How might the Bible inform Christian Responses to Covid-19?
“Jesus is My Vaccine,” reads the placard carried by a cartoon character in a cartoon appearing in the New Zealand Listener.
The heading of an article written for The Conversation, by Robyn J. Whitaker reads: “‘The blood of Jesus is my vaccine’: how a fringe group of Christians hijacks faith in a war against science.” In the online article, she goes on to state that “Kolina Koltai, a vaccine misinformation researcher with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, points out that appealing to people’s beliefs and values in spreading vaccine misinformation is particularly potent.”
In the online article, there is a link to a short video which Kolina Koltai herself produced in which she provides a sense of some of the things various religious leaders (not all of them Christian leaders) are saying about the vaccine, and speaks about the influence that these leaders have. Among other statements, she says, “[I]n the US, some evangelical Christians are debating whether vaccines are the ‘mark of the beast’, a sign of the devil and the end times.”
On Saturday, October 2 2021, Destiny Church’s Brian Tamaki organised a rally of up to 2000 people demanding an end to lockdown, and standing up for “personal Freedoms,” and for those whom he claimed were being hurt by the restrictions. Efforts at social distancing, and ensuring the wearing of masks were not evident, despite claims to the contrary by the organisers. Brian and Hannah Tamaki themselves are known for rejecting the need for vaccination. Earlier this year, they had created something of a storm in the media, and amongst the general population, when they “escaped” Auckland, on the eve of a Covid lockdown attempting to curb an outbreak in south Auckland. At the time, Hannah defended herself on her Facebook page, and declared “I’m not taking the vaccine. That’s my choice.” Helen Petousis-Harris, a member of the vaccine safety expert advisory group, declared the Tamaki’s pronouncements on their actions and stance “disappointing and unhelpful.” She said, “These people are highly respected in their community and they should be basing their communication on good trustworthy information, not misinformation.”
I recall hearing a New Zealander living in Sydney being interviewed on the radio following protests there against their lockdown restrictions. He expressed his annoyance at the selfishness of “religious fanatics” who put people’s lives at risk. Not all of the people protesting, of course, were necessarily “religious fanatics,” but it demonstrates how the actions of a few Christians can affect the opinions and perceptions of the general populace. The fact that he singled out “religious fanatics” suggests that many perceive Christians, and “religious” people to be at the fore when it comes to Covid deniers, anti-vaxxers, and “misguided idiots.” Christians who are not of that ilk may feel somewhat aggrieved that these fellow believers give all Christians a bad name. They may also be forgiven for thinking that such behaviour and beliefs gives credence to Jesus’ words as reported by Luke, that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light” (Luke 16:8b).
Of course, there are many more Christians who are doing all they can to promote an accepting and scientifically-based approach to the use of vaccines, and to dealing with Covid-19 generally. Koltai herself acknowledges this in the video clip mentioned above. A brief cameo shows the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, promoting getting vaccinated. During the most recent Delta-variant outbreak in Auckland, one of the largest clusters arose from a church service at a Samoan AOG church in south Auckland. The ministers and church leaders in that situation did all they could to urge their congregants to get tested. One, reportedly, even stood by his car for hours outside a testing station in solidarity with his people as they went to get tested. Despite the vitriol and racial abuse directed online at some Pacific Island Christians, many Pasifika church leaders have been promoting vaccination amongst their congregations. As an aside, those most at risk from the corona virus are Māori and Pasifika people, many of whom have underlying health issues. Sadly, a by-product of the pandemic is the effect that the virus has on Māori and Pasifika people. Here in New Zealand, as in the US among “black Americans and minorities ‘in particular’” a factor making for increased risk of an adverse outcome from contracting Covid is “significant underlying disease.” Another is an element of “systemic racism” in both New Zealand and the US.
Further examples of different responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, not only to the question of whether to be vaccinated or not, but also many other aspects (e.g. whether Government-mandated restrictions are an undue curbing of individual rights and freedom), could be given. As I revise this article, several weeks on from a first draft, the ever-evolving situation sees the whole country move to a “traffic light system”, which includes the use of vaccine passports. Already vaccinations are mandated for teachers and health workers among others. There have been many other developments; including small, but increasingly active and vocal protest actions. As readers of Stimulus have, no doubt, themselves seen or read of many different instances, and are aware of much of this, I will not elaborate on these further. What light might the Bible shed on how we should approach the issues raised by ways of dealing with the pandemic, and the various responses taken to these by Christian people? I must acknowledge here that I write this article as one who is fully vaccinated, who accepts the science and expert advice around tackling this pandemic, and supports the Government’s attempts to mandate ways in which to combat the spread of the virus.
Dealing with Covid-19 and restricting its spread
The World Health Organisation advises that the best way to combat the spread of this virus, and to control the pandemic is to have a high percentage of the eligible population vaccinated. Furthermore, in order to restrict the spread of the virus, certain precautions such as the wearing of masks, social-distancing, restrictions on gatherings, and various other measures are necessary.
In order for a population to get the virus under control, it is necessary for a high proportion of the population to accept the science behind vaccination, and to be prepared to live with, generally Government-imposed, restrictions. In addition, there must be a shared sense that “we are all in this together”, and that community-wide responses are required in order to combat the disease. It is also important to be able to allay people’s fears, and to provide support for those who struggle to remain mentally at ease in the face of threats to health. Here, of course, Christians may turn to faith and trust in God; but, as the beginning paragraphs of this article show, this may be a two-edged sword, as Christians may choose to put their trust solely in Jesus rather than Jesus plus a vaccine.
During the most recent lockdown in Auckland I read through the biblical books of Ezra-Nehemiah. I was struck again and again by the determination of both Ezra and Nehemiah to put their trust in the God of Israel to enable their plans, and to turn to human resources and resourcefulness to achieve the execution of those plans. Not only that, but in many places, it is made clear that what happens is a result of “the gracious hand of God” upon Ezra or Nehemiah, and because of the support, or an edict of the Persian king.
The returned exiles, initially under “Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah” are able to begin rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, because permission is given through an edict promoted by King Cyrus of Persia (whose spirit the Lord had “stirred up”; see Ezra 1:1–11, especially v. 1). Despite opposition, the “elders of the Jews” are not deterred from the work even while an injunction was put in place, and an official examination of the work’s legitimacy was underway (see Ezra 5:5). Eventually the exiles celebrate the Passover, and festival of unleavened bread “with joy … for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel” (Ezra 6:22).
When Ezra comes on the scene, the reader is told several times that human authorities (specifically the Persian king) give aid to Ezra’s work for “the hand of the Lord his God was upon” Ezra (see e.g., Ezra 7:6, 9, 27–28; cf. also 8:36). The intertwining of divine support, protection, and assistance, with human help and effort is perhaps even more apparent in the memoirs of Nehemiah. We read how Nehemiah, a cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes, determines to ask to be released from the king’s service, so that he can go and attend to rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem which lie in ruins (see Neh 1:11; 2:1–8: note how this passage ends with the words: “for the gracious hand of my God was upon me”). The combination of trust in God, and human initiative and action is, perhaps, none so clearly captured as in two particular instances. First, after Nehemiah has (presumably already) hatched his plan, and then gets his opportunity to put his request to the king, he writes: “So I prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said to the king …” (Neh 2:4b, 5). Later, when opponents of the rebuilding work threaten to disrupt the efforts of the Jews, Nehemiah organises the work so that the builders are armed in readiness for any attack (Neh 4:16–18) and half work while the other half stand guard (Neh 4:21, 22). Nehemiah writes of this strategy: “So we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (Neh 4:9).
What has all this to do with “the war” against Covid-19? I suggest that it provides the principle whereby as Christians we may support and accept the scientifically-based advice of experts, and the policies of the Government. Assuming that such persons and entities as scientists, vaccinators, politicians, government bureaucrats, and the Government have our best interests at heart, we ought to be ready to comply with and observe all lawful and responsible advice and requirements. Despite what extreme conspiracy theorists might wish to think, I suggest that the number of such people and entities around the world engaged in trying to combat a proven harmful and potentially life-threatening disease, means that they cannot all be colluding with malicious intent. Of course, there may be debate and discussion about which elements of response to a health threat are justified, or necessary: should “vaccination passports” be required for certain activities or entrance to certain locations, for instance, or which businesses should be able to operate under a lockdown, and under what circumstances? Do travellers from overseas all need to quarantine in designated, Government-run facilities, or is it possible to adopt other ways of quarantining, and other criteria for determining freedom of movement, while ensuring the health safety of the general public?
Trust in God and trust in human resources, programmes or policies need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, a truly trustful faith in God may require trust in the human gifting and, a Christian may say, God-given expertise and knowledge of scientists, and health professionals. God-given wisdom is perfectly compatible with accepting policies and using procedures which are life-preserving and intended to benefit healthy outcomes and mitigate harm. Obeying Government authorities and obeying God are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as Paul points out in Roman 13:1–4a.
Covid-19 and Community Response
A pandemic, by definition, is a communal threat, and requires a communal response. This is neatly captured in the memes that appear on Facebook proclaiming that someone is vaccinated for the sake of others and “for my community.” During the daily briefings on TV One, viewers became accustomed to the calls for people who were symptomatic, were contacts of cases, or had been to locations of interest at the specified times to get tested. Adequate testing is a prime way in which the spread of the virus can be detected and potentially contained.
These, and other responses, demonstrate the need for individuals to see themselves as part of a community. There is, of course, no shortage of biblical injunctions, and of scripturally-based reasons for Christians to take seriously any call to do things for the sake of others. Loving one’s neighbour as oneself (Matt 22:39//Mark 12:31//Luke 10:27b), looking not only to one’s own interests but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2:4), and even the principle of doing to others what you would wish to be done to yourself (Matt 7:12) are all motivations for an attitude of concern for others.
Beyond that, there is the strong teaching of the body of Christ as a corporate entity where the suffering of one member of the body is shared by the other members (1 Cor 12: 26a). Jesus’ teaching that one should love one’s enemy, and pray for those who persecute one (Matt 5:44–48) extends the boundaries of care and concern well beyond the confines of the usual spheres of community, let alone any number of teachings that challenge one to put others before self, or to consider the requirements and needy situations of others; consider the parable of “the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25–37), as one instance.
Christians are exhorted by Paul to bear one another’s burdens, so fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). In these Covid-afflicted times, among those most burdened are those who work on the frontline as medical personnel. We have seen the ICU units in many places under stress, and occasionally an overwhelmed doctor or nurse has appeared, sometimes tearfully, on our TV screens. A strong reason for getting a vaccine, and doing all one can do to contain the virus, is the way in which this can directly and indirectly support these stressed workers by reducing the potential for an exponential increase in Covid cases. Consideration for the “burden” that others bear can be extended of course to other essential workers.
Christians are not exempt from the frailties and failures of their non-Christian fellow citizens. Thus part of the call to discipleship is a constant and daily learning what it means to follow Christ, to take up one’s cross, and to go the way of the one who came not to be served but to serve. What that looks like in a pandemic may be as simple, or as difficult, as wearing a mask where required, being prepared to be tested when necessary, and foregoing gathering together when required to remain in one’s bubble.
One of the unfortunate effects of our modern digital, and online world, is that misinformation is easily spread by users of various platforms. Furthermore, the normal restraints of social interaction seem to be easily suspended, and social media is used to abuse, shame, or “troll” others. One would like to think that Christians would avoid and reject such behaviour, but there is a likelihood that some do engage in it. In this case, it is helpful to recall biblical injunctions against bearing false witness or purveying falsehoods (Deut. 4:20; Proverbs 6:19; 11:9; 12:22), slandering others or being abusive (Matt. 5:22). Paul, with a firm grasp on the realities of human interactions and the human condition, expended much ink on exhorting his readers to live lives that reflected their new Spirit-filled status, and not to revert to their old behaviours (see Gal. 5:13–26; Romans 13:8–14; 15:1-6, among other passages). In the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs is a fund of wisdom on right and wrong, godly and ungodly, ways of acting and speaking. Letting our speech be “gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6) does not rule out robust debate, nor the expression of firm opinions, but the aim is to build up, to strengthen another’s life, and not to tear down.
As an aside: as I have been writing this, I have occasionally been scrolling my Facebook feed. Perhaps I am fortunate in my Facebook friends, but I am heartened by the number of them that post things that are reassuring, helpful, that do build up (or are intended to); and not a few brighten one’s day. Social media can be beneficial, and well as harmful. Popular wisdom says that if the people you associate with are not helping your mental health, choose other people to associate with. The same can apply to social media. If you find there are people whose posts “wind you up” or make you angry or anxious, why not quietly block their posts, or unfollow them? Of course, if they are given to promoting misinformation and conspiracies about vaccines, or other aspects of Covid-19, when you know them well, and can engage them productively, do so. You might graciously point them to reputable, and trusted sources of information; you might share your own experience of vaccination, or tell stories to which they can relate. But weigh up carefully whether you are likely to have a positive effect. If not, then ignoring their posts is probably the best option.
Overcoming fear, and reassuring the anxious
So much for exhortation; but let us recognise, too, that some reactions and even some angry or abusive behaviour may well arise out of fear and anxiety. Covid-19 is an insidious disease, and highly transmissible variants such as Delta or Omicron are especially so. Many, including Christians, are fearful for the health of themselves, and their loved ones, particularly those who are immuno-compromised. With so much apparent threat around, and much to be anxious about, it may even be that threat is perceived to exist even in sources designed to mitigate disease (“is that vaccine truly safe?”).
Calm and reasoned assurance, backed up with good information and clearly articulated arguments may help (“consider the number of vaccines that have been administered against the number of bad outcomes recorded”). For Christians, placing trust in the assurances of Scripture may help: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
Sometimes, what will be needed is the reassuring presence of a friend, a listening ear, a caring phone-call, or a skype or zoom session. If fear can incubate in isolation, then connection and presence (in person or more remote) may help to alleviate this. Of course, I do not wish to minimize the fact that for some anxiety, as with depression, requires more in-depth and long-term attention, and perhaps even specialist or medical help. But the benefits of having someone walk with one through these times cannot be underestimated. Of course, some have more gifting in pastoral care than others, so the fact that the body of Christ is a collective of gifts to be differently applied is a strength of the Christian community.
In summary, what may we say are helpful Christian responses to the pandemic? I reiterate that this piece is written from one perspective.
First, I have suggested that a Christian response is to trust human initiatives, and “God-given” scientific responses to combatting the virus. Trust in God and trust in human scientific work are not mutually exclusive. Those who take the line that one should simply leave it all up to God, as it were, may actually be expressing, although perhaps unintentionally, a distrust in God’s provision of human resourcefulness, and wisdom derived from being made “in the image of God”.
Hence, considering that all the evidence suggests that those producing the approved vaccines are well-intentioned, and do not have malign purposes in mind, one can happily accept vaccination, and support a general, community-wide vaccination programme. Government mandated measures aimed at providing safety and protection to the community ought to be welcomed and supported by Christians who are called to love their neighbour and understand the importance of being part of a mutually supportive community.
Second, the call to have the mind of Christ, and follow the example of Jesus, should cause Christians to consider the mental wellbeing of others, and avoid actions and words that harm, tear down, or destroy the peace of mind of others. Christians by no means have a monopoly on the virtues of patience and kindness that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern exhorts the “team of five million” to show. However, in the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), Christians have access to resources beyond their natural capacities to enable a selfless, and considerate mind-set.
Finally, in the knowledge that the God of creation is a God who cares for and attends to the needs and petitions of God’s people, Christians can approach the threats, the fear, and the stresses that a pandemic engenders with a trust and sense of security that is not complacent but confident in the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3, 4), on whom we may cast our cares.
Parts of New Zealand, especially Auckland, are currently dealing with outbreaks of the Delta variant. But with high vaccination rates increasing, there is hope we may soon be relatively free of community transmission. Nonetheless, the effects of the pandemic are likely to be a feature of life for some months, if not years, to come. This article is offered as one contribution to a consideration of how we may draw upon biblical resources, and scriptural principles, to undergird a Christian response to living in a world enduring a pandemic.
Derek Tovey is a retired lecturer in New Testament. He has been double-jabbed with the Pfizer vaccine, and recognizes that retirement brings benefits (e.g. freedom from worry about work!) that others do not enjoy.
 Listener, August 7, 2021, 11; the cartoon is by Anthony Ellison.
 Robyn J. Whitaker, “‘The blood of Jesus is my vaccine’: how a fringe group of Christians hijacks faith in a war against science.” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/the-blood-of-jesus-is-my-vaccine-how-a-fringe-group-of-christians-hijacks-faith-in-a-war-against-science-165236.
 Kolina Koltai, “‘The Gospel Truth?’ Covid-19 vaccines and the danger of religious misinformation,” https://www.bbc.com/news/av/health-56416683
 See articles, New Zealand Herald, 4/10/21 (A3), and 6/10/21 (A4). See also https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/covid-19-coronavirus-delta-outbreak-brian-tamaki-tells-followers-to-do-away-with-masks/E5BWP7DUJEAKLAPTPFCLWZ6ERY/
 NZ Herald, 4 March, 2021: “Covid 19 coronavirus: Destiny Church leader Hannah Tamaki unrepentant over travel, reveals she is shunning vaccine.” https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/covid-19-coronavirus-destiny-church-leader-hannah-tamaki-unrepentant-over-travel-reveals-she-is-shunning-vaccine/AMBUFQFYCH
 All biblical quotations (and references) are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, unless otherwise noted.
 See e.g., an article by Teuila Fuatai, “Covid: The risible racism variant,” NZ Herald 1/9/21, A44, 42.
 See again Teuila Fuatai’s article. Shane Te Pou, in a opinion piece, “Don’t listen to the panic mongers and cowards,” Weekend Herald, 28/08/2021, A7, writes about the affect of Covid on Māori. And for an analysis of the situation in the US, see Lois Beckett, “Special Report: Coronavirus,” The Guardian Weekly, 29 May, 2020, 8–10 (quotes on p. 8). The following article (p. 11) on the anti-vaxxer movement and conspiracy theorists in Germany, shows a masked young woman with the slogan, “Don’t Give Gates a Chance” [presumably referring to the Gates’ Foundation’s support for vaccines] on the mask, wearing a tee-shirt with “Jesus” emblazoned on the front.
 For a simple statement on this see https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/how-do-vaccines-work. Vaccination of most of the community is especially important for providing protection for the small minority of eligible people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. Currently, of course, children under twelve are not able to be vaccinated either.
 I leave aside here discussion of the much wider challenge of dealing with the threats to people’s livelihoods, the economic and, perhaps, social fall-out from policies and practices (e.g. lockdowns) as part of the effort to control, and severely restrict the virus’s spread.
 Previously, a successful stop had been effected by a decree of King Artaxeres (Ezra 4:23, 24).
 Indeed, a book by two women who worked on the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr. Catherine Green, Vaxxers: The Inside Story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the Race Against the Virus (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021), gives a human face to two of the scientists who have developed a vaccine. It shows not only that they are ordinary people, who genuinely desire to save lives, but also details the collaboration and cooperation around the world that the threat of the virus has generated; not to mention indicating that thousands of people have contributed to the work–a situation hardly conducive to a conspiracy.
 Vaxxers (see note 12 above) described in a Listener (August 21, 2021; 48–49) book review as “a reassuring read for the ‘vaccine hesitant’”, might be a helpful resource. See my review in this issue. Many, however, will be best helped by a friend, or family member whom they trust.