Van Ens: Clergy under fire for preaching vaccines
Preachers find ministry tough-going when they preach to parishioners severely split on whether to get vaccinated. During the pandemic, ministers’ morale has plummeted. Clergy are caught in the crossfire between Christians who differ about whether vaccinations curtail the spread of the delta variant. Fearing they may be fired, some ministers shut up about getting vaccinated.
They sell out on what the Bible teaches about staying healthy. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is portrayed as God’s healer who distributes more than mercy to imperfect people. Luke portrays Jesus as a “Great Physician” who healed people of their diseases. He made people whole who suffered from fractured lives, mental fatigue, and debilitating diseases like leprosy.
John Lewis, civil rights activist and former Georgia congressman, told how he embraced a two-legged Gospel of personal renewal and social transformation. White folks urged him to stick to Jesus’ message, which they claimed focused on saving parishioners’ souls. Early on, Lewis learned from the Rev.Martin Luther King, Jr. what the Gospel of Luke shows: At times, a minister’s calling stirs controversy when saving and protecting the soul of our nation. Getting vaccinated helps achieve this healthy goal.
In 1955, Lewis was growing up in a small Alabama town of Troy when King organized a bus boycott in Montgomery. Rousing Black Americans to skip riding buses, King urged them on. “We are determined here in Montgomery — to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he declared, expressing prophetic cadences and poetry woven into his biblical soul.
“I can still say without question that the Montgomery bus boycott changed my life more than any other event before or since,” Lewis recalled. Historian Jon Meacham sums up the impact of the bus boycott on this future King protégé: “To Lewis, the boycott was faith in action, the gospel moving from the pulpit to the streets, from theory to reality, from word to deed.”
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It was a big-hearted gospel in action that leaped from the circumference of a person’s soul to life’s larger canvass. Here, controversy erupted over rights for people of color who no longer tolerated being shunted to the back of the bus — literally and in American society.
Unlike Lewis’ bold action, some clergy stay silent about getting vaccinated. Receiving their own vaccinations on the sly, they either do not publicize them or meekly act as if the shot is a matter of personal choice rather than a necessity for the common good.
Are these mum clergy complicit when they say nothing about getting vaccinated?
“You can’t tell me what to do, nor can Uncle Sam, because such a take-over of my personal liberty robs me of my God-given, constitutionally guaranteed freedom,” claim some parishioners. “I know what the globalist agenda is, and their one world order starts with the vaccine,” exclaims 69-year-old Kathy Pietraszewski, a fan of Georgia’s Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. “So, my No. 1 issue is freedom.”
For our own good and that of our neighbors, we sometimes do not exercise autonomous freedom. Driving my car, I willingly surrender my freedom to speed through red lights. I stop at them, instead. We wear seat belts, even if these safety devices restrict freedom of movement while driving. Freedom does not give a green light to do whatever we desire.
Scripture warns clergy of such quackery and urges Christians to fight it. The Apostle Paul mentored young Timothy, instructing him to be bold, disregard what is not true, and walk alongside Jesus, even if the road ahead had controversial barriers. “[Some who say they follow Jesus] will turn their backs on the truth and accept myths, instead. But you Timothy must take control of yourself in all circumstances. Endure suffering. Do the work of a preacher of the Good News and fully carry out your service to Jesus” (II Timothy 4:4-5).
The Rev. Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, describes a weary band of clergy tempted to stay mum because political controversies in their parishes are ugly, lasting, and demoralizing.
Hoezee listened to 20 pastors who represent a wide range of Christian witness. “Several pastors had left their congregations over tension related to COVID, mask mandates and various political pressures,” reports Hoezee. “Several others hang in there, but, by their own admission, hanging on by their fingernails as often as not. Those who did not leave their congregations and fared a bit better nevertheless reported stress levels seldom, if ever, experienced in their many years of ministry.”
Long-time parishioners have turned on their veteran preachers, writes Hoezee. These irritated churchgoers insist pulpit calls to get vaccinated are out of biblical bounds.
Duke Divinity School professor Curtis Chang backs up what Hoezee reports about wounded clergy retreating from fights over getting vaccinated. Staying mum especially entices preachers in the Deep South, says Chang, who fear inflaming congregational tensions with calls for shots in arms.
“I would say the vast majority are paralyzed or silent because of how polarized it has been,” laments professor Chang.
John Lewis has challenged clergy to risk good controversy. He didn’t treat faith as protective cellophane, which shields preachers from dealing with urgent human needs amid partisan arguments.
John Lewis often recited an adage of the Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797): “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.”
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.