WHO WOULD JESUS VACCINATE FIRST?
As the first precious drops of the COVID-19 vaccine roll out across America, a pressing question swirled in prior weeks: Who gets them first?
In my state, as in most others, the majority of those doses will go to extremely vulnerable residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. (Though front-line workers will deservedly get some too.)
After all, nursing home residents are amongst those most likely to die from COVID-19. So we might be tempted to think that putting them first is nothing more than a common sense deduction that any civilization would make.
It is not.
And we should take a moment to recognize that fact—and then give thanks.
CRATERS ON THE MOON
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes the lingering influence of Christianity on Western culture like craters on the moon.
What he means is that the impact marks of the gospel are still visible, even if the theological beliefs which formed them are no longer so widely held. We are seeing one of those “impact marks” now in the decision to give our first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to people who may have little time left to live, even without it.
But by any tally, it’s not long.
So is our distribution plan “correct” by a purely utilitarian metric?
I listened recently to the Yale scientist, Nicholas Christakis, as he explained why giving our limited supply of COVID-19 vaccinations to those in nursing homes might NOT be the best approach.
He suggested that it could be better to distribute the vaccine “upstream” amongst citizens who are more likely to spread the virus, and thereby yield an exponential case-load reduction.
I have no epidemiological opinion on which approach is best; and even if I did, you shouldn’t listen to it (because getting your science and medical “takes” from unqualified people on the Internet is like calling a plumber for an appendectomy).
My point is NOT to say who SHOULD get the vaccine first, from a medical standpoint.
My argument is that our culture’s default assumption that “The last should go first” is influenced by theological factors that go beyond utilitarian ethics, economics, or default human behavior across millennia.
And I give thanks for that.
A HISTORIAN WEIGHS IN
Historian Tom Holland argues that one of the most enduring marks of Christianity has been the elevation of individuals who would have previously been seen as “less than” or disposable.
As an atheist himself, Holland does not believe the theological claims of Scripture, yet he admits that Christianity is the biggest reason “why we [in Western culture] assume every human life to be of equal value.”
When studying the ancient Greeks or Romans, he notes:
It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.
Why did I find this disturbing?
Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in those assumptions].Tom Holland, Dominion, 16-17.
Of course, both Christians and secularists have often been terrible in consistently applying this ethic.
To choose just two examples: On one extreme sits a naked refusal by some to recognize the full humanity of brown-skinned kids in cages at the southern border. And on the other rests a stubborn inability to condemn the killing of unborn babies in the womb. Hypocrisy abounds.
Nonetheless… the assumption (at least in theory) about the intrinsic value of the vulnerable has seeped into the cultural groundwater.
And at the end of that long historical trajectory sits someone like Margaret Keenan—the 91-year-old British woman who was the first person in the UK to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
What was the reaction to the choice of Margaret Keenan, and others like her?
Not a single person I heard said, “Why save her? She’s going to die soon anyway.” Not a single person said, “Give the first doses to the powerful, the top-earners, and the ‘old-but-not-THAT-olds’.”
To be clear, I have no doubt that there will be inequities in vaccine distribution, especially in underdeveloped countries and underserved communities. But the very fact that we have chosen (in theory) to prioritize those who, by worldly standards, can contribute least to our economic and materialistic future shows a small glimmer of grace in a dark year.
That grace comes, as René Girard noted, from a Light that “has revealed so many things for so long a time without revealing itself that we are convinced it comes from within us.”
It’s a ray of sunlight on the craters of the moon.
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Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:
- Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Seedbed, 2018)
- The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan Academic, 2019)
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