Tim Costello on freedom, protests and vaccines

Melbourne has been proud of being awarded the most liveable city in the world title for several years over the last decade or so. As of this week it takes the title of being the most locked down. Barely liveable in fact. Covid19 has thrown up a huge challenge for all of us who live here. The longing for freedom is being talked about more and more.

Lockdown has meant many of us have had to turn to new ways of finding support. I am part of a group of five Christian men that meets on Fridays from 5-6pm. For most of the last 18 months it has been via Zoom. We have talked about all sorts of things: work, faith, health challenges, family crises, holidays (yes at least one got out of the State briefly as a nomad). And of course, politics comes up…and most especially our feelings about our leader Dan.

A few weeks back we met in the shadow of the protests across our CBD. Marchers ignored police pleas and Government bans to congregate on successive weekends and hundreds of unmasked people occupied the CBD, shutdown the Westgate Bridge on one workday afternoon, assaulted police and even desecrated the Shrine. Some were construction workers, but many were just disgruntled with lockdown, or upset with mandates regarding vaccines. I know a few Christians who were in the mix.

I doubt any of the violence that erupted came from the Christians but there they were chanting freedom. Their stance was supported by some conservative politicians. Curiously these are Christians who have never demonstrated before in their lives now mobilised and declaring they will not be slaves to Dictator Dan and his public health order. Given that most of these believers until now have been strong Romans 13 Christians, namely ‘submitting to the governing authority for there is no authority except that which God has ordained’ – this is novel and suggests a line that has been crossed.

And, of course, it is not just Melbourne. A few weeks back there was a national zoom forum with Pastors from various States here and some from the US held a ‘Prayer and Pushback’ forum with Pauline Hanson, George Christiansen and Craig Kelly. Pauline was clapped by some Pastors when she said she would not have the vaccine and Christiansen was one who had criticised the police for their violence in Melbourne – not the protestors for theirs – which is an unexpected conservative twist. Again, the theme of freedom and mobilising Christians to stand firm against vaccine mandates and passports, lockdowns and curfews was framed as a Gospel issue of prayer and pushback. Acts 5 is the go-to text that ‘we will obey God not man’ but on my reading that was a ban to stop preaching the Gospel and I have heard no Government in Australia impose that ban.

There is a strong Christian tradition of civil disobedience identified particularly with Rev Martin Luther King. But as his magnificent letter written whilst in Birmingham jail outlines back then it was the white clergy who were telling him to stop his nonviolent street marches as it provoked the police – that with mass arrests this was not the time for his ‘unlawful’ marches and he should be more patient. He poignantly asked if not now, then when?

We should honestly ask ourselves so who is the main target of my demand for freedom? If the answer is to suit myself and my immediate interests then it is only freedom from rather than freedom for.

In Australia Christians from Love Makes a Way have chained themselves to the Prime Minister’s residence and non-violently occupied Politicians’ offices protesting the treatment of refugees in mandatory detention. They defend their unlawfulness as a Gospel concern for the weakest and the stranger. Many Christians and probably some now marching in Melbourne would have deplored this as breaching Romans 13.

But how do we use Scripture responsibly and understand God’s heart for freedom?  In Scripture freedom is both negative and positive. Negatively, the Ten Commandments impose restraints and many today think freedom is only freedom from restraints. Too much individualistic thinking is expressed by overthrowing such limits to assert my autonomy and space. But not stealing, not killing, not dishonouring parents or coveting your neighbours’ donkey or wife are also positive freedoms in affirming the dignity and freedom of others. It is a freedom for (not just from) as God is ‘for’ the flourishing of others even though it places a restraint on my absolute freedom. God loves the whole world that is profoundly interconnected, as this invisible virus has shown.

We should honestly ask ourselves so who is the main target of my demand for freedom? If the answer is to suit myself and my immediate interests then it is only freedom from rather than freedom for. Not that this is always easy to answer in the current debates of vaccine passports for worship. I have friends who are vaccinated but with medical preconditions like cancer treatment who say they will not risk going back to church knowing the unvaccinated are there. In NSW as they open up there is no limit on the unvaccinated going to Church but there will be in Victoria. At 80% the rule across the board in Victoria for large gatherings will be vaccinated, masked and 1 person per 4 metres inside. I suspect many elderly Church members are privately glad as they would not feel safe to attend otherwise.

Paul reminds us to surrender our freedom for the sake of the conscience of the weaker brother. But is that the physically vulnerable weaker brother fearing infection from the unvaccinated by coming to Church. Is that the elderly or those have a precondition? Or is it the Christian who has refused the vax because they honestly believe it is a control mechanism by Bill Gates and some global elites or the many who just believe that given the extraordinary rapid invention of the vaccine it must be insufficiently tested?

Many I know are outraged if the church complies with any Government demands to erect a barrier to worship and some include masks and social distancing as unreasonable barriers. Why should the ‘unvaccinated unsaved’ be barred thus denying them the chance of hearing the Gospel? But if 80% of the population is vaccinated then do we raise a much bigger blockage in the minds of the ‘vaccinated but unsaved’ who will not risk attendance and miss out on hearing the Gospel? Should Victorian Churches practise civil disobedience for that 20% unvaccinated? What strategy best serves evangelism? And is evangelism advanced if the Church is seen claiming religious exemptions that do not apply to public health orders governing other community meetings?

But we do have a choice about taking the vaccination or not. Yes, the person with a medical precondition who cannot be vaccinated is different but that is not most of us. And in their case they know that whilst the virus is in our midst their choices of socialising will be severely limited. And choices come from inherent freedom but have consequences. I think a choice makes it so different to what a Gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female enjoyed. (Galatians 3. 28). Their status in the ancient world’s hierarchy was not a choice but given by their birth. This is why the Gospel radically relativised all the status hierarchies and segregation by proclaiming a counter-cultural inclusion in Christ, whatever their birth lottery. I don’t see requiring a vaccine passport as some breach of Galatians 3.28.

These debates will continue as we grapple with the new normal Covid19 has introduced into our midst. Pandemics do that – as my freedom may become your infection. As with my men’s group it will cause a healthy debate and even divide us on this issue but I pray that though we differ on the implications of freedom we agree that God has given us both freedom for and freedom from for the sake of loving and serving others.