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Gender - Social Construct or Biological Fact?

COVID-Appeal to Jesus-Followers

(PART 1)

A Brief Background

For the record, I’m fifty years old. I’ve been an ordained pastor since 1996, serving as both a senior pastor and missionary over the past twenty-five years, working in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

I grew up in apartheid South Africa where a religious government justified discrimination and human rights abuse in God’s name. I was still in South Africa when a corrupt and unaccountable government, post-Mandela and Mbeki, ravaged and ruined the country further. I also witnessed the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and how his oppressive rule devastated that country and its precious people. Some of the people I worked with in Zimbabwe were subject to violence for not overtly supporting the regime and many of them knew people who’d simply disappeared for speaking out against it.

I have lived in Melbourne, Australia since 2009. As a family, we fell in love with this country and we are now Australian citizens. Over the past twelve years, I’ve paid close attention to how politics work in my adopted country because it’s of interest to me, and because of my previous experiences in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

COVID Consequences

The consequences my family have endured from the COVID pandemic have been life-altering, although small in comparison to what others have suffered.

Many have suffered directly from the virus itself, while others have suffered from the government’s response to the virus. The balance between minimising loss of life versus maintaining a healthy economy is a lose-lose scenario for those in charge. I understand both sides of the issue.

On the one hand, within my own family and close friends, people’s lives have been cut tragically short by the virus. On the other hand, my wife’s once-successful business has effectively shut its doors through repeated lockdowns. Both my daughters are negatively affected, too, especially my eldest. Finishing Year 12 last year, her career plans effectively collapsed through COVID and its implications. (Thankfully, she has adapted and charted a new course forward, but not without much pain and soul searching.)

COVID is a global pandemic and the virus, along with our response to it, is testing us as a human race. Not just as Australians or South Africans (or add your country here), but as human beings.

An Assumption Upfront

I have addressed this article to followers of Jesus. I’m assuming the reader is earnestly seeking the Father’s will in these challenging times, trying to follow Jesus through this taxing moment, endeavouring to respond to the Spirit’s promptings.

Thus, I’m not going to urge you to be more earnest. Nor am I going to fluff my words with spiritual-sounding esoteric phrases. This is simply a frank and open-hearted appeal.

Appeal to Followers of Jesus

My heart is saddened by the response of so many Christians to both the COVID pandemic itself and the government response to the pandemic.

Among Christians, there are several responses, including the following:

    • Those who believe COVID doesn’t actually exist.
    • Those who believe COVID exists but contend that it’s no worse than the flu.
    • Those who believe that Big Brother (Big Gov and Big Pharma) are using COVID in their quest for world domination.

While the first two responses tend to believe this third notion too, this response doesn’t typically deny or minimise COVID—rather, it’s the concern that Big Brother is using a genuine pandemic to further a nefarious agenda.

Personally, knowing those whose lives have been cut short by COVID and many others who have suffered but survived it, I’m simply baffled by those who deny COVID.

In terms of equating COVID as “no worse than the flu”, I have two responses. Firstly, I don’t know of anyone who minimises COVID after walking with family and friends who’ve died or suffered because of it. In my fifty years, I can’t recall one person I know who has died from the flu. In the past eighteen months, I know several who have died from COVID.

Secondly, flu continues to kill hundreds of thousands of people every year and but for humanity’s long-standing battle against influenza, it would remain far more lethal. Flu is, in a sense, an old enemy humanity has largely tamed. COVID is a new enemy, and humanity must wage a similar all-fronts battle to defeat it. Victory will only be achieved through a united effort, by acknowledging its danger, and by using God-given scientific tools and medical best practices to tame the virus. Just as humanity has battled Ebola, measles, influenza and the like, we need to win our battle against COVID.

Thus, my plea is largely to the third response, those who believe Big Brother is using COVID as a smokescreen behind which sinister schemes advance.

There seem to be at least two underlying issues involved. On the one hand, Faith vs. Science. And on the other hand, Faith vs. Government.

Faith vs. Science

“Trust God, not a vaccine” is the common idea here.

My faith in God is not undermined when I open my mouth at the dentist, submit my back to the hands of the chiropractor or subject my body to an operating table to get my appendix removed. Nor was my faith undermined when I ensured my children were vaccinated against Hepatitis B or Measles. Rather, I enjoy the benefits of twenty-first century science as an expression of faith in my Father and Creator.

When Paul encouraged Timothy to use a little wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23), it wasn’t because he didn’t trust God. Faithful to God, he simply suggested Timothy use a man-made remedy.

Personally, it took an exercise of faith to work through my own concerns and choose to get the COVID vaccination amid the constant deluge of conspiracy theories and fearmongering, largely from a politicised religious right. 

Ultimately, unless you’re in a high-risk category, you don’t primarily get the vaccine to protect yourself; you get the vaccine to protect others and play your part in humanity’s attempt to tame the virus. (See my reasons for getting vaccinated and the concerns I worked through below.)

You can choose to vaccinate or not, and both can be an expression of faith.

But this is not a faith versus vaccination issue.

The “trust God, not a vaccine” sentiment is not just an incorrect comparison, it drags the Christian witness back into the dark, misguided past when religious people foolishly railed against the benefits of God-given medicine.

Frankly, it does much harm to our Christian witness.

Faith vs. Government

In this case, “trust God, not the government” is the common theme.

Again, this is a false dichotomy.

Paul taught us to “submit to the governing authorities”, stressing that “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1-7).

Peter also taught us to “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors” (1 Peter 2:13-17).

It could not be more clear.

(Sidebar. Do I need to qualify that this doesn’t mean we swear blind allegiance to the governing authorities? Both Paul and Peter didn’t feel the need to do so in the above letters. I can only conclude that they trusted the common-sense judgement of their audience. Biblically, when governing authorities specifically outlawed freedom of religion, God’s people found ways to live out their faith in submissive disobedience to this decree. As has the underground church for millennia. It goes without saying that our current predicament has nothing to do with outlawing the freedom of religion. See When Disobedience is Necessary in Separation of Church and State.)

We honour elected officials, even ones we perceive as controlling and heavy-handed or bungling and inept, because we trust God.

And we would do well to remind ourselves that the powers-that-were in the first century were tyrannical despots and dictators. To label our elected officials as dictators is not accurate or helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think a healthy dose of scepticism for elected officials is a good thing—although I believe it should be nested in an honouring attitude towards the office the elected officials hold. Elected officials should be held up to the highest scrutiny and if there’s overreach or laxity, we should remove them via the democratic mechanism of the ballot box.

Has the government managed the situation well? No. Not many governments have waded through these turbulent waters with much credit. 

Has the government overreacted? Certainly. Not too many governments are accused of being lax in the face of COVID. And those that have are paying for it in heartbreakingly high death tolls. There’s a reason the USA and Brazil take the top two spots in this tragic tale.

You can be certain of one thing, however.

No one who aspires to serve in the so-called corridors of power hopes to finally exercise that responsibility in the middle of a pandemic. Pandemics ruin reputations and wreck political careers.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.

What would you want to happen on your watch? A rising death toll or an economy in free fall?

Yes, you’d want neither. Any reasonable person would want to minimise loss of life and ensure a growing economy (and the obvious consequences to people’s financial security, employment prospects and mental health).

But only a heartless person would play flippant with the death toll and prioritise the economy over a science-informed approach to minimising loss of life.

Yes, it’s far more complicated than that, and probably more than you or I fully appreciate. And yes, I personally don’t think the government has got the balance right. But let’s be honest, if we pick ten people randomly out of the average crowd, we’ll probably have ten different opinions on where that balance lies.

So, what is the most likely “agenda” our elected officials harbour?

Seeking to avoid deaths on one’s conscience and one’s record is more at play than anything else. The former is a moral and humane motivation, the latter is a political and human one. At present, this seems the most likely drivers behind those in power.

Concluding that the government’s agenda is to overtly use the pandemic to control our lives and limit our freedom is an overreaction. I think it fails to understand our country’s laws and it gives our elected officials far too much credit.

Granted, if a country’s democratic process breaks down and the voting process is rigged, as we witnessed in Zimbabwe under Mugabe, then questions about how followers of Jesus might contend for liberty become more complex. 

The truth is, however, in such regimes, you don’t get a slap on the wrist, you get dead.

It goes without saying that this is not what’s happening.

You can maintain a healthy degree of scepticism of the government and do so from an honouring, faithful position.

But this is not a faith versus government issue.

In fact, there’s a good argument to make that this preoccupation with government is distracting us from our Kingdom mandate.

So, How Does a Jesus-Follower Respond?

Firstly, prayer. This remains our greatest recourse as followers of Jesus. In seeking God’s heart and how we ought to respond, we are urged to pray for “all who are in authority” and to pray for a specific outcome: “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Timothy 2:1, 2). Secondly, we are to excel at peace-bringing and peace-making—especially in turbulent times. (See our #1Tim2 page.)

Thus, along with praying for those in authority, Jesus followers honour civil authority and uphold the rule of law, even when personally inconvenienced by those laws, in order to further the Kingdom of God.

For those of us privileged to live in democratic societies, we respect the democratic process and we use the legal tools at our disposal, such as the right to vote and to lobby the government. And we use them with gentleness, graciousness and godliness.

We don’t gossip. We don’t promote half-truths and embellished claims. We don’t peddle in conspiracy theories. We don’t spread fear. We don’t rebel against or flagrantly ignore the science-supported advice our elected officials give, especially in a pandemic where lives are at risk. We don’t undermine the government or participate in illegal activities such as unlawful protests.

Instead, we should be infusing society with hope and love and acts of generosity and goodwill. God’s people ought to be a healing balm at this time. When it’s darkest, we should shine brightest.

Having lived and worked in countries subject to dictatorial and corrupt governments, I see only the signs of desperation and exasperation in an Australian government presently trying to get us through to the other side of a global pandemic.

You may think they’re doing a terrible job of it. You may disagree with the decisions they make. You may lack confidence in their ability to see us through it.

But as a citizen of a democratic society, you have the privileged recourse of a democratic process.

And as a follower of Jesus, you have an incredible recourse through prayer.

So, if you’re a follower of Jesus, here are five things you can do:

  • Pray for all who are in authority (1 Timothy 2:2).
  • Submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1).
  • Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one (Colossians 4:5, 6).
  • Let no corrupt word proceed from your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers (Ephesians 4:29).
  • Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
Despite how taxing our circumstances are, we have an incredible opportunity to demonstrate the love, hope and peace of God. 
 
To be channels of faith, not fear and peace, not panic. To model life from a different Kingdom.
 
We were born for such a time as this.
Gender - Social Construct or Biological Fact?

The Reasons I
Got Vaccinated

(PART 2)

Two Reasons I Got Vaccinated

Firstly, I view getting vaccinated as playing my part in humanity’s global response to the pandemic. If we don’t achieve herd immunity (locally and globally), the virus will continue to ravage those most at risk and will certainly mutate into ever more dangerous variants that could put all humanity at risk. Is herd immunity a guarantee? No. Is the vaccine the silver bullet? No. Still, the vaccine is one important tool in humanity’s toolbox in our attempt to tame the virus.

Secondly, I felt it was one of several things I could do immediately to minimise the potential risk I could pose to those most at risk.

In short, if you’re in a high-risk category, you get vaccinated to protect yourself. If you’re not in a high-risk category, you get vaccinated to protect others.

I realise that this may sound a little pretentious. And I am not saying that those who don’t get vaccinated are necessarily selfish. Ultimately, whether you get vaccinated or not is a matter of conscience. And as Paul taught, we’re to be true to our own convictions on matters of conscience while resolving not to judge others based on these convictions (Romans 14:5, 13).

To be honest, I wrestled with the decision to get vaccinated and did some serious soul searching. For me, I needed to find a valid reason to proceed that was beyond my fears, concerns and sense of self-preservation. I arrived at convictions that provoked me to act.

I think the points above are simply a reasonable response for those who want to play an active part in seeing COVID in the rear-view mirror of humanity’s journey into the future.

Three Reasonable Concerns

What were the concerns I navigated?

While there are admittedly other valid concerns, let me outline in descending order of gravity the three concerns I navigated…

My main concern was the speed at which the vaccination was produced and the blanket immunity offered to the pharmaceutical companies. Even though I understood the needs-must approach, this was by far my number one concern.

The truth is, we have no idea what the long-term consequences of the vaccination might be. While I think this is a legitimate concern, it is also likely that there may be nothing to worry about.

That 4.5 million+ people are already dead (at time of writing) and the virus has mutated to the more aggressive Delta variant, humanity’s need in the present outweighs the possible consequences in the future. Without intending to be overly dramatic, we must survive now if we want a future—regardless of the consequences we may need to face together down the road.

My second concern was the failure to look at repurposed medication for a solution. There are at least two examples that could be mentioned and both are now, at last, the subject of a proper study.

That said, I also understand that in order to fast track the vaccination, a tunnel-vision approach was required.

The powers-that-be, informed by health experts and scientists, chose a way forward and were single-minded in delivering the vaccination as the solution over repurposed medication. Like all decisions, there are pros and cons. To date, there is clear evidence that the vaccine is proving effective.

While I await the results of valid studies into cheaper, alternate COVID medication in the hope that humanity has other options aside from the vaccine (especially in poorer countries that don’t have access to it), I needed to play my part now.

My third concern centred around my lack of confidence in the powers-that-be, and few governments acted consistently or reliably as COVID took centre stage.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that COVID quickly became politicalised and that the health experts were forced to make up the rules in a volatile learning environment. The “Don’t wear a mask”, “Do wear a mask” fiasco was one notable instance of political tap-dancing that conveyed a patronising lack of trust in people’s good judgement, which served only to further undermine confidence in government. (Although, again, a valid concern, the shortage of masks for frontlines workers in the face of an unknown virus was the reason for the misinformation, not skulduggery.)

However, here’s the issue. What government has ever been considered trustworthy by all the people? By the very nature of the job, the government will always please some while disappointing others. It’s literally the job in which office bearers cannot please all the people all the time.

Questioning the trustworthiness of those in government is a national pastime in every country. Many news shows, radio shows and podcasts exist solely to bash on government.

I simply could not afford to let any lack of confidence in government be the decisive factor in my choice to be vaccinated or not.

The question that helped me was this: toward what end are the powers-that-be working, even if they’re doing a shoddy job of it?

What government doesn’t want to see the back of the pandemic? While some are too lax in their response to COVID and others are too severe, all want an end to it. And thanks to the democratic process in Western world countries, each of them will be held accountable at their next “performance review”: election time—where you and I get to exercise our democratic right to vote.

As I said in Part 1, we not only have the privileged recourse of the democratic process in this country but as believers, we also have an incredible recourse through prayer. (Please see our #1Tim2 page.)

Two Unreasonable Concerns

There are two “concerns” that didn’t trouble me in my wrestling with the idea of getting vaccinated. These two deeply entrenched ideas are, in my opinion, distracting us from our Kingdom mandate and sadly grip so many in fear.

  1. Big Brother Phobia
  2. End Times Mania

Let me look at each of these in turn.

Big Brother Phobia

Doped on too many dystopian books and movies, many have developed a knee-jerk phobia to the idea of “Big Brother”, a larger-than-life bogeyman that they believe animates every opinion or perspective that differs from their own.

With extreme polarised politics, the left tarnishes anything on the political right as fascism while the right smears everything on the political left as totalitarianism. All nuance is lost in the age of soundbites and Twitter, and politics has become dumbed down into a single strategy: demonise the other side and lionise our side. Unfortunately, this dualistic thinking connects to the reductive worldview of many believers. 

The result? Too many Christians see Big Brother lurking behind every bush and live terrified that the bogeyman will jump out at any moment to consume all they value and cherish.

Our world is more divided than ever before. The widening gap between the political left and right is driving more and more extreme behaviour. The crazy fringe at the end of each spectrum is getting louder and bolder. There is every reason to be vigilant, prayerful and discerning. There are certainly agendas at work today that need tackling, but they tend to be insidious forces working predominately through culture-shaping avenues such as education and mainstream media. They rarely sit in the seat of democratic government. And if they do, they don’t last longer than the next swing in the political cycle.

The pandemic has, in fact, revealed how inept and disordered the governments of the world are. Political parties are more likely to implode from within than unite around some tyrannical agenda, let alone unite across the aisle to topple the democratic laws of our country.

Yet some worry that mandated vaccines are one step toward totalitarianism.

To date, the only mandated vaccinations are for medical and frontline workers, high-risk groups and government officials. In the first two cases, I think that it’s entirely reasonable that front-line workers are vaccinated—for their own sake and those they assist—and those most at risk are saved from their own potential short-sightedness. In the third case, the government is literally taking their own medicine.

Yes, governments are incentivising vaccinations and that’s one legitimate mechanism at their disposal. If we think they’re overreaching, we can use the ballot box.

Will this mandate extend beyond health workers, high-risk groups and government officials? In the race for herd immunity against the threat of more dangerous variants, if the vaccination rates don’t keep track, it might happen.

If it does, it’s not because the government wants to control our minds or take away our liberties. It would happen because, in the middle of a global pandemic and in sheer frustration and exasperation, they overreach to save lives and rescue the economy in the face of a minority of people who, for various reasons, refuse to get vaccinated.

Excessive overreach will cost them at the next election.

In other words, it may prove both a necessary overreach of their power and a decision that costs them their job.

It won’t be the next step toward totalitarianism. It will be the next step toward the end of their careers.

Such is the checks and balances of democracy.

The fear of totalitarianism rising from the ashes of COVID is an empty concern. But here’s what does concern me.

So many followers of Jesus are so consumed with this empty fear, tilting at this modern-day windmill like Don Quixote of old, that we’re missing our moment.

Seldom has there been a better time for followers of Jesus to model peace-bringing, peace-making acts of grace and goodness.

Seldom has there been a better time for us to demonstrate the self-giving love of Jesus and make a difference.

End Times Mania

This is a complex topic, as it involves one’s eschatology. Too many believers have a convoluted view of the end times, spawned more by sensational movies and fictional books than by what the apostles and early church fathers taught. (I refer the reader to our book Living at the Edge of Time? for a more serious look at the subject.)

That said, as some are associating the COVID vaccines with the Mark of the Beast and others are pointing to the Signs of the Times, comments on these two are relevant.

The Mark of the Beast

John wrote Revelation to encourage believers in Asia Minor suffering persecution during the reign of Emperor Domitian towards the end of the first century.

He employed a writing style common to his readers (apocalyptic literature) that utilised cryptic language and graphic symbolism to convey ideas known to his audience, a style of writing that also helped prevent immediate retribution from the oppressors. For example, John spoke of Babylon (Revelation 18), which his audience knew referred to imperial Rome (1 Peter 5:13).

To encourage his audience to persevere through the persecution they endured, John reminded them of the persecution suffered under Nero (AD 64-68). Just as they saw the back of Nero’s reign of terror when he committed suicide in AD 68, they would prevail against the latest tyrant, too. Domitian was assassinated by his own court officials in AD 96.

How does John speak of Nero without provoking an immediate charge of treason?

He does so by using both symbolic imagery—portraying the oppressive Roman Empire and its cruel and capricious rulers as monsters—and the ancient practice of Gematria in Revelation 13.

Since Greek and Hebrew letters carried numerical value, Gematria was the practice of using the sum of the numerical values of a word in place of the word. When John spoke of the “mark of the beast”, his audience knew he referred to Nero, as the emperor’s official title, Caesar Nero, was 666.

Along with the “mark of the beast”, John also wrote of the “image of the beast” and the “name of the beast”, referring to a mark received on the hand or forehead, without which no one could buy or sell (Revelation 13:15-18).

The coinage of the day bore the image and name of the ruling Emperor, serving to remind all Rome’s citizens that they existed at the will and whim of Caesar. In a sense, one could not exist without paying homage to Rome.

John’s clever use of the mark on the hand and forehead was a play on the concept of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:1-9), ancient Israel’s core prayer passage. The Shema was an expression of devotion and dependence on God, and Israel was urged to memorise the Shema by heart (vv. 4-6) and to metaphorically bind the words on the hand and on the forehead (v. 8).

John’s invoking of this idea probes at the critical question: on whom do we depend? Do we trust Father God as our ultimate source and provider?

Using this graphic imagery, John was simply pointing out the pervasive influence of imperial Rome that brought many into bondage. Of course, he was not suggesting that his audience no longer use the currency of the day. Jesus made it clear that we are to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21). We are to live as functioning model citizens in this world.

The mark of the beast was not a literal mark or brand in the first century, and it is not a literal mark or brand in the future. And it certainly has nothing to do with a vaccine.

Just as we utilise the currency of our day knowing our ultimate Provider is God, we benefit from modern medicine knowing our ultimate Healer is God.

The Signs of the Times

Concerning the signs of the times, Jesus made two things very clear in Matthew 24.

On the one hand, He said that wars, rumours of wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes (Matthew 24:6, 7)—our staple news headlines—were not the prelude to the end.

Jesus literally said:

See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

(Matthew 24:6, italics added)

And remember, He started this teaching by warning us against becoming distracted and deceived by such events (Matthew 24:4).

In other words, these so-called ‘Signs of the Times’ that grab so much attention do not signal the end. They are nothing but distractions.

On the other hand, Jesus urged us to single-mindedly focus on the advance of the Kingdom of God as the central factor around which the end of the ages hinged. He said:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.

(Matthew 24:14, italics added)

In other words, the focus is the job Jesus gave to us, as we embody His Message with authenticity of character and demonstrate His self-giving love through good deeds that glorify the Father (Matthew 5:16).

(See A Magnanimous Orthodoxy for more of this topic.)

So, let’s sum this up:
  • Do not be distracted or troubled by news headline events like wars and rumours of wars, or pestilences and pandemics. Don’t give in to fear and don’t spread it!
  • Instead, focus on participating with Jesus in the advance of His ever-increasing Kingdom (Isaiah 9:6,7), a Kingdom of faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13), a Kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). Shine the light, don’t curse the darkness!

No ones knows where we are in the end times unfolding. No one. Only the Father knows. Jesus stated this emphatically (Matthew 24:36).

Be wary of those who say they know. They don’t.

What we do know with certainty is that COVID, like other news headline events, is not a defining factor in God’s reckoning.

COVID can, however, prove to be a distraction that takes our eyes off our mission. COVID can be a source of fear that paralyses us from playing our part.

For too many Christians, this is exactly what’s happening.

If you find yourself in this position, take courage from the words of Jesus:

These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

(John 16:33)

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