Recently, Facebook has seemed dominated by arguments about the safety (or danger) of vaccines, as well as about whether the practice of vaccination ought to be a parental choice. Even Larry Wilmore's new program, The Nightly Show, took on this discussion recently. This all comes in the wake of more than eighty cases of measles in the U.S., something that began at Disneyland and apparently originated in the anti-vaccination community.
The point of this post isn't to stake a claim in that fight, at least not explicitly.
I am enamored by the language of choice within this discussion. Parents, almost without fault, want to do the best for their children. Whether parents choose to use every vaccine available or to refuse those vaccines, I'm sure each parent is making a choice that they believe is the very best for their child. Even more than parental instinct, the attempt to protect those you love is expected.
As often happens, Jesus' words complicate the decision making process, at least for Christians. In Matthew 5, part of what many call the Beatitudes, Jesus says, "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." As Christians make decisions about all sorts of things in the world, part of our responsibility is to make choices that reflect love for our neighbors.
When I first read the story about the Disneyland measles outbreak, I thought all those who got measles were part of the anti-vaccination movement or were in the incredible minority of people for whom vaccinations are not effective. While reading about the fallout, I learned about a third group of people who don't receive vaccines, or more accurately, cannot receive vaccines. For instance, people living with cancer and fight the disease using chemotherapy and radiation treatments have significantly compromised immune systems, such that vaccines are too dangerous a risk of introducing the actual disease. At least one such child is now in a de facto quarantine because she came in contact with an infected patron at Disneyland.
As a pastor, this all breaks my heart. No one who chooses not to vaccinate their children wants to put children at risk. Yet, the very act of not vaccinating does just that: it threatens the lives of those who don't have a choice in the matter, whose own diseases and illnesses prevent them from the luxury of choosing whether to vaccinate against some, all, or no diseases.
Of course, this kind of reasoning affects the entirety of the Christian life. As we seek to protect ourselves and those closest to us, we must also ask a fundamental question: are we loving our neighbor? Are our choices for ourselves working to oppress or endanger others?
At this point, perhaps a bit of full disclosure would help. I'm generally in support of vaccination. It does bother me that pharmaceutical companies make billions on vaccinations, but in my reading, no credible study has been able to link vaccinations to the development of autism, HIV, or the other common claims. The original studies that posited such correlations have been discredited. Some of you disagree with that sentiment. While I don't ultimately agree, I respect that.
But from a Christian point of view, as those who take the words of God as words for life, we can't make decisions thinking only of ourselves or of those closest to us. We're called to become children of God, and part of that means we're called to love one another, not just those with whom we share blood, but even those who we don't know, even our adversaries.
This isn't easy. Not in the least. But in the midst of the discussion on whether to vaccinate ourselves and our children, we must stop pretending as though the decision only affects ourselves. We're called to love everyone, absolutely everyone. The end-game of our choices should not just be, "This is the best thing for me," or "This will protect the people that I love." Rather, our call as people of the cross is to love our enemies. To pray for those who persecute us. To pursue a life that works for the good of all creation and the redemption of all things. Whatever choices you make about vaccines, about how to spend your money, about where to spend your time, about all things in life, keep in mind the words of Jesus and seek to act in love toward all people.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.