As a doctor and a Christian, I am struck by the profound difference that my fellow Christians could make in the trajectory of the pandemic by getting vaccinated. The delta variant, a much more transmissible form of COVID-19, threatens a new round of restrictions and a new round of deaths. And nearly all the deaths involve people who haven’t been vaccinated.
Earlier this year, 45% of white evangelical adults said they would not be vaccinated, according to a Pew Research Center survey. That amounts to more than 45 million Americans or 14% of the population, based on the 2020 Census of American Religion. If this group alone accepted the COVID-19 vaccine, we could begin to close in on herd immunity and move beyond this painful and deadly season.
And while I feel powerless to do or say anything to overcome the political divides that contribute to vaccine hesitation, I feel equally sure that Christians who weigh the vaccination decision from a strictly Christ-centered point of view ultimately will be moved to acceptance.
The reasons for Christian vaccine hesitancy are varied, but the most convincing reason to overcome that reluctance is what Jesus described as the second great commandment after loving the Lord your God – love your neighbor as yourself. Christ followers are called to sacrifice in His name as Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to atone for our sins.
As Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” In his letter to the Ephesians, he called on us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
I have heard some Christians say that the pandemic is God’s will, and that God will decide whether we live or die, so they will leave their fate in God’s hands. I, too, submit my life to God and understand that my every breath is granted by Him. But I would never have become a doctor if I thought that helping people prevent and recover from illness was contrary to the will of God.
In contrast, I believe that I can be an instrument of God’s mercy, as can the researchers and pharmaceutical professionals who created the vaccine and the many hands that have delivered it to us. Indeed, Jesus identified himself as the great physician when he was criticized for spending time with social undesirables like tax collectors: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”
In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel taught that "this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! …You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured."
And this was reinforced by Jesus in the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus held up an example of how we should treat our neighbors when he described how the Samaritan encountered a half dead traveler on the road and “bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.” A priest and a Levite passed the traveler first and ignored his suffering, crossing to the other side of the road. But it was the Samaritan Jesus identified as the true neighbor because he cared for the stranger.
Sadly, once nearly eradicated childhood diseases are on the rise as more people claim religious exemptions to decline vaccinations for their children. Yet practically no major religion prohibits vaccination, and some consider it an obligation because of the potential to save lives, as the COVID-19 vaccines clearly do.
These vaccines contain no aborted fetal cells, though their development did include the use of fetal cell lines dating to the 1970s. Let me state unequivocally that abortion and use of aborted fetal tissue are morally wrong. But I agree with the Vatican’s direction that it is “morally acceptable” for Catholics to take the COVID-19 vaccines. Their ethical reasoning is sound and should be persuasive to other Christian denominations as well.
Of course, the ultimate goal for Christians is not just good health in this life but an eternity with God. When asked by a lawyer what he had to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus pointed him back to the law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Some Christians may parse Scripture to find narrow objections to taking the COVID-19 vaccine, but the overarching command from our Lord is unmistakable: Our actions must be driven by our love of God and love of others.
Andrew Wong is an orthopedic surgeon based in Tallahassee, Florida. He has been an orthopedic surgeon for 27 years in private practice with several academic faculty appointments.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Take the COVID-19 vaccine. It's the Christian thing to do.