One part of the debate over COVID-19 vaccination mandates is whether exemptions should be allowed for religious reasons.
Much has already been written that sets out the parameters and practical concerns associated with the issue.
A two-part article series by Monty Self that appeared in this space provides historical and legal perspectives.
Mark Winfield of Baptist News Global tells us to expect demand for religious exemptions to increase and that religious exemption letters from local churches carry little, if any, legal standing.
Steve Clarke, Alberto Giubilini and Mary Jean Walker in the journal Bioethics take their bearings from how we handle conscientious objectors. They suggest that people declaring religious exemptions could reasonably be required to demonstrate their sincerity and perform some form of alternative public service.
Such articles are very helpful as one of the tasks of ethics is to describe various factors involved in morally murky debates.
However, these articles do not explicitly address a second task of ethics: to take a normative stance that instructs us in what we should do.
Therefore, even if a religious exemption is available, Christians need to ask, “Should we claim that exemption?”
To take a normative stance – to determine what we should do – means that we let a moral vision (a vision of what a good life is) inform what we should do.
A Christian moral vision must be informed by our tradition. So, let’s consider some of our sacred texts and some of our practices.
At the heart of that vision is what we learn about the rule of God that Jesus displays in word and deed in the synoptic Gospels.
From those Gospels, we learn that the rule of God is characterized by concern for others and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own prestige, power and goods on behalf of others.
Of course, Jesus’ own death on the cross is the prime example of being willing to put the good of others over our own – a willingness that does not come easily, as Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane indicates.
Later, Christians call to mind the example of Jesus. Paul reminds us of that sacrifice when he reminds the contentious Corinthians that we have been bought with a price and, therefore, should glorify God in how we live (1 Corinthians 6:23).
He tells the less contentious, but still troubled church at Philippi to have the same mind as Christ, who emptied himself to come live among us (Philippians 2:5-8).
The author of 1 John likewise uses Jesus’ death as the prime example of love (1 John 3:16-17).
As the author of John’s Gospel tells the story, John the Baptist recognizes that he must decrease and Jesus must increase (John 3:30).
Besides these texts, consider some typical prayers in worship. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s will to be done on earth, not my or our will.
Prayers of confession, when done well, remind us that we all too often confuse our will with God’s.
Prayers of benediction ask God to bless us as we go out into the world to serve God’s interests over ours.
Texts and prayers such as these inform a vision of the good life in which the good does not revolve around our own desires or convenience – or in some cases, our own survival.
To be sure, there are limits to an ethic of self-sacrifice, as Valerie Saiving Goldstein points out in her classic essay, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.”
And Jesus does tell us to love ourselves, as is implied in the command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But nowhere does Jesus make our ideas about individual freedom or well-being the highest good.
Getting vaccinated – for those resistant to do so – is only a small sacrifice in the scheme of things. It is a minor, short-term inconvenience that contributes to a larger good. It is a way of loving neighbors.
But one thing that the pandemic has made glaringly obvious is that, on the whole, the U.S. has become a people unwilling to sacrifice.
We are no longer a nation willing or able to accept the mandatory rationing and other sacrifices made by the “greatest generation” to help the nation and world in the war against Hitler’s Nazi regime.
We are no longer a nation that can hear, let alone respond to John F. Kennedy’s plea, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
It has become obvious, too, that many leaders, unlike Kennedy, are afraid to call people to sacrifice. The most they do is offer incentives, recommendations or encouragement.
The result is that wave after wave of the pandemic washes over us.
In such a context, one of the most important witnesses the church can make is a commitment to prioritizing public health over personal freedom/convenience/preference.
So then, should Christians claim a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine? Let me be blunt: NO!
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible (Nurturing Faith Books, 2017) and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.