The vaccination question

A year and a half ago I began doing YouTube vlogs. The first one was, “Why is this Pandemic Different from All Other Pandemics,” a take off on a question asked during the Passover Seder – why is this night different from all other nights? During that vlog I shared how in many ways our generation was a privileged one – how we in the West, until now, lived free from crippling wars and pandemics. I talked about the gospel of Yeshua the Messiah, as one that in turn for salvation from God, a person is called to live a life of self-sacrifice, to live like Yeshua lived and to serve our communities.

Over the past many months, I’ve been asked to address what I will call the Vaccination Question, that is, the apparent opposition on the part of many believers in Yeshua to receiving the vaccine against Covid19. Honestly, I’ve been reticent to address it publicly, mainly because I’m not a scientist or a medical professional. So, instead of discussing the science, I will approach the question from an historical and religious perspective.

Most of us receive a battery of vaccinations early in life. Most do not think much about it. It’s the norm. But it wasn’t always that way. Vaccinations against a variety of diseases didn’t exist until the 19th and 20th centuries. Before then, disease ravaged and killed huge numbers of people. Throughout history the most dreaded disease was smallpox. In the 20th century alone, it’s estimated that 300 million people died of smallpox and around 500 million people in the last 100 years of its existence. In 18th century Europe approximately 400,000 people died every year from the disease. It is believed that 90% of the Native American population of the Americas were wiped out with the introduction of the disease into the New World. The mortality rate of those who contracted the disease was 30%.

What changed? The discovery, introduction and implementation of vaccines. Amazingly, the disease was eradicated world wide in 1980. Unlike when I was growing up, children are no longer vaccinated against this plague because it no longer exists in nature.

I grew up in the 1950’s in the United States. The disease scare of that era was polio. Often children who contracted polio became permanently disabled, forced to walk in braces for the rest of their lives or in worse case scenarios, the disease compromised their breathing, forcing them onto what were known as iron lungs. A good friend of mine from junior and senior high school was polio stricken. In the 1950’s a vaccine was developed to protect against polio. By 2018 there were between 100-200 cases of polio throughout the world. Again, vaccines made the difference.

My wife and I have been watching a TV show about an English army veteran of the American Revolution returning to England following the war. During the show much of his hometown is struck by the disease, diphtheria, tragically taking the life of his only child. Diphtheria raged around the world until the 1980’s. Diphtheria’s morbidity rate was 20% for children under five years of age. Now, infants in western countries receive a vaccine. The disease is almost non-existent in the developed world.

One hundred and fifty years ago – around the time of the Civil War in the US, average life expectancy was 43 years old. Today, it is over 80. A major contributor to increased longevity is the availability and usage of vaccines. People opposed to vaccines are ignorant of history.

So, why do some people oppose vaccines? There seem to be a variety of reasons, but many are based upon misinformation. Why anyone follows medical advice circulating on the internet is beyond me. The same is true of news commentators – who made them experts in epidemiology? The proper course on all of these issues is to speak with your family physician.

Aside from historical factors, there are huge spiritual implications to how we respond to crises like these. Yeshua the Messiah, in responding to a question about the most important commandment, said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind and strength, and the 2nd is like it, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words you can’t claim to love God or even know God if you don’t love the other. If we refuse vaccinations for transmissible diseases, we put others at risk. Plain and simple. That’s the opposite of love.

I understand hesitancy about a new vaccine, especially one developed in record time. Sure, there are side effects, like many other vaccines. But isn’t potentially saving a life worth it? In one of Yeshua’s greatest discussions of love, he said this: “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”

What is one of his commands? Love your neighbor as yourself, and as we see in the story of the Good Samaritan, even a stranger is considered a neighbor, so sacrificing for the sake of others is the Yeshua model of behavior.

The great English poet, John Dunne, wrote, “no man is an island.” While western democracies highlight individual rights, we cannot escape the fact that we are part of a larger society, and what we do affects others. We have responsibilities to our fellow men and women. How much more so as members of the Body of Messiah?

It’s very discouraging to see well known believers and spiritual leaders invoking outrage towards government mandates to get vaccines, to mask, to maintain social distance and to close commercial and even spiritual establishments. How about outrage towards those who do things that spread disease and potentially endanger the lives of others? The Talmud, the authoritative source of Jewish law, says, “to save a life is to save the world.” Judaism has a principle known as Pikuach Nefesh, literally meaning “watching over a soul.” But its essential meaning is that the preservation of life overrides almost all other rules or principles.

We see this principle in operation in the New Testament when Yeshua confronts the religious leaders about how to keep the Sabbath day. The leaders had asked him, is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? He said to them, “if any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” He then healed the man.

Yes, the pandemic has forced us to face things most have never experienced. Many lost jobs. Our freedoms were restricted. We couldn’t travel or attend events. The one true miracle through it all was the rapid development of effective vaccines. Potentially millions of lives will be saved. Shouldn’t we participate in a program that saves lives? It’s the least we can do.