Simon Williams is a pastor at Kaiapoi Baptist Church. The opinions expressed here are his own. View more opinion on Baptist magazine.
I have started writing this more than a dozen times, I have sat looking at a blinking cursor and wondered how I express where I stand in this moment. So today, I write with caution. I write not to cause division, but to be a different voice in the current narrative, perhaps even a voice of dissent.1 I believe that it is a difficult time to publicly disagree with the official opinion, decisions, and set of beliefs. I acknowledge I am in the minority. This article represents my personal opinion and does not reflect the breadth and diversity of opinion held within my local faith community, or that of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand, of which I am a pastor.
I have not received any doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine (BNT162b2). I am not an anti-vaxxer, in the traditional stereotype, easily caricatured by our government and media, as in my view, they pit our society against each other. I have watched as a virus has been personified and I have felt dehumanised. I have very real concerns about what is unfolding in our communities. I believe division is being actively encouraged, and what were once long held self-evident rights within our nation, such as a person’s health information being private, and people being able to choose medical treatment without pressure, are now being used as leverage to obtain what I believe to be an arbitrary public health target. A population vaccination target that we are told will reduce case numbers and allow greater freedom. I do not agree with what seems to me to be a sole reliance on total population vaccination as the primary strategy to mitigate COVID-19, especially given that the data on vaccination rates and case numbers is contestable.2
The Government narrative for COVID-19 has moved from one of kindness and being a “team of five million” to what I perceive as a narrative of fear, restriction and segregation. I feel like there is an inability to have constructive debate on anything related to COVID-19, and this is of grave concern to me. Never before have I felt such censorship, control or manipulation of the social narratives in New Zealand.
In my view, and I believe this is the view of many others, the government has declared itself the only vehicle of truth3 and this has been a huge red flag to me. I believe the government has restricted basic freedoms, using a piece of rushed legislation. Described by National Party MP Simon O-Connor in the COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill third reading as “anti-democratic… against the principles of law and ethics”.4 I believe this rides roughshod over the New Zealand Bill of Rights (NZBORA) and other International Treaties. For example, Managed Isolation and Quarantine impinges on the right of individuals to return to their country of citizenship and the current lottery for places and the lack of compassion for exemptions have caused untold emotional, social and economic damage to our nation.
I believe we are acquiescing towards a dangerous future for our nation. Many of those self-evident human rights owe their origins to a Judaeo-Christian biblically informed worldview5:
Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR)– “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”6
The concepts of this article are pre-figured in the Genesis Creation narrative where God declares mankind to be very good, we are imago Dei, made in the image of God.
Yet there has been barely a whimper from the church as people (image bearers of God) have been mandated to accept a medical procedure that may go against their conscience to maintain their employment.
Today as I write (15 November 2021) my heart is heavy with sorrow, I am aware that people who deeply love God and feel called to vocations where they embody Jesus will be teaching for possibly the last time. As of Tuesday 16 November 2021 teachers who have not had at least one jab of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine (BNT162b2) will be unable to return to their classrooms. They will also be considered “inappropriate people”7 and schools have been told by the Ministry of Education that Police action may be an appropriate response if these teachers return to site.
I have spent over 20 years involved in local schools – as a parent, board member, sports coach, ‘the church guy’ who offered pastoral care to students and staff, and also as a husband, and now as a father of a teacher. I know intimately the dedication and passion that most teachers have for their vocation, they pour their heart and soul (and personal resources) into their students. So, I also know that the decision to not have ‘the jab’ is not made easily. It is a deep act of conscience, made after struggle, tears and countless conversations.
With data now suggesting that the Infection Fatality Rate for Children is effectively zero8, I feel the rhetoric of the jab protecting our children is rather hollow.9 I appreciate there is only one dedicated paediatric intensive care unit in the country, at Starship Children’s Hospital with 16 ICU beds, but surely there are other ways to take pressure off our hospitals and healthcare system than mandating school teacher vaccinations? Since the beginning of the pandemic it has been obvious that COVID-19 disproportionally affects the elderly and vulnerable.10 The use of lockdowns and vaccine mandates are blunt tools and I believe they have greater negative consequences for those that have a significantly lower risk profile with COVID-19. In my view the impact of these measures on wider health care and the psycho-social fabric of our nation has been disastrous.
Today (15 November 2021) those teachers who will leave school for possibly the last time will need your love and support. You may not agree with their decision, but how will you love them as they grieve? They are just some of the many in coming months who will make a principled stand that costs them greatly. How will you love the health workers, the emergency service personnel and many others that for many reasons will not be forced or coerced into a medical procedure against their conscience?
We are spending, actually indebting our nation and the globe in a way that I believe is unsustainable and unethical. In my view we as a church (local, national, global) should be speaking prophetically into this. We should be asking the big questions around generational stewardship of our nation’s resources. I am very concerned about COVID-19-created debt: our children and grandchildren will be burdened with a debt that will affect government spending and priorities for decades because of the way we are responding to this global pandemic. What type of future are we creating with a response that relies on such huge debt as the immediate outcome?
I believe COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain and exposed the mortality of humanity in a way that has not occurred in living memory for most in the developed world. What I describe as the unspoken secular humanistic social construct of good health and long life is being challenged and shattered. If we are to act on the veracity of the data I believe we face a global existential crisis.
This is our patch, the church, the followers of Jesus. This is where we should be leading and excelling. We have the antidote to existential distress – faith in Jesus Christ. This could be our moment and should be our moment. Never before have I seen or heard our culture so pre-occupied with human suffering and mortality.
As a church, however, our response seems to be focused on the temporal situation of protecting and prolonging earthly life and not the eternal – I am not advocating a laissez faire approach to COVID-19, but as a church, we must look beyond to the eternal. I believe our narrow definition that ‘getting the jab’ loves our neighbour highlights this. Our love seems to only extend to the temporal aspect of our neighbours lives not the eternal. How many of our neighbours know that we got the jab as an act of love towards them? Have we told them? We say we willingly get the jab as an act of love, but our motivation may not be purely altruistic as we also gain benefit from the jab. It seems that our love for our neighbour doesn’t extend to declaring the gospel to them. In Matthew 16 Jesus warned us that people may well gain their life, but lose their souls. Are we as individuals and as churches addressing the eternal nature of what I am describing as an existential crisis, or are we just encouraging people to be vaccinated?
I strongly believe this moment in time allows us to examine places and spaces that we sometimes give very little thought:
- Our understanding of human mortality. What is our theology of death?
- The role of suffering in human experience.
- Do we actually believe and live in a way that reflects:
1 Corinthians 15:55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”, and:
2 Timothy 1:10 “but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Our communities, both the church and the wider community, need hope. I believe the overarching narrative for months in New Zealand has been hopelessness and a focus on the temporal prolonging of life, the alleviation of pain and suffering. I want us to provide places and spaces for people to process these complex, but vital parts of human experience. We have an opportunity to not only express the Kingdom of God through compassion and love of our neighbours but also to extend the Kingdom of God – let us get to work introducing people to the eternal hope that is found in Jesus Christ.
I fear that we will look back to this COVID-19 global pandemic and see an incredible opportunity lost. Amidst the complexity, pain and suffering wrought by COVID-19 we need to declare that there is more to life than simple earthly existence. That God in His unfathomable mercy has made a way for us to be restored, for us to inherit eternity through His son Jesus Christ. As the Church, let us widen our focus and lift our eyes – because “our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20)
Contributor Simon Williams, Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father and Co-pastor at Kaiapoi Baptist Church
- As defined by Merriam Webster: to publicly disagree with an official opinion, decision, or set of beliefs.
- Subramanian, S.V., Kumar, A. Increases in COVID-19 are unrelated to levels of vaccination across 68 countries and 2947 counties in the United States. Eur J Epidemiol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-021-00808-7
- Simon O’Connor – https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/hansard-debates/rhr/combined/HansDeb_20200513_20200513_24