language of sacred buildings–say, the Temple or house of the Lord–gets transposed and refers to the actual people of God. For example, in 1 Peter 2:5, the community of faith is being built into a spiritual house. So perhaps we can think of Psalm 122:6–9 in a similar way. If so, then the prayer of the psalmist is that God’s people would be filled to overflowing with peace. Those who gather together as the church are to become outposts of peace in a conflict-filled world. When in the midst of a fellowship of believers, those whose lives have been rent asunder by violence and hate ought to find security. May peace be in you.

On the eve before his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples: Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your heart be troubled or fearful. The peace Jesus gives to us now isn’t the empty promise or futile effort of a cynical politician. Nor does it involve the present elimination of all strife, whether between individuals or nations. Instead, it is the peace we can have in knowing that one day his kingdom will come and that the hostility of our world will come to an end. It is the peace the prophet Isaiah spoke about so beautifully. Speaking of the nations, the prophet says:

They will beat their swords into plows
and their spears into pruning knives.
Nation will not take up the sword against nation,
and they will never again train for war.

Isaiah 2:4

Such a vision almost seems impossible to believe or too good to be true. And were we to count on ourselves to bring about such a reality, we’d be right to think of such a state of affairs as beyond our grasp. Thankfully, however, not only is God able to accomplish this, he will indeed do so. That is his promise. That is the trajectory of biblical revelation. In the meantime, we can have peace now by trusting in the one who will eventually–in his timing and power–usher in the fullness of peace we so desperately want our world to know.

Sleep Apnea and the God Who Doesn’t Slumber

I have something called sleep apnea. So each night when I go to bed, I have to use something called a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device. I’ve used such a machine for years. But a few years back, when the device I had was not working properly, I really noticed the difference. During the day I was almost always groggy. I would fall asleep while reading or working at the computer. And forget driving, because there was a good chance I would be far too drowsy to drive safely. No one could rely on me to be alert.

Thankfully, God is not like this. In Psalm 121:3, it says that the Protector of Israel does not slumber or sleep. So God does not get tired. Instead, he is always present, always alert, and always available to help us. He doesn’t nod off halfway through our prayers.

Even with my CPAP machine, I can still get tired. At the end of a busy day, I can feel drained of emotional and physical energy. This is even true of a normal day. Take yesterday. At bedtime I felt really worn out. I wondered aloud to my wife about why I would feel this way when it hadn’t been an especially crazy day. Her response? “Well, you have been awake all day.” We don’t have to have been pushing ourselves all day to be tired at bedtime. Being awake all day, apparently, is enough to reach that point.

You and I have limits. We can’t be or do anything we want in the time we have. Each of us has only so much energy, physical, emotional, relational, etc. Some of us more, some of us less. We all know what it’s like when we’ve expended our available energy. For my part, I am likely to get more irritable and impatient. My mind and body usually let me know when it’s time to get some rest, even though I am not always wise enough to listen.

It’s instructive to ponder the fact that in the Jewish tradition days are measured from evening to evening, not morning to morning. Which means that just as the day begins, people are getting ready to settle down for the night and get some rest. On the Sabbath, faithful Jews acknowledge their limits by taking an entire 24 hour period to rest, and to recognize that the world does not revolve around them. When they stop, the world keeps going. Sabbath is an act of faith that God has things well in hand. Because God does not slumber or sleep.

For me, having sleep apnea is a reminder of my limits. Such limits are not bad. Rather, they point me to the One who is without limit. Because of my need to get a decent night’s sleep, I am reminded of the importance of trusting God with my life and all of my worries and problems. While I am sleeping, there’s nothing I can do about whatever difficult or challenging circumstances are a part of my life. Since God doesn’t slumber or grow weary, I am invited to make the psalmist’s words my own when he says in Psalm 4:8: In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.