Things COVID Has Shown Christians Can Take for Granted

Our church buildings. We complain about them and cling to them, sometimes in equal measure. But at least they’re a place to meet together.

Church potlucks. C’mon, you know you miss them! Where else can you find finger sandwiches, gelatin-based desserts, and casseroles at the same meal?

Congregational singing. A recent development, but very noticeable. I miss hearing a group of not altogether in tune with another people belting out hymns.

The human face. More specifically, smiles. When was the last time you saw the lower half of most peoples’ faces?

Human touch. Especially hugs. Waving or the patented COVID elbow bump simply aren’t the same.

Church business meetings. How many Baptists and others have experienced quorum and voting and making motions withdrawal?

The internet. WiFi, digital technology, and Zoom (we all should have invested in Zoom!) have turned obscure pastors into YouTube sensations!

Embodied presence. Just being around more loved ones, of course: family, friends, neighbours, and fellow believers. Not having to be suspicious or anxious about human contact. Not that it takes COVID to be this way, but the pandemic has definitely made it worse.

What about you? What do you think our churches have taken for granted? What have you taken for granted? Add a comment and let me know!

May We Pray

May we pray that brothers and sisters in Christ—and church leaders especially—would give grace to one another even in the midst of our differences as we face these challenging times.

May we pray that our churches would become sanctuaries for the fearful, the lonely, the otherwise unaccepted, the spiritually undecided and curious, the hurting, and everyone needing the hope of the good news of Jesus.

May we pray that our pastors would find the encouragement, patience, friendship, and wisdom they require while providing care to their congregations and communities.

May we pray that our neighbours would turn to Christ as the one source of peace and hope in this tumultuous season.

May we pray that the people of God would be free to follow their consciences and obey the dictates of their faith while also respecting governing authorities.

May we pray that our governing authorities and political leaders would have the discernment and willingness to balance the various concerns of their constituents while making decisions surrounding COVID.

May we pray that our gracious Lord and God would see fit to hasten the end of the pandemic, the restrictions we have to follow, bring healing to people and relationships that have suffered as a result, and do so in a way that brings glory to his holy and wonderful name.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen and amen.

Singing in Church: A Brief Follow-Up

Since posting my thoughts about the restriction on group and congregational singing in our province due to COVID I have received some interesting and helpful feedback. So I thought I’d take a moment to provide some brief clarification.

First, I agree completely that we are called to respect our governing authorities. When I consider our provincial authorities–those who have been tasked with providing leadership during the pandemic–they have had a most difficult and unenviable job. I believe they are doing their utmost based on their understanding of the situation and what is required to see us through it. Moreover, I think that our chief medical officer ought to be rewarded with ample vacation time as soon as possible.

Second, I think that church communities ought to abide by the COVID guidelines set out by our health authorities. This means voluntarily restricting ourselves and doing our utmost to respect the government, love our neighbours, and be faithful followers of Jesus. Of course, the difficulty arrives when some see these priorities as coming into conflict with one another. For example, in our province we are not yet being required to ask for proof of vaccination in order to attend Sunday worship. I hope this does not happen. I think it would be unnecessarily divisive and profoundly unhelpful.

All I intended to say in the original post is that I don’t see the government as having authority to place a restriction on whether a congregation can sing as a group. I am aware not everyone will agree, including other Christians. Saying this is not suggesting a course of action but rather a posture to adopt. Saying this is not to question the motives of specific government authorities but rather to invite conversation on a more fundamental principle.

My question, however, is this: with respect to restrictions the government can place on a community of faith, what is the limiting principle? Is it possible for a government to try and put unreasonable and illegitimate restrictions in place on churches, even in a time of COVID? How would we recognize that if it happens? I think being responsible citizens includes asking these and other similar questions. We don’t ask such questions in order to impugn the motives of our governing authorities but to keep them accountable. I also think the pandemic of the last two years has brought such questions to the fore in our culture in a way they haven’t been for a long, long time. I think, therefore, that while we ought to give our provincial governing authorities the benefit of the doubt, we should still be aware that these questions are there and are worth asking, as people of faith and as citizens of a democratic society.

Singing in Church

So today was the second consecutive Sunday our church agreed to abide by the restriction on group or congregational singing because of COVID. It’s a new guideline put in place by our provincial government on account of the rise of COVID cases in our province due to the Omicron variant.

After the service, one of my 12 year old sons asked me, “Are we allowed to talk to each other in church?” When I told him we could, he asked a follow up question, “Then how come we can’t sing?” He couldn’t see the logic.

I confess I’m finding it hard to see the logic too.

And while it’s always possible to make adjustments to a worship service, the last two weeks of no group singing have simply felt bizarre.

Having me “lead” worship by singing the first verse of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” solo certainly isn’t the most inspiring experience! Given we don’t know how long this restriction on singing will be in place, we will have use some liturgical creativity!

But then there’s the matter of the restriction itself. And the most troubling aspect of this particular restriction is the wording. It says singing as a congregation is “not permitted.” Did you read that? Not permitted. The government has taken it upon itself to tell churches that when they gather they cannot sing together as a congregation.

They are not asking us to refrain from singing.

They are not strongly recommending that we refrain from singing.

No, they are saying we are not permitted to sing.

Not permitted? Really?

It’s this particular wording to which I take great exception.

Let me be blunt: the government has absolutely no jurisdiction or authority over whether or not a congregation sings as a congregation.

I get that our province is still in a “state of emergency.” I get what’s going on when it comes to COVID. I get that there’s a lot of fear. I get that government and health authorities have an enormous responsibility.

But they can’t order us not to sing.

A church can consent to abide by this guideline. A church can voluntarily opt not to sing as a congregation. But the government altogether lacks the legitimate authority to say group singing is “not permitted.”

Please notice carefully what I am saying and what I am not saying. I’m not saying churches should ignore this restriction. I’m not saying we shouldn’t abide by it voluntarily. My point is the issue of authority, and when it comes to this specific question, the government has none.

In fact, if for some currently unfathomable reason the government were to enshrine this restriction into law, it would be an altogether illegitimate law.

Chances are the language of “not permitted” is there to stress what they believe is the adequate seriousness with which they want us to take the situation. Fair enough. But it’s also careless, unthoughtful language. It stretches the boundaries of how the state can encroach upon religious communities. If it doesn’t violate the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms, it definitely flirts with the edges of doing so. While listing freedom of religion and conscience as one of the fundamental freedoms, our Charter doesn’t elucidate this any further. Presumably because to spell out what this freedom can look like in practice is by definition to reduce it to what the state “permits.” But of course no government can give us any fundamental rights; they can only acknowledge them and protect them. Such freedoms pre-exist the state.

Now here’s the thing, most Canadians—certainly most Atlantic Canadians—are congenial, go along to get along people. This is true of most church goers. We want to do what’s right. We, of course, want to abide by the law. We want to have a positive and good relationship with governing authorities. And many are no doubt much more naturally trusting of government than I tend to be.

Add to this the concern churches have over being fined for not following guidelines. Things can become complicated. Even a larger church isn’t necessarily in the financial position to deal with such penalties. So when a lot of churches are significantly smaller, the potential burden of a substantial fine provides incentive. Out of fear, to be sure, but incentive all the same. Think what you will about this government tactic, but it seems effective in at least the pragmatic sense.

Of course, I’m still a local pastor. My congregation is a small one. The people in my church are like any church people anywhere. They want to get through this. They want to make wise decisions. And in all of this, they want to live out their trust in God in faithful, everyday ways. My calling in part is to help them do this. Even if this means figuring out what it means to gather for worship when our government asks us not to sing as a congregation.

That said, I will say this. Singing is one of the primary means—one of the fundamental spiritual practices—by which the body of Christ expresses its hope, its longing, its faith, and its trust in the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Indeed, Scripture commands us to sing. A quick perusal of the Psalms makes this clear enough. Lifting our voices and giving our faith a melody is not an option. Because it’s not about mere music. No, there is something that happens in music—when people of faith, hope, and love open their lips in praise, thanksgiving, and even lament. God inhabits the praises of his people. Indeed, we’re not called to make a pleasant noise but a joyful one (good thing, given my attempt to hit the high notes in a couple of hymns this morning!). And we all know how uplifting and encouraging sacred music can be, even if we’re not the best singers or most able musicians. Music penetrates our souls in ways spoken words cannot always manage.

Consider these words of the apostle Paul:

Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

Colossians 3:16

Implied by Paul’s words is this mysterious power of music to stir our hearts while reminding us of the truths of our faith.

So let’s be honest. We need worship songs and hymns. They may not be the lifeblood of congregational worship, but often they serve as the veins.

There’s a reason God says, “Sing.”

So, yes, we can in this time of COVID voluntarily refrain from singing as congregations for what is hopefully a short season. We can pivot in order to include the blessed power of music in other ways. We can respect what our health authorities are asking of us. But no government should be under the illusion that they can order us one way or the other. Nor should any church or pastor or Christian believe they can.

Experiencing Hope

This a slightly revised version of my first Advent sermon that I shared on Sunday, November 28. In it I quote a Rev. Cheryl Ann Beals. She is a pastor and spiritual director who works for our family of Baptist churches and was a part of the team who produced am Advent resource called “Restore Brightness.” You can find that resource here.

The last two years have been ones of great difficulty: people have experienced and continue to experience fear, grief, anger, and uncertainty. We continue to experience these things.  

What is our world hoping for but for the end of the COVID pandemic? People are hoping for a return to life “as normal.” And I think we’re right to ask whether this is a hope we can expect to see fulfilled.  

What are you hoping for? And, more importantly, what gives you hope? What should we be hoping for? What does it mean to be a people of hope?

Think of the prophecy of Zechariah from Luke 1. Zechariah was a priest. As a first century Jew, he had spent his whole life waiting for—hoping for—God’s promised Messiah.

And by the time we get to Zechariah, the people of Israel had been waiting for a long time for God to say or do something: to act on their behalf, to bring deliverance, to fulfill their hopes. Between the end of the OT period and the coming of Jesus there were what many call 400 years of silence.

Zechariah describes God’s people who had to endure this long stretch of time as those who live in darkness and the shadow of death. Similarly, in Isaiah 9:2 the people of Israel are described as people walking in darkness.

The prophet Isaiah and Zechariah the priest didn’t hide from the darkness or pretend it wasn’t real. They were honest about it. They stated it plainly. The same ought to be true of us. Let’s put it this way: Experiencing hope means acknowledging our darkness.

Sometimes churches can give the impression that difficult questions and feelings of pain and struggle aren’t welcome on Sunday morning or at prayer meeting. Sometimes our church culture is a “have-to-have-answers-for-every-struggle” culture. We want to leap to fixing things, to helping people feel better without really acknowledging the trouble they’re experiencing. Worse, sometimes we downplay the darkness. We make it about not having enough faith. And we leave people in their pain, now with guilt added on top of it.

Scripture and the whole story of Israel, Jesus, and the early church invite us to acknowledge and to be honest about the darkness. Of course, for the people of Israel in Zechariah’s day, the darkness was the fact that God had been seemingly absent or at least silent for 4 centuries. The darkness they were going through had everything to do with their relationship with God. Where was he? When was he going to do something about their situation?

We too can feel the weight of these questions. We can feel their weight because of what’s going on in the world around us. We can also feel their weight because of what’s going on in the world inside of us.

Darkness can be external and internal. We can experience darkness on account of circumstances or we can go through the darkness of depression and that colours how we experience everything around us.

The main point here is that experiencing hope means acknowledging our darkness. Naming it. Confessing it. Speaking it. Praying it. Getting it out. We see psalmists, for example, doing exactly this.

Psalm 13 is one psalm of lament. Part of that Psalm goes like this:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long will I store up anxious concerns within me,

agony in my mind every day?

Another translation renders it this way:

I’m hurting, Lord—will you forget me forever?

How much longer, Lord?

Will you look the other way when I’m in need?

How much longer must I cling to this constant grief?

I’ve endured this shaking of my soul.

Do you hear how the psalmist is praying? Do you hear the honesty in his voice? Are we able to pray like this? Are we willing to pray like this when the situation calls for it? Can we be that honest before God?

I think we struggle with this idea. I think often we were taught to be nice, even in our prayers. Prayers in the Bible aren’t always neat and nice; instead, they’re often messy and vulnerable. I think there’s plenty of darkness—plenty of difficult things—both out there and in our hearts to pray about, to come to God about, to cry out about.

Here’s the thing: if we aren’t honest about the darkness, then we won’t see our need for light. And we won’t turn to the one who can shine light into our darkness.  

Rev. Cheryl Ann Beals tells about how last October 5 people in her family died in 9 days. She talks about feeling “like a zombie, lost and numb.” She found herself, like the people described by Isaiah and Zechariah, walking in darkness. But she was honest before God about all of it. She didn’t avoid it; she faced it directly. She puts it this way:

As I sat in darkness, internally and externally, crying out to God, waiting in silence for God to come to me. As I saw my need and opened myself to God’s presence, stripped away my pretense, and allowed the Holy Spirit to come close and minister to my soul. The Light of God’s presence broke through! God’s word came to me: ‘Don’t be afraid of the darkness. I’m here.’ The eyes of my heart began to perceive more of the light of God’s presence . . . As one who sat in darkness, I can testify to the reality and power of the Light—Jesus’ presence and power—when we seek him in the midst of our darkness and the world’s darkness. My life has been transformed by my experience of God’s light in my darkness.

Only when she was honest about her darkness did she begin to experience the light of hope in Jesus. Finding ourselves in a place where we realize how desperate we are for God, how profoundly we need him, is where we can also begin to experience him as our hope.

Both Isaiah and Zechariah both acknowledge the darkness but then point to light, to hope, to the power of the presence of God when we trust him in the darkness. Think of Zechariah’s words again. He doesn’t wallow in the dark. His prayer points us to the light: Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Isaiah does the same: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness. The psalmist of Psalm (Psalm 13) puts it in a more personal way: Consider me and answer, Lord my God. Restore brightness to my eyes. In other words: Experiencing hope means trusting that Jesus is the light that shines in our darkness.

Dawn is coming. For Isaiah and Zechariah, it was all about the coming of God’s Messiah, the Chosen One who would deliver God’s people and bring salvation—that was their hope and what made it possible to endure the darkness.

And Jesus the Messiah did come. Dawn arrived. But not everyone saw Jesus for who he was. Not everyone sees Jesus for who he is even now. Sometimes God shines his light into our darkness in ways we don’t expect.

Having hope in Jesus as the light that shines in the darkness means at least a couple of things. First, just as we celebrate the first advent or coming of Jesus at Christmas, we also await the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. This is what some have called our blessed hope. It is our ultimate hope, when God will finally put an end to the darkness and his light will be all in all.

But Jesus is also our light now. While our ultimate hope is far off (though we don’t know how far off!), we can experience in our lives now—no matter how dark it gets—flickers of Jesus’ light. Our hope in Jesus means that we can experience the power of his presence even in our lives today. Our hope is not only that one day he will arrive to expel all of the darkness but that he can meet us and be with us in our darkness here and now.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the light [which] shines in the darkness. And then we’re told the darkness did not overcome it. No matter how deep the darkness is, it cannot overcome or extinguish the light of Jesus.

To quote Cheryl Ann Beals one more time: “Remembering that the light of Christ came in the darkness of night gives us hope that God can still pour light into our hearts and shine light into our lives. No matter how dark it may be, no matter where the darkness comes from, God is the light who enlightens everyone, and has come to take up residence in the lives of those who look to Christ.”

Where do you need Jesus right now? How do you need to experience his presence in your life? What do you want him to do for you? Are you looking to him with honesty about the darkness in the world and the darkness in your own life?

Because: Experiencing hope means acknowledging our darkness. And, moreover, experiencing hope means trusting that Jesus is the light that shines in our darkness. This is what it means to be people of hope.

So the question is: are we going to be people of hope or not? Are we going to respond to the darkness around us and inside of us like people who don’t share our hope in Christ? Or will we trust Christ to shine his light into our darkness? Christ is who gives us hope. He is our hope. Whatever is going on the world, whether COVID or something else, and whatever is going on inside of us, whether fear or uncertainty, only Jesus can truly give us hope. Only Jesus can shine light into the darkness.

In other words: to know and experience Jesus is to have hope. If we want to have real hope, genuine hope, hope that enables us to persevere and be resilient no matter what the circumstances are, we need to turn to Christ. Because Jesus is the hope of the world.

I began by asking the following questions: What are you hoping for? What gives you hope? What should we be hoping for? If Christ is our hope, then our answers to these questions should be different—surely, in part at least—than the answers of our neighbours. If Christ is our hope—the light in our darkness—then surely we should be people of hope, people who increasingly shine. If Christ is our hope, then surely we will be and continue to become people who, while sometimes finding ourselves in darkness, are never overcome by it. So may Jesus be our hope and light no matter how dark it gets.

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?

Churches, Vaccine Mandates, and How to Frame Our Thinking

As various government authorities impose vaccine mandates on sections of our population and on different workforces, what are Christians to think? I personally know churches that require proof of vaccination to attend Sunday morning worship services and others that utterly refuse to do so. There are people who are not part of any faith community who cannot understand why all churches don’t check for everyone’s vaccination status at their doors. Without getting into the weeds of the mandates, their legitimacy or illegitimacy, I want instead to share an article that perhaps gives some perspective on how to frame any discussion we have on such matters. It’s written by Wyatt Graham and called “Do not Be Conformed to Virus Culture.”

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 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.

John MacArthur and Andy Stanley: Two Pastors on COVID Restrictions

I recently listened to an episode of the Q Ideas podcast (dated October 1, 2020) which featured two very well-known US mega-church pastors who have had very different approaches to COVID restrictions: John MacArthur and Andy Stanley. One pastors in California and one in Georgia, which may not be an insignificant factor in their ways of dealing with the situation. I appreciated aspects of each perspective. Whichever pastor you agree with more, I think it’s fair to say that each is acting on personal conviction and is endeavouring to lead and pastor their church with wisdom in order to love their neighbours. You can either listen to it below or go to this link.