The so-called war between science and religion has sadly raised its ugly head once more. This time it comes in the conflict over the present COVID-19 epidemic.
On the one hand we are continually being told, especially by secularist journalists, that the way to deal with the epidemic is by science and not religion. The public media are commending governments for following scientific advice and not religious nonsense, while at the same time condemning them for not following the journalists’ political leanings in implementing the scientific advice.
On the other hand, we have the religious people amongst the anti-vax community saying that God will look after them or that there is no need to follow the government’s instructions. While I have little confidence that the media have reported events accurately, they have recounted three such events in the last week, including a Christian leader insisting on individual rights rather than calling upon his followers to take a Christian attitude to neighbours and government.
While the development of vaccines is the work of science, most of the other advice and actions of the government have little to do with science and are mainly the outcome of religion. The morality of concern for the weak and vulnerable comes not from the ancient world of Egyptians, Greeks or Romans, but from the crucified Christ, as has been argued by the non-Christian author Tom Holland in his book “Dominion”. Martin Luther’s written advice about the plague in his day, five hundred years ago, called for very similar actions to the ones our governments are implementing. The idea of social isolation for the sake of others’ well-being was wonderfully illustrated by the religious leadership of the village of Eyam in 1665. There the whole village, infected by bubonic plague, was persuaded to isolate itself rather than let it spread to neighbouring villages. Indeed, it is widely argued that the very scientific method that has so enabled us to produce vaccines is derived from the Biblical worldview.
It is true that Christians should look to God in prayer for their and their family’s health and safety. However, their prayer is to be matched by such actions as are available to ensure such protection. It is not an ‘either/or’ but a ‘both/and’ for those who are created in God’s image to rule the world. But in our concern for our safety and health we need to look also to our neighbours for their welfare and well-being.
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne’s famous lines express the Christian view of humanity. We are all, together created in God’s image, just as we have all sinned and now all live under the sentence of death. The death of anyone is part of the death of humanity and ‘diminishes me’.
Sin is never entirely individual. Certainly, the soul that sins is the one who should bear the punishment, but part of the reason for the punishment is that any one’s sin affects the community as a whole, in much the same way as any man’s death. If by misreporting I steal from the tax office, or the insurance company – I am stealing from the community as a whole and all its members. Even such ‘private’ sins as lust and coveting are anti-social for the commandment is not against desiring a wife or servant or animal but desiring your neighbour’s wife or servant or animal.
Winston Churchill may have been right when he said “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” However, the worst form of government is anarchy (i.e. no government at all). When there is no government, society is ruled by the tyrannical principle of ‘might is right’. But God has appointed government for our good (Romans 13:4). And he requires his people to submit ourselves to the authorities he has appointed over us (Romans 13:1, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13). We simply have to accept that as long as we live in this world waiting for the return of Christ the King, our governments will be imperfect.
But what are we to do with incompetent and corrupt governments?
- Remember that the government that Paul and Peter commanded Christians to obey, was not nearly as concerned for, or answerable to, its citizens as our governments in Australia.
- Appreciate how rarely citizens have had the freedom of speech and association that we enjoy in Australia.
- Understand our democratic process, especially in its compulsory voting, allows any one of us to take on the responsibility for governing others, provided the majority are willing to trust us with that responsibility more than any other candidate. So, beware of the armchair critics, the politically motivated journalists, or today’s keyboard warriors, who will not offer to serve the community by standing for election.
- Be thankful that our constitution and law courts, limit the power that we entrust to our leaders, just as our frequent elections call them to account.
Still the question remains: Must we submit ourselves to authorities when they call upon us to disobey our conscience or God? It is never wise to ignore or disobey conscience, for it is better to suffer and die than to sin (1 Peter 4:19). But that makes it critically important to educate our conscience by God’s word to make sure it truly aligns with what is right and wrong by God’s standards and not by our own preferences. If I’m unwilling to die for conscience, it is not conscience but preference. Conscience does not excuse revolution for if I lead a successful revolution, I’m assured that I will replace one corrupt leader with another, such as myself. Conscience may lead me to passive resistance but will accept the Government’s authority to subjugate me.
However, disobeying God is a different matter. If God calls upon me explicitly to an action contrary to the law of the land, I have no alternative than to obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19-20). Whether this is by direct action or passive resistance depends upon God’s command. I may simply refuse to kill or steal at the direction of the Government or I may speak out the gospel in contradiction to Government decrees.
So, what does all this mean for lockdowns, masks and getting vaccinated against COVID-19? Our governments have been persuaded that our society, and especially its most vulnerable people, are in mortal danger from this virus. They also see it as a highly communicable disease that will spread with great alacrity throughout the community. Because of these two factors they have taken extraordinary authority to insist on social isolation and to request that we get vaccinated.
They have made the decision to require us to socially isolate, by various measures – from closing our international borders, and our state borders to isolating particular local areas and ‘hot spots’. But at certain times they have gone much further in their intrusion upon our ‘normal’ lives by insisting on limiting trade, wearing masks and requiring us to stay at home.
Our governments are not requiring us to get vaccinated. However, they are strongly urging and pleading for us to get vaccinated as soon as possible and are using our community money to provide this for all citizens without cost. They recognise that there is a diversity of views and medical conditions that make a blanket requirement for vaccination unreasonable. However, the principle of vaccination is one of community immunity, slowing the spread of the virus in the society and minimising the seriousness of the disease for those vaccinated.
The governments have been making decisions in the light of the best advice they can get from epidemiologists. They have relied on science to develop the vaccines and to test their efficacy and dangers. However, science by its very nature is never final and absolute. Any development is open to challenge and improvement. And government decisions are never simply scientific advice but balances of human, economic, social and practical advice as well. Our governments cannot avoid responsibility for their decisions and actions and will inevitably make mistakes in dealing with such a novel threat to our lives. But they still have to make decisions
Our responsibility as Christians is threefold.
- To pray for our governments (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
- To love God by obeying his word, in this case by obeying the authorities he has placed over us for our good (Romans 13:1-4).
- To put aside our own interests for the sake of others in our love for our neighbours (Mark 12:31).