David C. McDuffie is a senior lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and a member of the Environment and Sustainability Program Advisory Council in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is also a fellow at the Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South.
Even before the onset of COVID-19, vaccine hesitancy posed an immediate and emerging health risk for global populations. In 2019, the World Health Organization listed “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines” as one of the top 10 threats to global health. As COVID-19 has spread around the world becoming a global pandemic that has exponentially threatened lives, as well as economies, the risk posed by reticence to accept vaccines has become even more acute.
This short article is a brief attempt to address the potential role and responsibility of religion in addressing vaccine hesitancy. Of course, religion is a term that applies to a wide variety of cultural expressions. While I will only speak from my own religious tradition, I am confident that many other religious traditions will share, when applied to their culturally specific practices, an agreement with what I have to say below.
I am a member of the Episcopal Church in the United States, which is a sacramental tradition within the Anglican branch of Christianity. A sacramental orientation implies an understanding that divine grace is present with and to us and mediated through the material reality of our lived experience. Ritually, our primary form of sacramental worship is the sacrament of the Eucharist through which we understand that we receive, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “inward and spiritual grace” through the material substances of consecrated bread, wine, and water. In this sacramental commitment and ritual orientation, we share much in common with many of our fellow Christians including those from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
A sacramental orientation implies an understanding that divine grace is present with and to us and mediated through the material reality of our lived experience.
There is, I believe, real potential for sacramental Christianity to make a much-needed religious contribution toward alleviating the public health problem of vaccine hesitancy. First, Eucharist means thanksgiving, and at the heart of this thanksgiving is an affirmation of the valuation of life. Our Eucharistic liturgies are infused with images of rebirth and renewal and the ever-present theme of life overcoming and emerging from death through divine grace. Of course, these liturgies are grounded in the narrative of the incarnational presence of God in the life of Jesus, but we are also invited to include our personal and communal joys and sorrows, thanksgivings and anxieties as a part of this ongoing narrative with an acceptance that the grace present in Jesus is the same grace present to and with us in the sacrament.
Furthermore, at its most profound and effective, our sacramental worship is not confined to the walls of a church or the length of a particular liturgical ritual. Instead, we are called to recognize, through our reception of grace in the Eucharist, that this same grace infuses and sustains all life. In fact, the term “mass” has etymological roots in the dismissal of the congregation into the wider world which implies a sending out to cultivate an awareness of and witness to a divine presence incarnate in and connecting all that contributes to the ongoing flourishing of life on Earth. This sacramental valuation of life is inextricably connected to the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel message of Jesus to love God and neighbor, a sentiment that I think that can be appropriately rephrased as loving God by loving life.
The importance of accepting such a broad sacramental perspective has become even more pronounced with the ongoing pandemic since so many of us, to varying degrees, have been separated from receiving the Eucharistic sacrament due to public health guidelines related to in-person worship. Yet, we can still offer thanksgiving through our sacramental valuation of life, and a Christianity committed to recognizing ongoing incarnational grace has the potential to make a significant contribution to promoting the acceptance of scientifically approved COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr. Carl Sigel is a friend and colleague of mine on the Environmental Ministry Committee for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. In a recent email correspondence, he relayed a conversation that he had with the Rev. Dr. George Clifford on the Christian responsibility for responding to the current pandemic. He summed up their conclusions by saying that, “as Christians, we are called to love our neighbor and care for the least of these. We do that by not being contagious. Now we wear a mask, and then we get vaccinated. It is a moral obligation.”
My response was that I feel very strongly that public health is at the very heart of living out the Gospel message of loving God through loving neighbor and that, from my perspective, the work of medical professionals is sacramental in that there is always grace in the protection of life.
Therefore, if the valuation of life is accepted as inherent and essential to Christian faith and practice, sacramental Christians have an obligation to respond in support of vaccines that can protect and improve public health.
If the valuation of life is accepted as inherent and essential to Christian faith and practice, sacramental Christians have an obligation to respond in support of vaccines that can protect and improve public health.
There are several ways that religious leaders can make a significant contribution in this regard:
First, religious leaders have a role and responsibility to refute misguided anti-vaccination rhetoric and promote the safety and efficacy of vaccines and their importance for achieving and maintaining public health goals. The global health and overall wellness benefits of vaccinations are well established. The success of vaccines against deadly diseases such as smallpox, polio, measles, and pertussis is a testament to this. Furthermore, there are clear links between vaccine refusal and the spread of dangerous communicable diseases. In brief, support for scientifically vetted vaccines is support for human health and, consequently, is a priority for a sacramental view of life.
Regarding our current situation in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak with vaccines emerging that can potentially lead us out of the pandemic, religious leaders can also serve as an additional source of trust and authority. While scientific experts from deservedly respected institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins have affirmed the safety of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines, misinformation readily available online and through social media has unfortunately still contributed to concerning amounts of vaccine hesitancy. By speaking on behalf of the legitimacy of science-based medicine, religious leaders have an opportunity to use their cultural influence to counter misinformation by expressing confidence in the medical research undergirding approved COVID-19 vaccines.
By speaking on behalf of the legitimacy of science-based medicine, religious leaders have an opportunity to use their cultural influence to counter misinformation.
Additionally, for many ethnic minorities, medical experimentation invokes a painful history of death and degradation instead of life. As a result, there is a real need for healing and recognition of a past characterized by medical discrimination in order to begin to convey the life-sustaining promise of the current vaccines. Religious communities have a responsibility to contribute to this healing process and have an opportunity to advocate not only for life-giving vaccines but also for the equitable application and distributions of these vaccines.
As a result of factors including mistrust, misinformation, and uncertainty over the historic rapidity of the development of COVID-19 vaccines, vaccine hesitancy has even emerged among many members of the health care community. There is no doubt that there is inevitably some risk involved with any medical treatment, including vaccines. However, the scientific consensus is clear that, in relation to receiving the available COVID-19 vaccines, the benefits far outweigh the risks for the vast majority of the population. Religion has a role to play here as well.
As humans, we are constantly seeking certainty, but neither good religion nor good science makes such a promise. The formal sacraments of the church are understood, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, to provide a “sure and certain means by which we receive…grace” and “sustain our present hope and anticipate its future fulfillment.” Yet, this is not a naïve hope. Sacramental religious practice can help us recognize that there is uncertainty and risk in the lives we lead but that grace is present in the connectedness and continuation of life. Our participation in the Eucharistic sacrament can therefore be seen as a trajectory toward the recognition of grace present all around us in what former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple referred to as “the sacramental universe.” Such a perspective implies that the formal sacraments and sound epidemiology are both conveyers of grace.
Sacramental religious practice can help us recognize that there is uncertainty and risk in the lives we lead but that grace is present in the connectedness and continuation of life.
Accepting this comprehensive sacramentalism, sacramental Christianity can seamlessly connect religious practice with efforts from the public health and medical communities to alleviate the global health threat associated with vaccine hesitancy. Furthermore, a commitment to this broadly sacramental view of life will provide the opportunity to address not only COVID-19 but also the destruction of nature and consequent biodiversity loss that are the root causes of the current and any potential future pandemics. Surely there can be no clearer sign of grace than the continued flourishing of life on Earth.