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When Jesus instructed his followers to love their neighbors as themselves, nobody was thinking of vaccines.Daniel Summers 231x300

It would be nearly two millennia before Edward Jenner introduced vaccines to the West by inoculating people with cowpox to protect them from smallpox. (It was in practice in China a little earlier than that.) Roughly a century later, Louis Pasteur would revolutionize the understanding of disease by developing germ theory. Around the same time, other scientists were making the earliest discoveries about our immune system.

(I would love to pretend that I remembered all these dates from medical school. The truth is that I had to google them.)

Almost all of contemporary society would have been inconceivable to people in Jesus’s time. How would you begin to explain how you’re even reading this to someone living back then? As a musical famously points out, Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.

The tally includes vaccines. The mind reels thinking about how to describe the concept of taking a weakened germ, or part of a germ, or an inactivated toxin from a germ, or genetic instructions for constructing part of a germ (quite a list!), injecting it into a person, and keeping them safe from illness? How would you even explain the notion of injections?

Nobody was thinking of vaccines at the time.

Yet, loving your neighbor as yourself includes vaccination all the same.

Every lesson learned in the Bible has to be taken and considered as it applies to the lives we lead now. Good luck explaining Facebook to Moses, yet the commandment about bearing false witness against your neighbor pertains to what you say on social media anyhow. If we are to find wisdom within scripture, we cannot limit our understanding of what it says to the concrete facts of the time it was recorded. It must flow with time into the world of all those reading it thereafter.

And so it flows into where we find ourselves now. We remain in the throes of a pandemic, struggling to return to the lives we knew before. The advent of safe, effective and readily available vaccines against COVID-19 offered a few tantalizing months that felt like we’d arrived there again, with the Delta variant sweeping us back again. However, those vaccines remain highly effective against the worst outcomes from COVID, with the overwhelming majority of those becoming severely ill or dying being unvaccinated.

In 2021, loving your neighbor as yourself means getting a COVID vaccine.

There are two parts to that commandment. Loving yourself means doing all you can to save yourself from an illness that has the potential to land you in an ICU, or worse. It means recognizing the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks, and putting the false fears sown by some aside. As I tell my own patients and their parents, I would never encourage (or, lately, implore) them to be vaccinated if I was not convinced it was in their best interests. 

Getting the vaccine is also a way of loving your neighbor. A well vaccinated community is the best way of shielding the vulnerable among us: those with weakened immune systems, those with other serious medical conditions, and those too young to be vaccinated yet. (Jesus was quite clear about his love for children.) Let us not forget that it was protecting the physical health of someone else that Christ used in the very parable illustrating what being a neighbor truly is. 

I rejoice knowing that our diocese is in an area with one of the highest rates of vaccination in the country. But the ICUs in Maine are filling up, too. If you long to return to the churches you love, sit beside members of your community you love, and worship God with the songs and ceremonies we love, the path there runs through your nearest vaccine clinic, pharmacy or grocery store. 

If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, please love yourself and your neighbor by doing so as soon as you can. The question of what Jesus would do is often asked. In this case, he would be vaccinated.  

 

Dr. Daniel Summers, M.D., F.A.A.P. 

Dr. Summers is a pediatrician and regular contributing columnist at Arc Digital, and his writing has appeared in The Washington Post, the New Republic and Slate, among others. Dr. Summers is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics in both General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Dr. Summers is on-staff at Children’s Hospital, and MassGeneral Hospital for Children. He lives in southern Maine with his husband and their four children.

 

 

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