In this opinion piece Andrew Clark-Howard continues the dialogue on mandates, vaccinations, protests and theology.

A week on from my previous post (“What we owe each other: freedom, protest, and responsibility”) the protests continued and omicron had begun to surge in ways we as a nation had never faced before. Amidst this, polarisation as a community as to how we respond to COVID-19 together is growing; one recent poll showed that while one in four New Zealanders believe our current public health settings for dealing with the virus are too harsh, one in four also believe that they are not enough.1

Now, writing three weeks later, the Wellington protests have faced a nasty end, with police closing in, the movement turned violent, once again filling our screens with images of conflict, polarisation, and disbelief.

Amidst all this, Mark Day offered a generous rejoiner (“The other half of what we owe each other”) to my brief reflections, arguing that my application of Bonhoeffer’s definitions of freedom–that freedom is not something one can have in oneself but rather is found in self-giving, sacrificial relationships–“only tells half the story.” I’d like to take some time here to respond.

A matter of debate

Firstly, let me say how pleased I am to be engaged in such a thoughtful and reasonable discussion. Baptists believe that discerning the mind of Christ often requires robust conversation about complex issues. Yet disagreement does not equate to dismissal, nor discussion that tears fellow believers down. I’d like to thank Day for setting the terms of this kōrero in a kind and engaging manner.

In my best understanding of Day’s post, the main rebuttal he offered could be summed up as such: The current vaccine requirements are, at best, ethically ambiguous. Therefore, when do we as Christians need to take action to prevent unjust social structures from occurring (or perhaps that already exist) as a result of the public health measures taken by our government?

In particular, Day sympathises with the protestors’ convictions that current vaccine regulations could be dangerous. He writes:

“Like them I have concerns with the ethics of mandated vaccination, and with the social, economic, and moral impacts that have already, and will likely result.”2

There are a few things I would like to address.

The ethics and precedent of vaccine mandates

In response to the overarching narrative that the current vaccine requirements we face represent either an unprecedented medical decision or a clear overreach of state intrusion to the life of the individual, here are a few things to consider.

The first is that medical ‘mandates’ are not a new practice, especially, and in fact almost always, in the case of public health. Medical mandates–whether we agree with them or not–have been part of our legislation and practice in New Zealand for decades.

One instance of this comes regarding mental health and addiction, where the practice of Court Ordered Treatments (CTO’s) have been used since the early 1990s.3 In instances of people struggling with mental health and refusing treatment, mental health providers can appeal to the Family Court for a compulsory CTO.4

Another more relevant instance comes in the case of infectious disease management. Under the Health Act 1956, if someone is carrying an infectious disease that represents a risk to the public and are refusing to comply with treatment, they can be ordered by the District Court to receive compulsory treatment under the supervision of a medical officer, the refusal of which under the Act has a maximum sentence of imprisonment.5

Day also made mention of vaccine mandates for the children in violation of parental consent, asking:

“What would it mean for a government to take that control within the family unit?”

It should be noted–again, regardless of whether you agree with this or not–that there are plenty of instances in which the state might intervene in the moral or medical decisions of a child under their parents care, the recent conversion therapy bill being an obvious immediate example.

To clarify my point once again: I do not believe there are convincing reasons that our current vaccine mandates represent an unprecedented moment in public health or state control, certainly not in any way indicative of a bid for undue political power.

Protest as a political action

Part of the reason I wished to write a reflection on the freedom convoy in the first place was that I felt as though both the messaging and manner of the protestors who set up camp outside of parliament were doing so inappropriately and irresponsibly.

I believe that peaceful protest is a vital part of a healthy democracy. I have attended protests myself. In light of perceived injustice, citizens can and must take action in the form of protest to represent a dissenting voice and advocate for a wrong to be made right. Protest in a functional democracy keeps representative governments accountable to their electorates and to the standards of freedom and justice to which such social and political orders seek to maintain.

We must ask, then, with this end in mind: has the freedom convoy been effective or responsible in achieving this end? Or, as I contend, have they represented a reactionary and somewhat destructive spreading of misinformation, an undue institutional distrust, and the misappropriation of other protest movements, in particular, what I find most egregious, claiming that the freedom convoy is taking place in the name of tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake?6 This is all before the encampment itself ended in such disarray and riot, breaking its promise of peaceful occupation.

Ultimately, I am not confident to say I sympathise with the protestors given their disorganisation and spreading of misinformation. While I agree that holding political power to account is vital and necessary, it surely cannot be through such means that continue to perpetuate misinformation and the misappropriation of important political movements from our past and present.

“An entirely new substrate of vulnerable people”

While I appreciate Day’s careful nuance and avoiding of such problematic terms as ‘apartheid’ or ‘segregation’–terms loaded with violent histories of white supremacy — I nonetheless disagree with his assessment that the vaccine requirements “have created an entirely new substrate of vulnerable people.”

The argument becomes rather circular rather quickly, so I won’t belabour it. But to claim that people who chose to not get vaccinated are worse off than those who–whether from age, health condition, or demographic–are at more risk from getting badly sick from the virus does not add up. If you choose to remain unvaccinated, you therefore must follow harsher rules regarding gathering size and social distancing–just like we did before vaccines were widespread to minimise the impact of the virus. Comparisons to these public health settings, as Day writes, “is like a mobster telling the shop owner they have a choice between paying up, or having their windows smashed” seem overstated and inflammatory. What about the immunocompromised people for whom a vaccine is medically impossible? What about those in rest homes for whom the virus might mean a few extra years with family is cut short? Vaccine mandates are certainly difficult, but I believe are an important step in truly protecting those against the worst of the virus.

The economic cost of a pandemic

Is this the fault of public health measures, or the result of a global pandemic with which the rest of the world grapples with and will continue to suffer the fallout of?

Much has (rightly) been made of the loss of livelihood from the pandemic. But this does not correlate to the rampant villainization of our political leaders such as Jacinda Arden. Lockdowns in Aotearoa were hard and severe, but they also worked. They helped keep New Zealand free of the virus for much of the last two years. Our unemployment is at a record low.7 We’ve enjoyed periods of relative free trade.

This is no means to undermine the very real devastation COVID-19 has and will continue to have on the livelihoods of local businesses across our nation. My own immigrant in-laws after decades of working as hard as they can in restaurants closed their establishment early on in 2020 and haven’t reopened since. But how much of this is the direct result of the government’s public health response and how much of a reality of living in a pandemic which has dramatically disrupted global economies? What will the coming months look like for local businesses as many stay at home by themselves during such high transmission rates independent of any state-instituted lockdown? All I’m asking for is a little perspective–recognising that the government’s response, imperfect and at times frustrating as it may have been, was not intentionally or sinisteringly aimed at destroying livelihoods.

“Lord, have mercy”

Towards the end of Day’s reflection, he writes:

“[In regards to vaccine requirements,] I [do] not claim to know … what Bonhoeffer would think. But his writings have taught me that in complex moral situations I must make the most responsible choice I can imagine, and submit myself to the mercy and judgement of God. That is all any of us can do.”

To this, I offer a resounding amen. And yet, as I try to take stock of political and social order around me, as I seek to listen to hear from voices not just of the present but also of our Christian past, the most responsible choice I can imagine is to continue to collectively minimise the impact and protect the vulnerable from the worst this virus has to offer.

In going about this task of discernment, I am yet to see any reliable reason to assume that the current public health requirements the government have instigated–including vaccine mandates, gathering restrictions, and the like–should not be trusted, followed, and encouraged.

A few Christians, including those who commented on my initial article, have argued that now is the time to act, that we must stand up for what is ‘right’ by rejecting vaccine requirements. Now, they believe, is the time to act, before it is too late.

In 1933, the year in which Hitler came to power and the National Socialist Party instigated the infamous ‘Aryan paragraph’ disbanding Jews from all public service, Bonhoeffer began to write about the status confessionis–a phrase that refers to a moment in which the very witness of the gospel is at stake. He wrote, in a reflection to his theological students:

“One should prepare oneself … to discern the spirits in Christ’s church … One must learn to recognize where and when the church of Christ reaches its hour of decision, when it is time for confession–the status confessionis.”8

My response here has been one such attempt to humbly and carefully discern the spirits of this age. In light of what I’ve discussed above, I believe such a time for confession and action for Aotearoa has emphatically not come, and, as I continue to pray for our political system and wider public wellbeing, may it never.

Contributor: Andrew Clark-Howard, member of Māngere Baptist Church, adjunct lecturer at Carey Baptist College, and co-president of Baptist Research. He is currently working on a PhD in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

References

1 Toby Manhire, “One in four say NZ Covid restrictions too harsh, one in four say too weak–poll.” The Spinoff (20 February 2022), https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/20-02-2022/one-in-four-say-nz-covid-restrictions-too-harsh-one-in-four-say-too-weak-poll.

2 I would also like to reiterate Day’s helpful clarification that this does not equate to him believing this specific vaccine itself is dangerous or that he commends any of the violent aspects of the protest. Certainly, the violence of last week is not relevant to his argument nor what I am trying to respond to here.

3 Here I am specifically referring to the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992, legislation which has been revisited during the pandemic. You can view the latest version here: https://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1992/0046/latest/DLM262176.html. A more general overview of CTOs and what they actually entail in practice can be found here: https://www.justice.govt.nz/family/court-ordered-treatment/.

4 One can read about the ethics and effectiveness of CTOs in a recent study: Ben Beaglehole, et al., “Compulsory Community Treatment Orders in New Zealand and the provision of care: An examination of national databases and predictors of outcome,” The Lancet Regional Health 17 (2021): doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lanwpc.2021.100275. However, it should be noted that I am not advocating (nor necessarily rejecting) for the practice of CTOs or any other such legislation and practice. In the first instance, it is well beyond my profession and expertise to do so. Secondly, however, that is not my point. My point is that the public health response our government has taken during the pandemic–including vaccine mandates–do not somehow represent a radical advance or intrusion into the decision of an individual to make their own medical decisions.

5 An explanation of the practice and management of this type of situation can be found in the 2017 publication from the Ministry of Health, “Guidance on Infectious Disease Management under the Health Act 1956,” see: https://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/guidance-infectious-disease-management-under-health-act-1956-feb17-v4.pdf. The wider Health Act itself can be accessed at: https://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1956/0065/latest/whole.html.

6 For a short, helpful response to the presence of symbols from te ao Māori at the freedom protests, see: Paru Politics, “Let’s Not Confuse Individual Rights and Freedoms with Tino Rangatiratanga,” https://www.instagram.com/p/CaEAgfwpt4w/?utm_medium=copy_link. See also: Claudette Hauiti, “Messy As Protest,” Waatea News (11 Febuary 2022), https://waateanews.com/2022/02/11/claudette-hauiti-messy-as-protest/.

7 ​​”Unemployment in NZ drops to 3.2%, lowest it has ever been,” One News (2 Febuary 2022), https://www.1news.co.nz/2022/02/02/unemployment-in-nz-drops-to-32-lowest-it-has-ever-been/

8 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “What Should a Student of Theology Do Today?” in Berlin: 1932–1933, ed. Larry Rasmussen, trans. Isabelle Best and David Higgins, DBWE 12 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 432-435, 433.

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