A plethora of petitions: Christians (and the government) look beyond lockdowns

As the Federal Government signals that the “national plan” to wind back Covid lockdowns as vaccination targets are reached will work even with caseloads in the hundreds, Christian groups are calling for an immediate end to the restrictions.

“COVID-19 is not going anywhere, and we cannot live with lockdowns and restrictions forever. We are delaying the inevitable and adding to the cost unthinkably,” an Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) campaign “Ask your leaders to fully restore freedoms” says.

“We are wreaking destruction on lives, children, livelihoods, the economy, and the future. We need to stand against fear and open up our country no later than once those who wish to be, are vaccinated, without coercion.”

Another petition called “The Ezekiel Declaration” is focussed against “vaccination passports” –  documents that identify those with vaccinations. “The government risks creating an unethical two-tiered society.  While some individuals will receive the vaccination with thanks, others may have good and informed reasons for declining.”

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The best-known signatories are Peter Barnes Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia (who has signed in a personal capacity only) and Bill Muehlenberg, a Melbourne-based blogger with a large following. Thousands have signed it and the One Nation and Christian Democrat parties and the anti-mask movement Reignite Australia have endorsed it.

A striking omission from these campaigns is any statement of confidence in vaccinations. The ACL has taken a “hands-off” approach to the issue of vaccination. Martyn Iles, ACL’s national director has told followers he is not vaccinated but has not advocated for or against vaccines, urging people to make up their own minds. However, the “without coercion” in ACL’s statement indicates opposition to discrimination against the unvaccinated.

The Ezekiel Declaration contains sentences that cast doubt on the efficacy of vaccines. When it says “others may have good and informed reasons for declining” it is clear that this extends beyond people with medical contra-indications for taking the vaccines. It claims that making “vaccination the basis of participating in normal life would make no logical sense in terms of protecting others” an assertion that vaccines are ineffective.

Both petitions are against “coercion”. This objection presumably includes at least some employment-based vaccination mandates and rules that require vaccinations to enter stadiums, shops and other venues

A special concern outlined in the Ezekiel Declaration – and perhaps a major impetus for some signers – is the possibility that governments could require vaccination documents for entry to church services. As reported by Eternity, the Presbyterian church has already called a meeting of its peak council to discuss this. All church groups will have to decide how to run church meetings – but this is different from opposing vaccinations documents in principle which where the Ezekiel Declaration would take us.

Fresh from a series of rallies in WA including a Perth crowd of 5,000 Martyn Iles has given an insightful analysis of the dilemmas for the WA, SA and Qld Governments.

“The main question on my lips is how does it end, how do we get out of this? I think WA (where this message was filmed), might just be happy to lock themselves away forever. Is that the plan?

“But here’s the interesting thing, the Doherty Institute’s Model which was government-commissioned says when 80% of the population is vaccinated, there will still be restrictions; a 2-metre square rule, 75% stadium capacities, limited overseas travel, testing, tracing and isolating. And at 80% vaccination, they say there will be 280,000 cases in the first 6 months, resulting in 2,000 patients in intensive care and a thousand deaths – over 400 of whom will have been fully vaccinated.

“I’ll level with you, I haven’t the foggiest idea how governments like WA, QLD and others with a zero case covid strategy, transition to that. That would be a level of political genius that has never been pulled off before.”

The ACL itself and some churches that represent groups with numbers of vaccine-hesitant or refuser supporters/attendees also have some delicate dilemmas. They have split supporter bases, and seek to maintain support from those opposed to vaccines.

A third campaign by the Christian Democrat Party’s Fred Nile seeks a trial of the controversial drug ivermectin in NSW. Nile cites a study in Bangladesh that is not highly regarded. A Cochrane review (a high-quality review of research) of Ivermectin studies  found “There remains insufficient evidence regarding the efficacy and safety of ivermectin used for the treatment of people with COVID‐19 in the inpatient and outpatient settings and to prevent SARS‐CoV‐2 infection in people after high‐risk exposure.”

Which fear?

A common meme when these issues are discussed on the internet is that “Christians should not live in fear”. The Bible indeed teaches us “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7).
But this Covid meme is usually applied in an “anti-lockdown, let’s get back to normal, let’s not be scared of Covid” context. But the reality is that we commonly fear disease, a reality brought into this world by sin, although we have the ultimate comfort of the New Jerusalem.

There are many fears expressed in the current discussion.

Fear of the effects of lockdown, in depression, suicides, business collapse and medical screenings missed.

Fear that Covid restrictions will open the way to permanent restrictions, described as “tyranny ” by some.

Not living in fear, the argument goes means living without vaccine passports.

But one fear is upheld, a fear of the vaccines’ side effects. The Ezekiel Statement says “many believers do not feel that we have all the information necessary to make a decision on this vaccine at this point in time. … those who are not ready, or hesitant, are so for very valid reasons.”

This validates vaccine hesitancy. Rather than merely endorsing a “right to choose”, the Ezekiel Declaration at this point endorses the validity of hesitancy reasoning. The Ezekiel Declaration goes further with a claim that reports of vaccinated people requiring hospitalisation cause “people [to] … wonder about the effectiveness of the vaccine along with concern about coercive measures by which to have it administered. As it is evident that vaccines do not prevent infection, to restrict a person’s access to society based on a medical choice is questionable.”

It will have been helpful to state that the case for vaccines is that they significantly reduce the incidence and seriousness of infection and transmission, rather than totally eliminate these risk factors. A study about the delta variant is here.

It also needs to be pointed out that the very rare risks from vaccines are much lower risks than the effects of Covid disease itself.

Fear not

Eternity sought the views of key leaders some weeks ago. It’s fair to say that the leaders of mainstream Christian churches are vaccinated and are happy to say so. The Christian mainstream leans towards vaccination.

Many choose to lead by example. This includes Hillsong’s Global pastor Brian Houston who is vaccinated along with the majority of Hillsong’s senior staff. Geoff Smith the Primate (titular head) of The Anglican Church, Wayne Alcorn president of the Australian Christian Churches and Mark Wilson, the National Ministries Director of Australian Baptist Ministries told Eternity they are vaccinated.

Others go further and not only publically state that they have been vaccinated but that they encourage others to do the same.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference told Eternity he encourages others to be vaccinated.

A suggested prayer by Kaniska Raffel, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, who is another leader public about being vaccinated, includes “Please prosper the work of those who are administering the rollout of COVID vaccines. Please strengthen those who are treating the sick. Please comfort those who are mourning the loss of loved ones or living in fear of this disease.”

Raffel also states: “I’m grateful for the way in which local churches have responded creatively and cheerfully to the needs of members and their own communities, and for forbearance with the restrictions that have been placed on our ability to meet in person. God approves law-abiding, and Scripture calls us to submit to our governing authorities and to pray for them as, “This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4) .”

The “national plan” based on Doherty Institute modeling aims to get the nation to “post-vaccination settings (focused on prevention of serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality, and the public health management of other infectious diseases).”

Christian leaders at all levels face the task of deciding how to play their part constructively in this national emergency. While pastorally responding to those who will find the national plan difficult, many, probably most, significant Christian leaders want to follow Romans 13 and support our Premiers and Prime Minister as positively as they can.

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