Fragile Faith? A Covid-19 Theology Post…

One of the currents I’ve identified in the covid protest movement, at least in Bermuda, is what I’ve elsewhere termed the ‘Crusader’ component. While not restricted to Christians, it is the Christian variety which is dominant in Bermuda. What I want to do in this post is enter into a rare foray into theology and both summarise my understanding of the Crusader viewpoint and offer a counterpoint to their position. At the very least, I hope it will provide some food for thought.

I want to stress here that my aim here isn’t to belittle anyone’s individual beliefs. Rather, I hope that this post will help some in the community better understand a strong current within the anti-vaccine and general covid protest movement. At the same time, I hope to provide an alternative theological perspective for the religious among us to consider;

For this post I am going to approach the issue of covid-19 and vaccinations from the three main Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

For clarity, the scripture I will rely on for these are:

For the Old Testament – The Complete Jewish Bible at Chabad.org.

For the New Testament – The New American Standard Bible

For the Quran – Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World’s Classics.

The ‘Crusader’ Perspective

Now, while there are of course different religions that fall under this ‘crusader’ position, the ones I have encountered here in Bermuda are biblically based. My perception is that there are two main groups that are expressing this position – the Rastafarian community and the Evangelical Christian community. Now, while Rastafarianism is it’s own Abrahamic religion separate from Christianity, they still utilise the Bible as their holy scripture, and I’ve found that both groups are generally basing their common position on the same aspects of scripture. These seem to be:

Genesis 1:29 – And God said, “Behold, I have given you every seed bearing herb, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food.”

Ezekiel 47:12 – But by the stream, on its bank from either side, will grow every tree for food; its leaf will not whither, neither will its fruit end; month after month its fruits will ripen, for its waters will emanate from the Sanctuary, and its fruit shall be for food and its leaves for a cure.

Psalm 91 – He who dwells in the covert of the Most High will lodge in the shadow of the Almighty. I shall say of the Lord [that He is] my shelter and my fortress, my God in Whom I trust. For He will save you from you from the snare that traps from the devastating pestilence. With His wing He will cover you, and under His wings you will take refuge; His truth is an encompassing sheild. You will not fear the fright of night, the arrow that flies by day; Pestilence that prowls in darkness, destruction that ravages at noon. A thousand will be stationed at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not approach you. You will but gaze with your eyes, and you will see the annihiliation of the wicked. For you [said] “The Lord is my refuge”; the Most High you made your dwelling. No harm will befall you, nor will a plague drawn near to your tent. For He will command His angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways. On [their] hands they will bear you, lest your foot stumble on a stone. On a young lion and a cobra you will tread; you will trample the youn lion and the serpent. For he yearns for Me, and I shall rescue him; I shall fortify him because he knows My name. He will call Me and I shall answer him; I am with him in distress; I shall rescue him and I shall honor him. With length of days I shall satiate him, and I shall show him My salvation.

Revelations 13:16-17 – And he causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, and he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name.

Revelations 22:2 – …in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

Taken together these various verses can be grouped into four main themes:

1 – Healthy Diet – This is what informs a lot of the argument that instead of vaccines, masks, social distancing, hand sanitising and lockdowns, all that is needed is for people to practice proper diet, ideally a vegetarian based diet. A lot of illness, including covid-19, is in this way ascribed to poor diets leading to poor health; an extension of this theme is the importance of healthy lifestyles, namely exercise.

2 – Herbal Remedies – Instead of vaccines (in particular) but also pharmaceuticals in general, what is needed is herbal remedies – that is ‘natural’ cures.

3 – Masks & Vaccines = Mark of the Beast – This informs a lot of the opposition to the wearing of masks, getting vaccinated and providing proof of vaccination (in Bermuda’s case Safe Key). This ties into the wider apocalyptic belief of covid-19 being an evil conspiracy directed by the Anti-Christ.

4 – Faith Is All You Need – All you really need is to be devout and firm in your faith. If you are, then God will protect you; there is no need for medicine or vaccines. Only faith in the Most High. As an aside, this does not necessarily mean that those who succumb to covid-19 or illness generally are not worthy. Rather it is a personal plea against fear and despair, a expression of praise and gratitude to God as the sole source of hope and salvation.

Judaism

There are three primary parts of scripture that are important for a pro-vaccine and pro-public health Jewish perspective. Naturally, in as much as Christianity includes the Jewish scripture as part of its own religious scripture, they can help inform a Christian perspective too.

Before I discuss these pieces of scripture though, I think it is useful to consider the rabbinical approach to scripture. In this approach the scripture is not to be taken literally – rather, it’s about studying and engaging with the text with the focus on identifying the essence; the ‘spirit’ of the law, rather than the ‘letter’ of the law. Essentially, in studying the text one is asking oneself two questions: (1) what did the text mean in its time; and (2) how can we create interpretations that will give us lessons for our time?

In this, there is a famous story from the Talmud known as The Oven of Akhnai. To paraphrase this story, a group of rabbis are discussing a realtively obscure point about the design of a new oven and its susecptibility to ritual impurity. One particular rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus argues that the oven is ritually pure, but the remaining rabbis take the opposite position. Rabbi Eliezer attempts multiple arguments to convince his fellow rabbis, but fails. Eventually, in desperation, Rabbi Eliezer exclaims ‘If I am right, this carob tree will prove it!’. At that instant the carob tree uproots itself and moves itself some distance. While Rabbi Eliezer takes this as a source of divine support for his position, the remaining rabbis respond that a carob tree cannot offer proof in a debate of law.

Rabbi Eliezer then exclaims ‘If I am right, this stream will prove it!’ At that point the nearby stream begins to flow backwards. The rabbis respond that one does not cite a stream as proof in matters of law.

Rabbi Eliezer responds with the exclamation ‘If I am right, these walls will prove it! At this point the walls of the hall begin to collapse, but Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah reprimands the walls for interfering in a debate among scholars, and out of respect the walls cease to collapse.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer in frustration exclaims ‘If I am right, heaven will prove it!’ At this moment a divine voice speaks out ‘Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer, he is right in his opinion always?’ To this, Rabbi Joshua retorts by citing Deuteronomy 30:12-14, ‘The Torah is not in heaven.’ His position is based on the premise that God gave the Torah to humanity and specifically instructs those who follow it to look to the Torah as their source and guide. The Torah says here: It is not in heaven that you should say ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Rather [this] thing is very close to you; is is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.

The essence of Rabbi Joshua’s position is that the Torah is a document from which law must be created through the human activity of debate and consensus, through the application of critical thinking and logic, as opposed to blind following.

To this, God responded with a smile and said to the collected rabbis ‘My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over me.’ The Torah may be a gift from God, but having been given to humanity, it is for humanity to interpret through reason and logic; miracles may be wondrous, but not even the voice of God trumps human reason at that point. Furthermore, each generation must interpret the underlying meaning of the scripture relevant to their time and place.

It is on this basis that rabbinical Judaism approaches scripture. For instance, the creation outlined in the Book of Genesis is not to be taken literally, but rather to challenge the believe with the question of ‘How should we treat people if everyone is created in the image of God? What are our responsibilities to this world if God has called it good?’ In rabbinical Judaism, questioning is encouraged; indeed, much of rabbinical literature is based on the question ‘how do we know this?’ and the resulting explanation of reasoning.

Now, back to the matter at hand…

Leviticus 19:16 – You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people. You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. I am the Lord.

Deuteronomy 4:9 – But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children.

Deuteronomy 22:8 – When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof].

There are two main themes that arise from these three bits of scripture:

1 – God helps those who help themselves – You have a responsibility of taking care of your own health and avoiding harm when it is possible to do so. On this basis, yes, you have a responsibility to eat well and enjoy an active lifestyle as part of ensuring your health. However, when there is the possibility to take a vaccine to reduce potential harm from a disease, you are obligated to do so. Failing to do so is a failure to watch over yourself and avoid harm – it is, in effect, doing harm to oneself.

2 – You have a responsibility to others – A feature of Judaism is that it emphasises responsibilities before rights. You do not have a right to life, but you have a responsibility not to kill. One may well infer the right to life from this, but the emphasis is on responsibility to others. You are not to take inaction when you can take action to avoid harm to others. From a vaccine perspective, you are not obligated to take the vaccine solely from the perspective of avoiding harm for yourself, but also to avoid harm to others. By taking the vaccine you minimise the risk of harm to yourself, but also to others, through reducing the rate of transmission (especially to those more vulnerable) and also reducing the impact elsewhere – such as the hospital and preventing or reducing the capacity of the hospital to help others who are in need. You are as guilty of causing harm to others by not taking action to avoid the potential of that harm.

Indeed, these are considered Mitvah’s – commandments – and have been historically interpreted explicitly in relation to vaccines. The Jewish community historically practiced a precursor of vaccination called variolation, which involved inhaling, or inserting into open wounds, the ground up scabs of smallpox patients in the hope of inducing a degree of protection against smallpox itself. This was based on the concept of distancing oneself from danger (Leviticus 19:16); Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz, one of the most prominent rabbis of 17th century Europe, especially linked this to a duty to distance oneself from the danger of smallpox and other infectious diseases. Once the first smallpox vaccine was available, rabbis encouraged its use, citing both the responsibility to avoid danger to oneself, but also as a responsibility to others. The rabbis even addressed the concern about the potential risks of the vaccine, with Rabbi Abraham Hamburg in 1785 putting forward the position that even if 1 out of a 1,000 die from the vaccine, it is still the responsibility to take the vaccine on the basis of avoiding harm to oneself and reducing harm to others.

There are also Talmudic arguments that build on these themes, notably the Treatise Sanhedrin 109b and Baba Batra 8a concerning community responsibility, both of which have been applied to public health and vaccination obligations. For the interest of space I only refer to them here; readers may seek them out for further consideration.

Christianity

Christianity, originating as it did as essentially a sect of Judaism, of course can be informed by the positions I highlight above for Judaism. As such, I will restrict myself in this section solely to aspects of scripture within the New Testament itself.

Luke 10:33-35 – But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day, he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 – Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

1 Corinthians 10:24 – Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbour.

Phillipians 2:3-7 – Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

2 Timothy 1:14 – Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which was entrusted to you.

James 2:8 – If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ you are doing well.

The key themes from the above are:

1 – You have a responsibility to guard against ill health (God helps those who help themselves) – As with the discussion in the Judaism section above, one is obligated to look after ones own health, and take steps to avoid danger. When it comes to infectious disease, you have a responsibility to take preventative measures to avoid the danger it represents – including masking, social distancing and vaccination. To not do this is an offense, not just against oneself but, in as much as one contains an element of the divine, against God itself.

2 – You have a responsibility to others – As with the discussion on Judaism, one is responsible not just for one’s own welfare, but also for the welfare of others, even strangers and persons unknown to you. This includes looking out for others and taking steps when possible to avoid harming others. Applied to infectious disease, one has a responsibility to public health in minimising transmission and the risk of harm to others – be it through masking, social distancing and vaccination.

Islam

There are multiple Hadiths (traditions of the Prophet) that speak to embracing science, medicine and a pro-active approach to health, all of which can be applied to a pro public health and pro-vaccine position. However, while there are certainly more authoritative Hadiths than others, and one can certainly rely on them, I have decided for the purposes of this article (partly in the interest of space) to rely primarily on the Quran itself here. Of that, there are three parts of scripture that I feel are particularly worth considering.

Al-Baqara 195 – Spend in God’s cause: do not contribute to your destruction with your own hands, but do good, for God loves those who do good.

Al-Ma’ida 32 – On account of [his deed, Cain], We decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person – unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land – it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind. Our messengers came to them with clear signs, but many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.

Al-Ra’d 11 – Each person has angles before him and behind, watching over him by God’s command. God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves, but if He will harm on a people, no one can war it off – apart from Him, they have no protector.

Additionally, Islamic scholars of jurisprudence, in interpreting the Sharia based on the Quran, have identified the concept of wiqaya (prevention/protection) to be a key law and principle. Other key concepts of Sharia that have been identified drawing on the Quran are izalat aldharar, the principle of preventing harm, and maslahat al-ummah, the principle of public interest.

The key themes that Islam emphasises here are:

1 – Responsible for ones own welfare – It is your duty to avoid harm to self, and as such one is responsible for taking preventative action to avoid harm as much as is reasonable. As such, yes, one should practice an active lifestyle and a healthy diet (and avoid the opposite), but one should also engage in mitigating the risk of infectious disease. This applies to reducing the risk of transmission and the potential harm to self – which in practical terms for covid-19 means social distancing, masking and being pro-active as regards vaccination. Indeed, this also calls for using money to support those causes.

2 – God helps those who help themselves – As a prerequisite for expecting the help of God one must help oneself first as much as possible. It’s fine to pray to God for assistance, including in the face of infectious disease, but that does not mean you take no steps of your own to protect yourself first, including vaccination. It is only after you have taken all possible steps available to you that it is left in God’s hands.

3 – You have a responsibility for the life of others – If you take actions – even through negligence – that bring harm and even death to others, you are committing an offense; similarly, if you take steps that prevent harm and death to others, you are committing a blessing. It is your responsibility to take actions in the interest of public welfare to reduce the risk of harm and death in your community, including when it comes to public health and infectious diseases.

Some Final Thoughts

Scripture is open to interpretation, and I’m aware that different people will interpret aspects of scripture in very different ways – sometimes in direct contradiction to my own. My personal view is that the Abrahamic religions, at their heart, are about responsibility to the divine in oneself and a responsibility to others – everything else flows from this, including the responsibility to mitigate harm to oneself and the community as a whole. One may even expand this further to nature itself, and see the responsibility of humanity to be stewards of Earth as a whole on behalf of future generations.

Similarly, scripture is not to be taken in a literal sense, but the essence to be understood and applied to ones own time and place. The core essence that I speak to above is to inform this approach.

Ultimately, the key points that the Abrahmic scriptures emphasise, in my opinion, are:

1 – Responsible to self.

2 – Responsible to others.

3 – God helps those who help themselves.

What I do hope that this article achieves is to help some understand the perspective of some who are involved in the protest movement in Bermuda around covid-19, both towards public health actions and the vaccine itself. Whether one likes it or not, some of this protest is rooted in strongly held religious convictions that influence their perception of public health actions and medical science. It is doubtful that my counterpoint interpretation of various scripture will change those views, however I do hope it contributes to a wider awareness and discourse on the matter, both theologically and philosophically, regardless of ones personal beliefs.

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