The news these days is exhausting, most recently focusing on the frightening terrorism of ISIS. These last few weeks, though, has seen the emergence of a new and puzzling crisis: the Disneyland measles outbreak. And a crisis is not an understatement, considering that measles is one of the most infectious diseases known to man.
About 20 years ago, Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick … Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
Now, yes, I am married to a primary care doctor, and yes, this is a public health crisis, and the science is clear about vaccinations, but what I really find interesting about this crisis is what subtly lies underneath, and what it reveals about our human spiritual crisis in these days.
I was listening to public radio in Boston recently when a public health expert half-jokingly noted that to find the hotspots of anti-vaccination fervor you could follow these steps:
1. Look at a map of where the Whole Foods are located.
2. Place a pin down where there is a Whole Foods.
3. Draw a 10-mile radius around the pin.
The point being — and this expert was only kidding a bit — that anti-vaccination is largely found among white, highly educated, wealthy advocates.
To me, what’s more obvious about this is when we are white, highly educated, and wealthy — like many of our mainline Protestant congregations — then the feelings of being in control and being free are so important that we are willing to risk the health and lives of others for the sake of being some sort of adjective like “natural” or “free.” Vaccines, designed to protect, become oddly reversed as a possible threat to freedom and “natural living.”
In reality, it is only our privilege that allows us to consider not vaccinating. The same sin that has deeply troubled our sexuality is also at the root of this crisis — the deep-seated belief that the highest good will be that we are free to do whatever we want to our bodies. This continuing belief in total freedom not only fails to take seriously human failings but continues to create crises wherever it goes.
When we view this world as a place where we can make decisions about our lives without regard to the impact to our neighbors, we have failed to heed Jesus’ own words that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have failed to hear from the apostle Paul that our bodies are now God’s temples, and that they are now for the sake of the world.
But those of us in the church have a word to offer to this anxious and terrified world, even on the matter of something as “secular” as vaccination, because we know what it means to take seriously communities and bodies.
We should remember that the Body of Christ needs all of its members to function. We should remember that the boundaries between us, according to Paul, have been eliminated by the work of Jesus. And if those two things are true, then we must live our lives for the sake of others, even our precious kids. Equivalently, that’s what vaccination is about — not just our own health, but the health of so many people who don’t have health, who have diseases and cancers that make them vulnerable. We vaccinate not just for our own health, but for the sake of our neighbors and our friends.
I am reminded of the story in Matthew when Jesus is brought a paralytic man by his friend for healing, yet it is the faith of the friends that saves the man, not his own. You might say that it was their faith, their search for vaccination, which helped to save the paralytic man.
Like the friends of the paralytic man, the Christian life is one that is lived for the sake of the world, for our neighbors. As Martin Luther once wrote, to be baptized is to become a “little Christ.” What Luther meant was that when we are baptized, our lives become like Christ, poured out for the sake of the world.
So, brothers and sisters, for the sake of the vulnerable world around us: let’s vaccinate all those little Christs.
Eric Worringer, M.Div, is the vicar at Saint Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Arlington, Massachusetts and is a candidate for the Master of Theology degree at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He lives with his wife, a family medicine physician, in Lawrence, Massachusetts.