The importance of conscience

By John Greenall

On November 11th the law came into force that ‘anyone working or volunteering in a care home will need to be fully vaccinated against coronavirus (COVID-19), unless exempt.’ All frontline healthcare staff will be asked to do the same by April 2022. It is predicted that numerous staff will leave the profession rather than have the vaccine.

 

The reasons for this seem obvious on the surface. We are told that vaccinations will protect vulnerable people who care workers (and later all NHS staff) encounter. There is strong public support for this given the nervousness around ongoing high rates of coronavirus infection and the news that a hight number of COVID cases were contracted in hospitals. Many of us are sensitive to the fact we have relatives in care homes but also those who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV). Surely our instinct should be to protect those who are vulnerable. For the ‘strong’ to modify their behaviour to protect the ‘weak’. And of course, no man is an island! In our society we regularly restrict our freedoms to protect others.

 

And yet.

 

I’m going to argue that mandating vaccines for healthcare workers is a profoundly bad idea and should trouble us, whether we are Christians or not. We’ll then consider what it means for us at Hope Church. Here’s some reasons:

 

  1. It won’t keep you ‘safe’. We have data on the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs. They are thought to reduce transmission by 36% and 65% respectively (we have no data yet for other vaccines). However, by 3 months this reduces to no difference, and one must account for the fact many who won’t feel unwell enough to be off work will work and still be at risk of transmitting COVID. The point is vaccines are one part of a wider strategy. They may see a small decrease in transmission but will need to be combined with other measures.

 

  1. Government priorities are varied. Governments are elected by the public and will therefore respond to public pressure. There is overwhelming support for vaccine mandates from a fearful public (I think understandably given the use of fear to drive behaviour in 2020). The government comes across very well here as ‘protecting people’, ‘doing what it takes’ and ensuring a healthcare workforce are healthy enough to be in work. It is important to recognise that reducing COVID rates are not the only motivation for a government – that’s just how it is as they look at the bigger picture.

 

  1. Vaccines have never been mandated before. We need to see that this really is a HUGE step. In the face of many outbreaks of serious illness we have never mandated a vaccine before, especially one that is still so new to market with a limited track history. We know from countries like France that enforcing vaccines backfires – people decide to refuse vaccines in the medium to long run, causing far more disease as a result.

 

  1. Honouring conscience. I would argue that mandating a vaccine counts as coercion (defined as the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats – in this case the threat of losing your job). To pass a law like this, the government is overriding a personal decision made in good conscience (defined as ‘a person’s moral sense of right and wrong, viewed as acting as a guide to one’s behaviour’). The UN Convention of Human Rights Article 9 states that to do this a government must be convinced that such interventions must be lawful, legitimate and proportionate.

So, is a vaccine mandate legitimate and proportionate (now that it is lawful)? We know there are many people who, for various reasons, do not want to take a vaccine. It is easy for people to simply throw stones and accuse them of being selfish. Or of being taken in by conspiracy theories. Apart from the fact that mandating something will just entrench anyone in those positions (and some do of course exist!), most vaccine refusers I meet have other reasons* that are being refused exempt status. Personally, I feel there is enough evidence and reason for these NOT to be barriers. But that’s me, coming from my background, with my perspective. To say the conscience of another should be overruled is a serious thing and I would argue, disproportionate to the benefit it may produce.

 

  1. A reduced and impoverished workforce. Care workers are leaving, in a profession which relies on the goodwill of people often paid similarly to a fast-food position. The sector is already understaffed, and it is quite feasible that further reductions will cause far more harm to clients and CEV people. In addition, it causes further harm, in particular to BAME groups who are often in the majority of care home staff. Instead of dismissing concerns and calling on people to ‘just get on with it and get the jab’ we need to listen carefully to concerns around historical abuses of power, and through patient and respectful dialogue seek to persuade people to have the jab (more than anything because of the evidence it will protect them far more than it protects others!).

 

  1. A coercive environment. We have moved hugely over the past 2 years to a position where the government have mandated restrictions to the private life of their citizens. A simple reading of history (or look at the book ‘Brave New World’) tells us where things go and the worst thing about it is that people willingly accept intrusions into privacy and personal life in the name of safety. We become pleased when others are coerced to keep us ‘safe’, without considering the long-term impact of such a worldview. I don’t think ‘the government is calculating secretly to ‘take control of our lives’ – instead it’s a progressive move where people genuinely call on the government to protect them and will sacrifice more and more liberties to do so. Governments want re-election so will go with it and give what the majority want as stated above. Freedom of conscience and freedom from coercion are fundamental aspects of our society: there will be all sorts of unforeseen consequences down the road if we don’t value them properly. Consider a position you hold in conscience. Perhaps it’s the right to determine how you bring up your child. Perhaps it’s the right to gather for public worship. I could go on. The point is, people have died for our country to be a place where people are free to choose. Whether I agree or not with that, it is a nuclear option to railroad conscience.

 

As Christians

I believe that as Christians we should look to protect the right to freedom of conscience and belief. Above all else, it will lead to a more healthy and united society.

 

Within our church I would urge us not to make a disputable matter an issue of division. I believe Romans 14 speaks to us here. We are called to welcome and not despise our brothers and sisters who are fully convinced in their own minds that they cannot in good conscience take this vaccine. It is not for us to pass judgment on one another on disputable matters, ultimately each of us will give an account to God and it is before him that we stand or fall (see verse 13). Perhaps the ‘stronger’ vaccinated Christian can support, stand up and speak for the ‘weaker’ unvaccinated brother’s freedom of conscience in healthcare and wider society.

 

 

*Such reasons include those rooted in historical suspicion of government mandates, especially for some ethnic minority groups. Objections around the complicity in abortions in the making of some of the vaccines. Fear of side effects, which, despite a presentation of the evidence, someone still decides that they have autonomy over their body and what goes into it.

Emmet Till and the birth of the Civil Rights movement in America

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I have been aware of the civil rights movement in America and the role of Martin Luther King as the co-ordinator first locally and then nationally. How Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person which led to a bus boycott that sparked the nationwide movement. However, until recently, I was unaware of the episode that proceeded this, that caused Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and others to say enough is enough.

In 1955 just a couple of years before I was born a young teenager, Emmet Till, moved from Chicago to Mississippi in the south of America. Coming from the North he was unaware of the tensions between blacks and whites in the south. He reportedly whistled at a white lady and said, “bye baby”. This was enough for him to be beaten, shot and his weighted down dead body thrown into the river.

Emmet’s mother was a Christian who refused to allow this act to be swept under the carpet. When the broken body was returned to Chicago, she insisted on an open casket so that everyone could see what had been done to her 14 year old son. As one commentator says, she exposed white brutality and black faith to the world. Six hundred thousand people viewed his bruised body and attended the funeral and millions more saw photos that went viral around the world.

Two wite men admitted in court that they had kidnapped the boy however an all-white jury acquitted them of all charges after just an hour deliberation.

Within three months of the death of Emmet Till the bus boycott had begun in Montgomery and the Civil Rights movement was born.

Love trumps everything, including our rights.

I have been prayerfully reading through 1 Corinthians. There is so much that is obviously relevant for the modern church. The challenge for unity, which I talked about in a previous blog, wise teaching on singleness and marriage, the use of spiritual gifts and the primacy of love. There are other passages that are also relevant but less obviously so. Paul’s answer to the question of whether the Corinthians could eat food offered to idols is also very relevant. Not because we face the same issues, but his reasoning is so relevant to us.

Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 8-10 is that love trumps everything including our freedom and our rights. Something that it is so important for us to both hear and apply. The primacy of love is repeated in Paul’s most famous chapter 13.

This has so many applications for today, where our society values our individual rights over everything. No, as Christian’s love is our prime motivator not rights.

E.g., Drinking alcohol in the presence of certain individuals might cause them not just to fall off the wagon but to abandon Christianity. The food we eat, the way we spend our money, the language we use, the shows and movies we watch and even the clothes we wear have the capacity to lead others away from Christ by tempting them to violate their consciences.

It is also relevant regarding vaccines. Obviously, we have the right not to be vaccinated as I have seen many Christians declaring. However, I believe that Paul would say that our love and desire to serve our neighbours means that we will be vaccinated to keep them safe. We will apply the maxim that love trumps our freedom not to be vaccinated.

Many will be happy to leave the blog at this point. For those who are interested in exactly what Paul is saying read on!

Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 8-10 in more detail.

The context is that pagan worship centred around sacrificed animals, the meat could then be eaten in either a Temple dining room as part of an act of worship or sold in a market for ordinary people to buy and cook at home.

The Corinthians ask Paul if they can eat this meat. Paul’s answer in summary is that it depends. If idol food is eaten in the context of idolatrous worship in a pagan temple, then no (8:1 – 10:22). If it is bought in the meat market without knowing where it comes from, then yes (10:25-26). If it is eaten in a private home, then yes, unless it will harm the conscience of anyone present, in which case no (10:27 – 11:1). The food itself, in other words, is not the issue; the issue is the character and context of the meal taking place.

The church was church divided on the issue. One group saying it is ok to eat idol food, another urging people not to. The argument of those who said it was ok was that we all possess knowledge, an idol is nothing, there is no God but one. Idols don’t exist therefore how can eating food offered to idols mean anything at all? A good argument but Paul doesn’t accept it.

It is his reasons for rejecting this argument that is so helpful and relevant for us. Love trumps knowledge.

“But knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (8:1). Knowing things can make our egos and heads bigger; loving people can make our brothers and sisters bigger. So, if you’re obsessed with “knowing”, then you may not know anything at all. Loving God, on the other hand, means that you end up with the best sort of “knowing” there is: being known by God (v 2-3).

Idols are not real, but they do exert a power. Not everyone knows that there is no God but one. They associate the sacrificial food with the god to which it was offered. Therefore, since food doesn’t bring us close to God, eating it doesn’t help us, we should be careful of flaunting our right to eat what we like.

Paul’s punchline.

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling-block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9). This, in a sentence, is the point Paul is going to press home throughout 1 Corinthians 9, using himself as an extended example. Paul gives example after example of where he has given up his rights in order to serve and love others. The Corinthians may or may not have the right to eat idol food but what they absolutely must not do is to exercise their “right” in such a way as to destroy their weaker brother or sister.

Put the care of others above your own rights. Love trumps freedom. This sets the scene for Paul’s most famous chapter 13 where the priority of love is developed.

 

The Spirit of God brings diversity

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I have just finished a new book, People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States by Michael O. Emerson. It is an academic investigation into diversity in the modern church in America. Using a definition of a multiracial congregation is one in which no one racial group comprises 80 percent or more of the people, it estimates that 7 percent of American congregations are multiracial. Not a very impressive number at all. Even worse is the fact that just 2 percent of congregations have at least 20 percent white and at least 20 percent black.

Fascinatingly the book highlights only two periods in American church history where the church was in any sense of the word diverse. The first was during the evangelical revival of the late 18C where implications of evangelical teachings were not lost on many slaves. John Wesley and George Whitefield marvelled at the numbers of African Americans who flocked to hear them preach. The second was in the early twentieth century, the early Pentecostal movement, and its focus on a life-changing baptism of the Holy Spirit brought more whites and blacks together in integrated revival meetings and church services.

When the Spirit of God moves it would seem that barriers between people are broken down, however when man takes back control of the church it once again becomes divided. I don’t think this should surprise us; the Spirit brings unity. We need to make every effort to maintain it. Ephesians 4v3.

Storms

I recently came across an article by Ed Silvoso which I found helpful and believe it is worth sharing some of his insights.

He talks about three different types of storms found in the Bible.

In the first type, believers cry out for help, Jesus rebukes the storm and it stops right away (see Mark 4:39).

The second type is a storm where Jesus invites us to face the winds and walk on water, and when we sink, He rescues us, walks with us back to the boat, and the storm stops (see Matthew 14:22ff).

The third type is the most severe storm because the boat capsizes and everything on it is lost, and the only way to survive is to hang on to a piece of wood from the wreckage to reach the safety of the beach. That was the case with the apostle Paul in Acts 26.

He suggests that COVID-19 and today’s social distress is the third type of storm. Everything we have been sailing on or with—things we took for granted—have been disappearing. Not only in government, education, business, health care and the economy, but even the way we used to do church has washed away, leaving us with little to hang on to but a plank of wood, as was the case with Paul and his fellow passengers.

That piece of wood symbolizes the Cross. When everything else is sinking, we must hang on to it and remind ourselves that we are saved by the blood that Jesus shed on that Cross and propelled by that unsinkable fact and the power it emanates, we will gain the strength to swim to a safe shore.

But make no mistake…once we get there, it will get worse before it gets better, as Paul experienced.

As he was building a fire to warm himself and the other distressed passengers, he was bitten by a viper. This caused the locals to suspect Paul of a crime for which the viper’s attack was divine punishment. But Paul shook the viper off, threw it into the fire, and survived the attack. When the locals saw this, they looked to him as a divine messenger which led to the establishment of a new church in Malta where many came to faith, including the governor when his father was miraculously healed.

The devastation wrought by the storm was used by God to establish the church in a place that otherwise would have been left without one.

In the context of today’s crisis, the fullness of the power of the Cross symbolized by that piece of wood, now that so much is going under, provides the way to not only survive, but to thrive in the storm. To see churches established in ways they would not have been without the crisis. Some storms are tough, tougher than we could ever imagine, but God can cause great things to come out of them. We have to hang on to the cross in the meantime, trusting in God.

Helpful words for today. Let’s be excited about the good things that God is going to produce out of the COVID storm.

Thoughts on the UK church from a Malawian academic.

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Hope Church is wanting to welcome and empower people from many different backgrounds, seeking to learn from each other. Knowing that no one culture fully reflects the diversity of God. As such I try to learn from leaders who come from different from myself.

Recently I read Multicultural Kingdom: Ethnic Diversity, Mission and the Church written by Harvey Kwiyani, an academic originally from Malawi.

He has powerful things to say about the church in the UK, much of which I find challenging and extremely helpful and relevant to us. Below are some quotes that I think are particularly worth reflecting on. There are many of them, but it is worth reading them all and allowing their truths to hit home.

 

Our segregated Christianity is an anomaly and it is my sincere hope that we will not export it to the rest of the world like we have other aspects of our Christianity in the past.

Essentially, God is building a kingdom in which people of many national, tribal or linguistic identities belong together. It is not a monocultural kingdom: all cultures are invited and all cultures are needed. It is not a monoracial kingdom: all races are welcome. It is not a colour-blind kingdom. It does not see one human race but sees us all as who we really are: Africans, Asians, Europeans, everybody. It expects us all to bring our unique gifts to make the kingdom what it is meant to be – the kingdom of Jesus, the Lord of the nations.

Both the African and the Chinese stories show that it is only in the second half of the twentieth century – after the missionaries had left Africa and Asia, placing the so-called ‘young churches’ under indigenous leadership – that Christianity became a worldwide religion.

Unfortunately, our missiology still believes that Christianity is only real if it is led by Westerners, and that is why we hear more about the decline of the Church in Europe and North America when we could be celebrating the growth of Christianity in other parts of the world.

Walter Hollenweger said that ‘British Christians prayed for revival, and when it came, they did not recognize it because it was black’. I would add to this statement that British Christians did not recognize the revival because it came dressed in Pentecostal clothes.

It is the argument of this book that a proper engagement between British and non-Western Christians resident in Britain will enrich British Christianity, and hopefully help it rediscover its missional impulses to re-evangelize Britain.

I am also convinced that the multicultural context of (urban) Britain needs a multicultural missionary movement. African, Latin American, Asian and British Christians need to work together in mission. For that to happen, there needs to be some intentional collaboration. Congregational leaders may need to model this for their followers by working together more visibly. I anticipate that the body of Christ in Britain can model racial reconciliation for the world by living an alternative reality where all races are one in Christ. Such a church may be a critical missional testimony to the world that the love of Christ can set people free.

Homogeneity, whatever form it takes, is slow death. A community that builds walls to keep strangers out only imprisons itself within its own walls in the end. A prison guard is also a prisoner.

Being in the kingdom of God does not erase our cultural differences. To do so would be colonialism, and God does not colonize.

I am convinced that wherever communities are made up of people of different cultures, Christian churches must reflect that diversity in their gatherings.

The plea for unity anticipates that we will meet people who are different from us. Unity demands the presence of a different other.

A great deal of our understanding of community and belonging reflects the Western marks of individualism and capitalism. That is why most British denominations – including the Church of England – find it hard to connect with lower-class parts of the society.

Great multicultural congregations realize that their congregational culture has to be the authentic aggregate of the cultures of their members. They have to develop and embrace a culture that makes space for a variety of subcultures to thrive together, that is expansive enough to welcome new subcultures into its mix, highlighting them and encouraging them to share their gifts with the wider congregation.

True multicultural congregations happen when all cultures – both host and guest – intentionally displace themselves from the centre to allow for the emergence of a new culture that comes out of all cultures present working together.

Leaders of multicultural congregations, however, hardly pay any attention to the nationalities of their members. Of course, they notice the nationalities, as they should, but they focus on the culture. They focus on shaping a congregation in which the many nationalities’ cultures are expressed. Not every multinational church is multicultural. It is never about how many nationalities one can gather. Yes, there may be many nationalities in a congregation, but that means little if they are unable to make their cultural contribution.

We will worship together in eternity. There is nothing we can do about it. We will not be able to bring our racist tendencies to God’s throne.

Revival has come to Britain, but it looks like the messy migration of African and Caribbean Christians to Britain, and thus it does not look like revival at all.

Most African pastors in Europe and North America mention race as the most difficult issue facing their ministries, and yet most of my white British middle-aged middle-class Christian friends say that racism is a thing of the past.

All in all, multicultural worshipping communities need to learn new habits and practices that enforce their commitment to cultural diversity. They cannot continue to live in a monocultural mode while expecting to be multicultural.

Monoracial churches will continue to exist as they are safe, convenient and comfortable.

Perhaps, the wealthy would prefer to keep their less well-off neighbours out. Black folk might actively want to keep the white people out (‘we cannot let them dominate us in our worship too’), and white people want to keep black people out (‘they bring issues that we don’t have time for’). Ironically, British churches will send missionaries to Africa while neglecting their African neighbours on their streets in Britain.

More often than not, such monocultural churches will have a quasi-theological justification that supports their practice of a racist form of Christianity.

If the size of a congregation is what matters most to a minister, it is possible that he or she has substituted capitalism for God.

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