Should Christians trust the vaccine when the system is flawed?
Anyone living in the world cannot avoid the reality that many of our systems are broken.
Anyone living in the world cannot avoid the reality that many of our systems are broken. The George Floyd murder revealed systemic racism in police departments; the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church exposed deep flaws in that institution; the election and other crises revealed how fragile our national political institutions are. I could go on and on.
Now as the COVID vaccine program gets underway, we are already seeing a string of delays, snafus, poor planning, and other flaws in the various agencies involved. These system level flaws risk causing some people to doubt getting vaccinated for themselves.
How do we respond as Christians?
My name is Curtis Chang, and welcome to Redeeming Babel, where our mission is to provide Biblical thinking in a confusing world. In this video, I want to propose that the Christian response to systemic problems in the world should look very different than the world’s standard responses. In particular, we Christians have an opportunity with the COVID vaccine to embody a response that points the world to Jesus.
What is at stake
Let’s start with what it means when we say “a system is broken.” Really, what we are saying is that the institutions that make up a system are flawed. The Biblical language for this flawed condition is “sin.”
As Christians, we actually are equipped by the Bible to expect that sin affects all human institutions. Human institutions are well, human. And the Bible teaches us that sin affects all of humanity. So, it is not just that all individuals that are sinful; all institutions are as well. For Christians, institutional sin should be an expected reality.
We should also expect that the world will offer three standard responses to institutional sin. None of them will be fully satisfying. And this is where as Christians, if we can think Biblically about the issue, we have an opportunity to offer to the world a Jesus shaped response.
The world’s responses
I believe the world offers three standard responses to institutional sin, which can be summarized as Isolate, Ignore, and Insist.
Interestingly, all three of these responses are grabbed by both the political Left and the political Right in a haphazard fashion, and in ways that ultimately reveal these standard responses as unsatisfying.
Let’s start with the first option: Isolate
The Isolate response is to focus on removing any contact with institutional sin. No association is allowed. With the COVID vaccines, the Isolate response can take a number of forms. If the institutions involved end up making the vaccination process confusing, frustrating, or feel unfair, some people may just decide, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that mess.” In particular, Black Americans and Pro-life Christians may isolate themselves from the vaccination program out of fear that such government programs are tainted with a past connection to racism or abortion.
This Isolate response is tempting not just with the COVID vaccine. It’s tempting on most any issue, and is grabbed at by both the political Left and the Right.
On the political Left, a prime example of the Isolate response is the “cancel culture” that is especially powerful in higher education. In “cancel culture,” there is the tendency to expel anyone that has even a taint of racism or sexism. Any suspected individual or institution faces the threat of being immediately cut off from acceptability. On the political Right, historically the Isolate response gets focused on abortion. In this vein, it is never acceptable to vote for anyone that is Pro-Choice. There must be no political association whatsoever.
The Isolate response is tempting for anyone. We naturally want to keep our hands clean. But the problem with this response to institutional sin is that it is impossible for anyone to maintain pure moral quarantine in any consistent fashion.
Let me give you a personal illustration. I’m a Chinese American Christian living in California. As a pro-life Christian with Chinese heritage, I am grieved at how the Chinese government promotes institutional abortion, even enforcing it on religious minorities.
However, if I trace all the lines of my consumer purchases, I have to admit that I am actually supporting the Chinese regime. Right now, I’m wearing multiple clothing items made in China. As you’re watching this video, you are probably using electronic components made in China. All of those purchases ultimately sent some money into the coffers of the Chinese government. It would be incredibly difficult – practically impossible – for me or for you to stop buying any product made in China.
This is just one example of the larger point: we cannot isolate ourselves from institutional sin. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re keeping ourselves pure of any contact. We’re always touching and even relying on some institution that has a history of sin.
So, what then about the second option? If we can’t isolate ourselves from institutional sin, should we then just ignore institutional sin? The Ignore response is where one is willing to participate in flawed institutions – so willing in fact, that one is fine with ignoring its flaws.
With the distribution of the COVID vaccine, the Ignore response could be to just care about getting vaccinated yourself, but ignore if institutional dynamics mean certain racial groups are missing out, or whether the wealthy are getting unfair preferential access.
The temptation to just ignore how others are affected is such a strong human temptation. It is in fact why we are so divided in our country between Left and Right. This is because no one actually can consistently ignore all institutional sin. Some institutional sins affect us more directly and more personally. We don’t ignore those. We just ignore the ones that affect other groups.
This is why, to generalize a bit, Christians on the Left will tend to focus on institutional racism but ignore institutional abortion. And Christians on the Right will focus on institutional abortion but ignore institutional racism. Each then ends up thinking that the other is blind or uncaring.
For a Christian, ignoring sin is just not an option. To ignore sin is to say it doesn’t matter. Which means we are saying to the people affected: you don’t matter. This response is about as far away from Jesus as you can get. And it is dividing our country and our church.
The third type of response to institutional sin is Insist.
By “Insist,” I am referring to the response that insists “someone must fix this.”
But the key here is that the insistence is that “someone” is “someone else.”
Again, both the Right and Left latch on to this response in their own ways. Take for example the ways that our economic institutions are creating greater and greater levels of income inequality. The classic argument of the Left is that it should be the government that fixes this with redistributive policies. The classic argument of the Right says that it should be the poor people themselves that fixes this by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Systemic problems like inequality are complex and I don’t presume to have an easy answer myself. My point here is that when people make loud proclamations about something wrong with a system, they rarely place the responsibility on themselves for the problem or the solution.
The next time you hear someone insist loudly on something wrong in the world, pay close attention on where they locate themselves. Far too often, the speaker locates themselves outside the problem and the solution. The Insist mode is all about finger pointing and finger wagging. It’s those people that are the problem, it’s those people that should do something about it.
“Finger pointing and finger wagging” can feel emotionally satisfying at first. But the Biblical understanding of original sin is that that sin ensnares everyone, even the people pointing and wagging. And when that reality becomes exposed, we recoil at the hypocrisy. This is why there was such moral outrage in the pandemic when government leaders insisted on isolation and not seeing family during the holidays, and then we discovered a number of them had done just that. These leaders were locating themselves outside of the problem and the solution: they were wagging their fingers and insisting everyone else must fix it.
The Jesus Response: Incarnation
All three responses – Isolate, Ignore, or Insist – are tempting, but ultimately unsatisfactory responses to institutional sin.
This is why I believe we humans need God. And this is why I so love the God revealed in Jesus. In Jesus, God chose a radically different response to human sin: the response of Incarnation.
God could have chosen to Isolate Himself from humanity and how messed up we are. But in Jesus, God himself came as close into contact with humanity as possible. In Jesus, God took on humanity into his very being: he became human. One can’t get any closer than that.
When God became human, he did not ignore human oppression and injustice. Jesus did not look at the institutional sin of his day – that of the broken Temple system and the oppressive Roman regime – and look at the people being affected, and then shrug, “Well, that doesn’t matter to me. Those people don’t matter to me.” Instead of ignoring, he confronted those institutions so directly that these institutions conspired to crucify him.
Finally, on the cross, Jesus was responding to the problem of original sin by taking responsibility for it himself. He did not wag his fingers at humanity and say, “You all must fix things!” Instead, he stretched out his arms and said, “I will fix all things.” I will fix things by bearing the sin, suffering the sin, and eventually transforming the sin into healing for the world.
The Incarnation was God’s response to all sin, including institutional sin. And the Incarnation sets the pattern for how Jesus followers are to act in the world. How Christians can practice Incarnation in our organizational life is an exciting topic that we will return to over and over again in future videos. In many ways, this topic is at the core of Redeeming Babel’s mission.
Incarnation and the vaccine
But let me close here by inviting you to consider how you can follow Jesus and his model of Incarnation in your engagement with the COVID vaccine rollout.
Perhaps you are someone who is still unsure about the vaccine because you fear it is tainted with some institutional sin – whether that sin is abortion, racism, the government’s tendency towards over-intrusion, or something else. Would you be open to the reality that everything is tainted with some institutional sin, that it is impossible to isolate ourselves?
Perhaps you are someone who always was planning to take the vaccine and have been frustrated with friends and families who are suspicious. Maybe you’re tempted to just pull back into a shell and go into Ignore mode with them. Would you be open to re-engaging them on the question of whether they are open to getting the vaccine. If it helps, you can send them these videos to open the conversation.
Finally, as I’ve said, as hundreds of millions of us do go through the vaccination process, many of us are going to encounter institutional problems. This kind of world wide roll out is incredibly complex and unprecedented. It is going to expose all the ways that our government, health, and institutions are human and fallible.
When that happens, the natural instinct will be to go into Insisting mode. Can we as Christians be people whose first instinct is instead Incarnation mode? Instead of the spirit of finger pointing and wagging, can we be the people who like Jesus, stretch out our arms? Maybe it is stretching out our arms willingly and patiently, waiting for when our assigned turn comes. Maybe it is stretching out our arms to help our own companies, schools, and nonprofit agencies figure out how to play their role in the overall process. Maybe it is just stretching out our arms to pat on the back tired and overworked health care workers who are doing their best and saying to them, “Thank you.”
This is a moment of great opportunity for Christians to reflect Jesus, the one who chose not to Isolate, Ignore, or Insist with our own sin. Let’s follow Jesus, the Incarnation of God.