COVID has changed the lifestyles of almost every American (and even most citizens of the globe) since March 15 when quarantine orders, stay-at-home orders, mask orders, work limitations, social distancing, and many other such measures began. In many locations, these orders are in effect “until a vaccine for COVID is available.” The presumption is that a vaccine will render a person immune to serious infection from the virus.
Naturally, the world awaits the production of a safe and effective vaccine, not just any vaccine. What do we mean by this? A safe vaccine means that neither the disease for which the person is being vaccinated (in this case COVID) arises from the vaccine nor do any unwanted side effects (such as seizures or extensive allergic reactions). “Effective” means that the vaccine must actually protect against COVID, or at least against its consequences. In other words, the vaccine should prevent the viral infection in the first place, but if infection does happen, the vaccine would prevent it from being severe. In most vaccine trials in the US, scientists test and monitor thousands of people to establish that a vaccine is both safe and effective. The standards are rigorous, because unproven vaccines can have side-effects.
The development of a vaccine alone will not be sufficient to protect the population. We also need to think about production and implementation, given the extraordinary global demand. The scale is simply unprecedented. While some animal testing of potential COVID vaccines has been done in pre-clinical trials, there are very few people that have been immunized against COVID with any type of vaccine at this point.
Despite these great efforts going into the vaccine, many Christians in the US and abroad have asserted that they will not take any COVID immunization. The justifications for this have ranged from questions about what can be “slipped into” the vaccine to concerns about sources of cells used to grow the vaccine to distrust of scientific data in general. Let us look at each of these arguments.
Compassion is the highest virtue! proclaims Gregory Nazianzen in a homily on illness and poverty. Embrace the sick without fear of contagion—leprosy in his case—and care for the poor, for they are Christ to you. Therefore, “Let us visit Christ, let us heal Christ, let us feed Christ, let us clothe Christ, let us welcome Christ” in the person of the poor and suffering.
He does point out that in caring for the lepers his listeners should “accept the evidence of science as well as of the doctors and nurses who look after these people,” even as he calls them to “extend a helping hand; offer food; give old clothes; provide medicine; bandage wounds; ask after them; counsel fortitude; offer encouragement; keep them company.”
The current crisis presents an extraordinary situation of medical, social, and economic need. Gregory already recognized the link between illness and poverty that is made glaringly obvious in a different way by the current pandemic. While the virus itself may infect rich and poor alike, in fact the repercussions are far greater among poorer people who cannot afford to stay away from jobs, are unable to work from home, and live in close quarters without the option of social distancing.
In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, it is often hard or even impossible to think about what comes next, after the crisis ends. What will our life after lockdown look like? What will happen to our personal dynamics after social distancing? And what about our spiritual life after not going to Church for what feels like an eternity? All these questions, and many more, are legitimate. Every crisis gives rise to a judgment. In a way, that is the role that crises play in history, sorting out the chaff from the wheat as we start to make sense of a tragedy and discern the opportunity to live up to the radicality of the Gospel.
Within the Orthodox Church, we have seen a wide range of answers and solutions, but also an increasing polarization of the members of Christ’s body, with virulent arguments raging about questions that touch the essence of our faith, particularly whether, since the Eucharist is the real Body and Blood of Christ, we can get sick by receiving Holy Communion. But I am afraid that by engaging in these debates, we are missing what is really at stake here. We find ourselves paralyzed by these arguments at a time when we need to rediscover the virtue of being and becoming more apostolic. In other words, we are at risk of trying to save the Church and Christianity rather than seeking our salvation in them. In this sense, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had one of the best insights into the challenges we face in a recent message when he said: “However, that which is at stake is not our faith—it is the faithful. It is not Christ—it is our Christians. It is not the divine-man—but human beings.” In this time of crisis, we need to be less argumentative and defensive and more apostolic: our true priority is our neighbor.
While the Orthodox Church has gained a reputation internationally as a “green” church, largely due to the environmental initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the reality is much more complicated on the ground. The science behind the human causes of climate change and its catastrophic consequences is settled, but the issue unfortunately remains a sharply divisive one among Orthodox Christians in the United States. American Orthodox acceptance of climate change falls largely along familiar dividing lines—liberal and conservative—as they have come to be defined in 21st-century US politics.
The political divisions among us are toxic, not only for church unity, but also because they allow us to be complacent, remaining stuck in intractable debates about the legitimacy of scientific data and the shadowy powers supposedly funding climate science, hurling accusations of “fake news.”
But the Orthodox tradition does not permit us to stand on the sidelines of the climate debate. Rather, it demands that we accept responsibility for the plunder of creation, work to restore equilibrium to our environments, and hold accountable those responsible–ourselves included–for the current crisis. Continue reading →