The COVID Vaccine—But What About…?

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

To you who hear, I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you (Lk 6: 27). Stop judging.
The 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Feb 20th) offers up these words, along with associated helpful counsels, from the Lord Jesus Christ, in the context of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 6:17-49).
Well, how are we doing with this, in the year 2022? Now, some people may not be at home with the language of enemies and hatred—indeed, many people do manage to live in relative peace and harmony with their neighbors. If you are among that number, blessed are you.
But in this year 2022, there is no denying that there is a great deal of rancour present in our society, a great propensity to not only criticize people who think differently than we do or make different moral choices than we do, but to actually see these people as “enemies” in some sense.
We seem to be encouraged to look upon people who think and behave differently from us as actually presenting a threat to our safety, health, or ability to flourish and live good lives.
And in that sense, even if we don’t ourselves give in to hatred or use the word “enemy” to describe “those people” who do such things, this Gospel is crucial right now.
We all have to learn the lessons Jesus wants to teach us, or we risk heading into a very dark place indeed in our society.
Of course I’m talking about COVID vaccines and the different decisions people are making around them.
Mind you, that is not the only area where differences in opinion have grown more rancorous in recent years.
Political differences between right and left, always contentious, seem to have been blown up to new levels of demonization: people who are on “the other side” politically are not seen as simply wrong but as actually evil and (in those worst afflicted by this extreme way of thinking) as needing to be eliminated from society.
But for sure right now, among the most dangerously divisive and acrimonious subjects is the whole vaccine issue, and I suppose other issues around COVID and its mitigation. And so this is the area where we must—absolutely must!—apply the words of Christ in Luke 6 with rigor and literalness, if we are to call ourselves Christian.
But what about the fact that “those people” are endangering my life? But what about the fact that “those people” are doing me harm? But what about the fact that “those people” are threatening my livelihood?
But what about the fact that “those people” are preventing us from getting back to normal? But what about the fact that “those people” are stupid? But what about … what about … what about …?
The people to whom Jesus was talking in his public ministry were an oppressed minority living in a brutal empire that lacked the basic commitments to freedom, social justice, and care of the poor that most of us consider normal features of civilized life.
In his divine omniscience, he knew well that those who received his words, recorded them, and would read them and be called to live them would be facing actual martyrdom, would be murdered for their belief in Jesus by a cruel state tyranny, all within a century of his speaking them.
He knew well that to follow him would in fact mean to lose much, and in many cases to lose everything, for his sake.
Jesus had the courage to call people to do difficult things. He himself would love his enemies while they nailed him to a cross, and would ask his Father to forgive them while he hung there, dying in indescribable agony. We are his followers; we are called to live as he lived, love as he loved, and (if circumstances require it) die as he died.
Faithfulness to Jesus, faithfulness to the Gospel, does not only apply when it makes no great demands on us, only to be discarded as an irrelevancy as soon as it threatens our health, well-being, prosperity, or even our life.
And yet, so often in the public and private discussions around COVID, vaccines, or other political and social questions, charity and kindness, patience and gentleness, non-judgmental love and deep respect for the other seems to be thrown onto the rubbish pile very quickly indeed. This happens in religious circles just as readily as anywhere else, it seems to me.
But what about public safety? What about human freedom? What about people endangering lives? What about people losing their livelihoods? (Please note my careful choice of sample questions from both sides of the issue). What about that, huh?
Well, nobody can force anyone to associate with anyone else. If you honestly believe a person is a threat to your safety, you are free to disengage from them.
The broader social and political issues that are matters of government policies are a more difficult question. I have my opinions on them and you doubtless have yours.
The crucial thing is that we choose to love one another as we discuss and debate these communal issues, and we can at least acknowledge the basic humanity, the core goodness, and the claim to respect of one another even if we happen to find one another in disagreement around these admittedly contentious topics.
What, alas, is seen all too often both in social and mainstream media, and in general converse, is bitter division, insults, derision, mockery, sneering, degrading at times to threats of and calls for violence against “those people.”
It is a dangerous situation; we in North America have been used to a certain standard of social peace even in the midst of cultural and social divides. We need to realize that the basic social contract, the shared commitment to resolve differences through peaceful political processes, is more fragile than we might think.
Those in positions of influence who stir up enmity and hatred for people who think and act differently from them are playing with fire—the human race has a long history of bloody civil conflict that quickly and unpredictably spirals out of control to consume who it will.
The dogs of war, once let loose to roam wild from their leash, are not easily commanded or recalled.
Love of enemies and the commitment to turn the other cheek is not only a basic Gospel command and the way to holiness in imitation of Christ—it is also good social policy.
For we who are Christians, the way is clear, if not easy. We must prioritize love of the person over anything else, and that love must be expressed in a deep commitment to respect the other, to be kind, patient, gentle, fore-bearing, and non-judgmental of one another in these difficult times.
If we who believe in Jesus Christ, who presumably are praying to him for help and receiving the sacramental graces of his life and love regularly, cannot manage this, it is to our shame.
The world needs us to lead in this matter; let us accept the call of Christ and rise to the challenge of the Gospel without compromise, without any “but what abouts” to cloud the vital issue before us.