Three Other COVID-19 Matters That Could Unite All Believers

Even if we continued to disagree on the reality of what was happening, I proposed last week that the attempt to better hear each other’s fears might be a way to draw our hearts together. 

By comparison, the vast majority of high-profile, public efforts to bring unity in our nation this last six months have focus on mostly one thing: encouraging agreement around coming together to receive one of the various COVID-19 vaccinations. 

I really do get it:  If you believe (a) COVID-19 has killed exactly as many people as officially reported and remains extremely dangerous to many people, and (b) these vaccinations are THE answer to stopping these deaths and as “safe and effective” (short and long-term) as officially reported, THEN, of course you should be advocating everyone to come together around this. 

The reality, however, is that many Americans don’t believe either (a) or (b). Despite the relentless, seemingly unending persuasion efforts that continue, these Americans have not embraced either of these points as self-evident.

The dominant response to those people as I’ve detailed elsewhere, has been to disparage, shame, mock, and call for increasing limitations on their freedom. I even heard one doctor I respect last week suggest that mockery was “effective” according to some research he had reviewed.

Which brings me to this follow-up article.  If disciples of Christ and other thoughtful decent people aren’t going to agree on vaccination as a unifying point (as seems likely), what WILL bring us together? 

Well, the gospel of Jesus Christ might!  That’s still the most important thing I think could be said right now. Even if we disagree on Dr. Fauci and masking and vaccination (and all sorts of other things), surely believers can still feel a stirring unity around the reality of the Prince of Peace and what He offers the world (see previous post, “Staying United as Families When America is Not”).

Based on well-known teachings from scripture, I would argue that my emphasis last week on hearing each other’s fears is an important derivative of discipleship and Christian conviction. In addition, I’d suggest three this morning other things believers and decent people could unite around. I based these almost entirely on some of the poignant comments people have shared with me lately – which I think are deserving of being held up for wider attention. I share many of these below verbatim.

1. Standing up to bullying or aggression. One good brother wrote the following, “I’m Bishop of a ward here in the states where this issue has been very divisive. We have had case after case (7 households, 14 individuals) with severe COVID in the last 2 months (when I say severe I mean severe symptoms, low O2 sats, multiple ER visits, long term oxygen use, etc).” Then, he said:

Those who have chosen to wear masks and play it safe have been mocked and bullied – [with people] making jokes about the useless “face diapers”.  And if you tell the world you’ve been vaccinated you’re cast as a virtue signaling lemming…People’s response to this and how they treated one another was very revealing and so disappointing. I think what we are witnessing,  on both sides of this issue, is a lack of humility in the midst of so many unknowns.

In the other direction, another good man wrote in response to the first individual:

I am Elders Quorum secretary, so I get to hear a lot of what is happening in the many families in the ward.  I have never heard of a case, not one, of people choosing to wear a mask being mocked and bullied.  I have never heard of a story of anybody being accused of virtue signaling for being vaccinated. However, I have heard of dozens of people being insulted and pressured for not wearing a mask outside in the middle of nowhere hiking on a trail or on a bike ride. It has happened to me several times.

If it’s true that unkindness and harshness seems to be happening in both directions, isn’t that something we could all unite against? Like, all of us?

2. Mourning with those who mourn over physical consequences (of either the virus or the vaccine). One of the things we’ll surely continue to disagree on is our various risk assessments of the overall situation. To illustrate, consider the additional statements from these two good men. First, from the EQ secretary:

Almost everybody in my ward has gotten COVID.  Nobody suffered any severe effects from COVID, including several people with serious pre-existing health issues.  Many older or at risk people have been vaccinated, and several of them reported serious health issues from vaccination and have regretted getting vaccinated, especially when they already had COVID. 

Second, from the bishop:

All of our family who was age appropriate was vaccinated with zero to mild symptoms (six total, Pfizer and Moderna). There are potentially serious side effects with this or any other vaccine. There are potentially serious side effects with COVID as well. From my observations I’ve seen far more from the latter.

That contrast in risk assessment shows up everywhere in this American discussion. I wish there were more desire to openly compare competing narratives of risk (held by equally thoughtful people), rather than pretending that those on one side are simply being “moronic” or “ignorant.”

Admirably, this aforementioned bishop has resisted using his position of power in a way that aggravates the situation further.  I find his example quite inspiring. As he wrote:

I’ve tried to be respectful to everyone’s opinions, for instance not excluding people based on their views of the pandemic. When masks were encouraged, I assured my ward members nobody would be turned away. I have tried to stay neutral so all feel welcome to worship but it has been a challenge.

While I can understand why prophet leaders and the Church as a whole has decided it needs to take a more proactive position, I’ve heard only painful stories of local leaders getting more aggressive. It seems to me the kind of more neutral space this bishop has sought to create in his ward is crucial and exemplary.

Of course, the emotional distress and physical suffering that people go through – for whatever reason, and with whatever explanation they give it – is something we need NOT be neutral about.

One pro-vaccination brother wrote about being touched to see people in his ward whose lives have been dramatically changed because they took the vaccination. In his words, “One individual now has MS like symptoms and shakes uncontrollably. Another has chronic migraines when they never had them before.” He added with concern that because these members felt like receiving the vaccine was a “commandment” they are struggling to not “now blame the church.”

Here’s the point at which too many people are willing to jump in and try to explain away what happened – “it may not be the vaccine…it’s probably something else…” 

Maybe. And you’re right, if it was something else – it may really help them navigate this emotionally. 

But what if these injuries were connected with the vaccination? Given the likelihood of this in so many cases, the repeated insistence the vaccine could not be to blame for any of this is confusing to many of us – and smacks of fear, dishonesty, or something more. 

How about this: Let’s just acknowledge that some people are being harmed by this intervention – and let’s mourn with them as much as those who suffer directly from COVID-19. 

Isn’t that also something we could come together around? 

3. Calling for more humility on all sides, on every question. Which brings me to the final point that I believe could unite all decent people and believers – what I’ve called previously “holding questions humbly.”

There are many examples of the lack of this modesty and humility – yes, on both sides, as noted in that previous article.  And that speaks to arguably a greater threat emerging from all this – even more serious than the physical threats we’re so focused on. As one thoughtful sister wrote me, “Currently I am more concerned about the negative effect on the spiritual health of those in my life concerned about the vaccine than I am the physical effects the vaccine.”

This woman went on to share an especially poignant comment that illustrates so well the lack of humility in our current conversation. This mother was in the middle of experiencing the normally joyful moment of sending her daughter out on a mission. Yet her daughter learned she “has to receive the shot in order to attend the MTC.” Although this woman’s daughter doesn’t want to get the shot, she is willing to do it on faith in order to serve. I’ve bolded a few parts in this mothers’ comment that deserve some additional attention: 

I’ve lived long enough to see the science be extremely wrong. My mother was told breast milk was inferior to the sophisticated formula created by science. Pregnant women paid a tragic price in birth defects caused from taking the drug Thalidomide. I was treated like an idiot when I told my dentist I didn’t want my children to have mercury in their fillings. (no dentist will use mercury now that the experts acknowledge what many of us knew before, that mercury in your mouth is harmful.) Is science perfect? No. Does it do a lot of good? Yes. But there’s been no humility on the part of our experts throughout all of this. My point is that it’s hard to trust science when so many scientists and doctors have been silenced for even questioning the narrative about this virus from the beginning. Even Fauci admits they have been learning all along and reevaluating accordingly. So, if they admit to not having been omniscient throughout all of this why would they not allow other very qualified scientists and doctors to have their views heard as well? Why would they have been so certain those others were wrong when they themselves admit to not knowing everything? And this same display of hubris continues on their part….I don’t care what one’s politics are how can anyone not see why there is a trust issue significant enough to cause vaccine hesitancy for a virus that has such a high recovery rate? The sister of my dear friend’s mother in law died suddenly the day after getting the shot. The father of my cousin’s best friend died right after getting it. Do we have proof it was the shot that caused their deaths? No, we don’t. But am I supposed to just ignore these things? My niece’s cousin is in the hospital with blood clots in her lungs after getting it. Am I a fear monger for stating these things openly? What about the father and son in Draper, Utah damaged from blood clots? Am I just supposed to ignore these things as a few unfortunate exceptions? How can I? And the refusal of the experts to address these concerns openly only adds to the hesitancy.

Is not this kind of concern with hubris another thing Christians and other decent people can unite around? 

I certainly think so. 

Thank you to this sister and others who have commented.  I’ve learned so much from listening to you all this week. 

However scary, and frustrating, and dark things continue to be, I testify that truth and hope and goodness will win in the end. That’s because Jesus is stronger than this virus – and better than this vaccine. 

He’s THE real answer to this.  And He’s going to lead us out of it and beyond it – even if the worst is yet to come. 

Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D., writes about the implications of competing socio-political and health narratives – and what it takes to preserve public conversation where open exploration of truth in these matters is still possible. To read more, visit:  http://unthinkable.cc

16 thoughts on “Three Other COVID-19 Matters That Could Unite All Believers

  1. I will probably be in the minority here. I had some quibbles about some aspects of the lock-down, but I think Dr. Fauci is an honorable man acting in good faith and I sustain him in his efforts with vaccinations. I also think leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are honorable men acting in good faith and I sustain them in deciding to require vaccinations of those who volunteer for full-time missionary service. I do not see any of the above as the tyrants trying to take our liberty — I am glad they are working hard for our benefit, as best as they can see.

    That said, we all have choices. The government may issue edicts and pass laws. The church governs by persuasion, patience, long-suffering and so forth. As citizens of state and church, we can share our thoughts with our state and church leaders.

  2. Jacob, thank you for your tireless efforts to try to help people find common ground and listen to each other in these contentious times. I really think you are making a difference.

  3. Now that I think about it more, and in the midst of all the diversity and equality nonsense in our culture, I suspect God is trying to teach us about true diversity with this virus: biological diversity and diversity of thought.

    What better way to have an opportunity to understand each other than to have a single event give so radically different experiences to everyone?

  4. Nice points, Jacob. I am a believer in the vaccine. I am not a believer in forcing it on everyone.
    That said, we suffer the consequences of decisions made by individuals. Polio and small pox were almost totally eradicated from the earth, because of vaccination. However, because of a sizeable group of anti-vaxxers in the U.S. and elsewhere, these are re-surging. The plagues of 70 years ago are only one generation away from becoming great plagues again.

    Many of those opposed to vaccination, also are opposed to wearing masks. I recall many people over the past year refusing to wear masks in stores, even though those private businesses required it.

    Yes, there are people on both sides of the issue who are “in your face.” Instead, as you note, we need to unite as much as possible. If I am to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those in need of comforting, it may include I give up some of my personal freedom and wear a mask, in order to protect the defenseless around me.

    I do not mandate tobacco smokers not to smoke. However, I do ask them not to smoke around me or indoors. If someone were to come into my house smoking, I would insist they leave. Should I not expect the same for those who refuse not to get vaccinated?

    True freedom includes true responsibility. I cannot harm others in my search for personal freedom. Some will say that one’s freedom ends when one’s fist is just a shade away from another’s chin. I disagree. One’s freedom ends long before that. The threat of hitting the other person begins long before the fist is near the chin. A responsible freedom lover will not even clench his fist at another, except in true self defense.
    Freedom must come with truth and responsibility for that freedom. Conspiracies do not equal truth. Conspiracies, at least those without heavy evidence, should not be weighed the same as information from reliable sources. To do so means truth is relegated to shadows and whims. There is no freedom in conspiracy nor junk science/news.

    I seek to be kind to those who do not wish to be vaccinated, although I consider it unwise. That said, I hope they will do the same for those who are vaccinated. Look at the statistics. Issues occurring from Covid vaccinations are no bigger than issues with other vaccines. Yet, imagine our world today, if most of us were not vaccinated against small pox, measles, diphtheria, polio, etc. Suddenly, lifespans would shrink by decades. Towns and cities would be ravaged, just as they were just a century ago by the Spanish flu.

    Today, we have this discussion in the United States. Meanwhile, people in South America, Africa, and other third world areas are begging for the vaccine. They see the devastation this virus is causing in their nations. They aren’t focused on conspiracy theories, likely based upon political views (as most of those against this vaccine are Republican).

    So, I seek to be kind to all sides. However, I wonder how do we unite, when so many are caught up in conspiracies?

  5. I think vaccine failure is imminent. We will need to be extra careful to not reciprocate the condescension towards those who will be in various faith crises.

  6. What has made this all so difficult is the lack of empathy. Losing a loved one to this terrible disease and having people at church say that covid is a hoax. Having two very close healthy young friends dealing with long term effects of the disease that includes ER visits every month. It’s exhausting for those of us that work in Healthcare and see the devastating effects of this disease and have people not care about others. We can empathize with those that have fears about the vaccine as well. It’s the lack of empathy, the love for one’s neighbor that has been so hard to watch. To treat people with pre-existing conditions as “others”. “Freedom” over empathy, care and concern for others.

  7. Bridgette, you are completely correct that there is need for more empathy all around. I am generally skeptical of government claims about COVID, and I oppose mandatory masks and mandatory lockdowns. I oppose the government’s push to get kids vaccinated. However, I am a ministering brother for a very good man who had a heart transplant four years ago and is taking medication to suppress his immune system so his body does not reject his transplanted heart. Obviously, this very good man would die if he got COVID, so I am very aware that the disease is a real and serious threat for many people. When I talk to him (only by phone because he is not having contact with anybody) I am very careful to try to give him love and support. I would also like to point out that my own father got COVID in October 2020 and was very sick for many months, and there was a time when it was touch and go that we might lose him. So, yes, the disease is real and even people like me realize it.

    You wrote: ” “Freedom” over empathy, care and concern for others.” I would like to gently push back about this because I don’t think you have thought this through very well. More than 62 million babies have been killed in the United States since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. But all thinking people know that when we discuss abortion we take into account that women’s right to control their own bodies is a consideration that must be put into the discussion. Women have the “freedom” to control their own bodies, and it is not something that can blithely be discarded with comments like “if you are concerned about freedom you don’t care about other people.” No, ALL thinking people know that liberty comes with responsibility. (I say this as somebody who is mostly pro-life. My point is that I have heard since the beginning of the pandemic that if you care about freedom you must want grandma to die, and I am sorry that is one of the stupidest arguments ever at a time when the world is filled with stupid arguments).

    To drive home my point: we could save 35,000 lives a year in the US if we abolished cars. But there would be other effects, right? A lot of people couldn’t get to work, you wouldn’t get your stuff delivered by Amazon, and all of a sudden you would find it very difficult to find food in your local grocery store. So obviously there are trade offs in life. It is not a fair or smart argument to say “if you don’t want to abolish cars, you don’t care about the 35,000 people who die in car accidents — you just want people to die.” Arguably many more than 35,000 people a year would die from starvation, depression, anxiety, etc if we abolished cars, so the reason we don’t abolish cars is not that we don’t care about the people who die in car accidents, it is that we need cars to get us around and to maintain any semblance of an economy.

    Bridgette, I am not saying that you are making these arguments about cars or abortion. I am saying that when you put “freedom” in quotations and imply that people who care about freedom don’t care about other people, you are making a very poor argument that is not going to be taken seriously by other people who actually do care about freedom. And by the way I am sure you yourself care about freedom. The people like myself who have spoken out against the lockdowns and in favor of liberty can believe three things at the same time: 1)we are aware of the seriousness of the pandemic and we care about the lives of the people affected 2)we believe the lockdowns and mandates and restrictions on freedom are MORE DANGEROUS than the pandemic and are killing more people than the pandemic and 3)we are reminding people that there is always a balance between liberty and responsibility, and in this case we as a society are ignoring personal freedom out of fear and panic, rather than rational arguments.

  8. We should be able to accept that in praying about whether we should get vaxxed or not, the Lord can give different answers to different people.

    The Prophet did say that the ability to receive personal revelation would be necessary for survival. And doesn’t this fit the bill exactly? Some people could die or be permanently injured one way or another. Only the Lord knows who will be killed/injured by the vaccine, and who will be killed/injured by the disease.

    Doesn’t that make the issue a perfect topic to take to the Lord in prayer and ask what to do?

    Connect the dots. The prophet cannot publicly say “get vaccinated unless the Spirit tells you otherwise.” But isn’t it implicit in his “revelation is necessary for survival” message?

    Also connect it to Elder Oaks talk on dating in 2005: “We teach the principles, the exceptions are between you and the Lord.” (paraphrased).
    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2006/06/dating-versus-hanging-out?lang=eng

    President Nelson gave “the rule”, which is “get vaccinated.” Exceptions are dispensed via individual and personal revelation. Isn’t that the way things are supposed to work?

  9. Book, very thoughtful comment. I reread Elder Oaks’ talk and I do think it is relevant to this topic as you suggest. Thank you.

  10. I agree, this should be a very individual decision. And sometimes the reasons for promptings are not immediately evident.

    I have an 18 year old nephew that decided he should get vaccinated. I think this was largely so he could serve a mission anywhere, and not just the US. But he felt that it was the right decision.

    After getting the Pfizer vaccine, he developed myocarditis as occasionally occurs with this vaccine, especially in his age group. Although it was initially viewed as a negative result and one might wonder why he felt that it was the right decision to get the vaccine, there ended up being an important reason. While he was in the hospital with the myocarditis undergoing tests, a previously unknown and undetected heart abnormality was discovered and could be treated.

    Anecdotal, I know. And again, this is simply an example of why it is a personal choice either way and why the individual makes the choice per their personal inspiration and experience.

  11. I once attended a ward that was fairly evenly divided between political parties. Each election, the members were encouraged to pray about which candidate to vote for. And each election, the members voted for the candidates which belonged to the party they espoused. Amazing how partisanship, err … Revelation works, eh?

  12. O.M.: It depends on how we word the question in prayer, and how the Lord words the answer.

    Person A asks: “Is it okay with you if I vote for candidate X?”

    Person B asks: “Is it okay with you if I vote for candidate Y?”

    If the Lord doesn’t care who wins, or if He doesn’t want to directly interfere, He could answer “Yes, that would be okay with me” to both petitioners.

    Sometimes we form our questions too loosely and make wrong inferences concerning what the answers mean. Or we look to answers/promptings as ends in themselves and not as a stepping stones or way-points to something more important as in Mike’s example of his nephew.

  13. Reminder of what President Nelson said about the importance of personal revelation:

    “I am optimistic about the future. It will be filled with opportunities for each of us to progress, contribute, and take the gospel to every corner of the earth. But I am also not naive about the days ahead. We live in a world that is complex and increasingly contentious. The constant availability of social media and a 24-hour news cycle bombard us with relentless messages. If we are to have any hope of sifting through the myriad of voices and the philosophies of men that attack truth, we must learn to receive revelation.

    Our Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, will perform some of His mightiest works between now and when He comes again. We will see miraculous indications that God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, preside over this Church in majesty and glory. But in coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.

    My beloved brothers and sisters, I plead with you to increase your spiritual capacity to receive revelation. Let this Easter Sunday be a defining moment in your life. Choose to do the spiritual work required to enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost and hear the voice of the Spirit more frequently and more clearly.”

  14. And here is what Elder Oaks said in 2005:

    “If you feel you are a special case, so that the strong counsel I have given doesn’t apply to you, please don’t write me a letter. Why would I make this request? I have learned that the kind of direct counsel I have given results in a large number of letters from members who feel they are an exception, and they want me to confirm that the things I have said just don’t apply to them in their special circumstance.

    I will explain why I can’t offer much comfort in response to that kind of letter by telling you an experience I had with another person who was troubled by a general rule. I gave a talk in which I mentioned the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13). Afterward a man came up to me in tears saying that what I had said showed there was no hope for him. “What do you mean?” I asked him.

    He explained that he had been a machine gunner during the Korean War. During a frontal assault, his machine gun mowed down scores of enemy infantry. Their bodies were piled so high in front of his gun that he and his men had to push them away in order to maintain their field of fire. He had killed a hundred, he said, and now he must be going to hell because I had spoken of the Lord’s commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

    The explanation I gave that man is the same explanation I give to you if you feel you are an exception to what I have said. As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.

    The Prophet Joseph Smith taught this same thing in another way. When he was asked how he governed such a diverse group of Saints, he said, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”4 In what I have just said, I am simply teaching correct principles and inviting each one of you to act upon these principles by governing yourself.”

  15. Haven’t commented in quite a while. I’m with Ram. I showed my small pox vaccination scar to some missionaries over for supper the other night. They had never seen such a thing. I told them that because my “baby boomer” generation took that vaccine, they don’t have to have take it today. (At least, not yet.) COVID is real. I know many people who’ve died or almost died and who had no underlying medical conditions prior to getting sick. The bottom line is that there is a risk of adverse reaction to any foreign substance introduced into our bodies, whether it be a vaccine or any number of over the counter or across the counter drugs. I would say our science is 1000 times better than when vaccines were first introduced (about 1798), so absent clear evidence of private or government efforts to kill me, I’m going with the vaccine. As they say, follow the money — Big Pharma may be a lot of things, but mostly, they can’t afford to kill their consumers. I’m not going to argue whether someone should/should not take any vaccine, if they can tell me it’s because of personal revelation. If it’s because of junk science and conspiracy theories, then we probably will have some discussion.

  16. Geoff, I found where then Elder Nelson taught the same thing at a CES fireside the same year:

    “Through the years you will note that apostles and prophets teach the rule. We don’t teach exceptions to the rule. Exceptions are left to individual agency and accountability. The Lord knows we live in an imperfect world. He knows it is “ripening in iniquity” (D&C 18:6). His judgments will be fair, just, and merciful.”

    Link: https://media.ldscdn.org/pdf/ces-firesides/2005-ces-firesides-for-young-adults/2005-02-01-faith-and-families-eng.pdf?download=true

    Link to html Ensign reprint of the talk: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2007/03/faith-and-families?lang=eng

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