Virus Outbreak India

People wait to receive the vaccine for COVID-19 at a vaccination center set up at a government run school in Bengaluru, India, Tuesday. 

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“… [T]oday I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Now choose life that you and your children may live.” — Deuteronomy 30:19

All around us comes death. COVID stalks our communities like a curse. Yet so many refuse to be vaccinated because they believe getting vaccinated is somehow defying God.

Those who follow the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in order of age from oldest to youngest — all believe in the one God. This one God is referred to by different names among and within the religions: YHWH, Adonai, Elohim, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, Allah. Different names but for the same being, but what different reactions among the religions we see to COVID vaccination.

In Israel, some ultra-Orthodox Jews tried to reject the vaccine. As NPR reported back in April, pushback was swift. Posters went up throughout communities stating, “A religious ruling! The great rabbis of Israel instruct to get vaccinated” and “The vaccines are a very great redemption!” The Ministry of Health and religious leaders agreed: There was no Biblical reason not to get vaccinated. NPR went on to report that now, more than 80 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jewish adults in Israel are vaccinated against COVID.

Here in America, many Muslims were at first opting not to get vaccinated. Muslims, particularly Muslims who were immigrants, feared the vaccine. That fear was generally not based in Quranic teachings. Rather, it stemmed from the racism that many immigrants experienced in the American health care system. Some did have concerns about whether the ingredients of the vaccines were halal (permissible) or haram (forbidden). But some of those concerns were rooted in misinformation.

Islam generally agreed that if vaccines contained aborted fetal cells, they would be haram; however, COVID vaccines do not contain aborted fetal cells. According to the Library of Congress, even in Islamic-majority countries Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Islamic rulings (fatwas) were issued that promote COVID vaccination as halal.

In America, Muslim attitudes toward vaccination started to shift to acceptance. Tasmina Khan reported on the issue for National Geographic, quoting a business analyst from Chicago who said, “Our faith says to investigate a matter before passing it off as truth,” and who moved from questioning vaccination to accepting it when his local imam said that unvaccinated Muslims might be banned from the mosque. With education and encouragement, more and more Muslims are getting vaccinated.

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In parts of evangelical Christianity, though, religion is being used to promote and justify anti-vaccine sentiment, even though there is no Biblical law against vaccination. In the Los Angeles Times, history professor J.M. Opal wrote last month that some evangelical Christians call vaccination the “mark of the beast,” and pastors preach to their congregations against vaccination.

In a previous column and in my book “Touching the Elephant,” I’ve written that there are various images of God, ways that the faithful see God, and that those images and beliefs have real-life consequences and effects. Professor Opal suggests a similar point, noting that “modern evangelicals often see God as more stern than kind, encouraging a sense of epic conflict between the pious and the profane.”

If this authoritarian God has sent COVID to punish humans, then getting the vaccine is seen as thwarting God’s will; alternatively, the authoritarian God might be seen as demanding faith from believers, and that faith must be “proven” by not becoming vaccinated.

And all this just focuses on Abrahamic religions. Hindus believe in God, yet India’s Hindus are more willing than Americans in general to get vaccinated against COVID. The problem, even in India’s rural areas, which are sometimes still superstitious, is far less about hesitancy to get vaccinated; rather, the problem there is lack of sufficient vaccine doses.

Sikhs believe in a monotheistic God, yet there is no conflict in Sikhism with vaccination. In fact, the Sikh Coalition in the U.S. has been helping to inform Sikhs about the vaccines and get Sikhs vaccinated. Information is provided in both English and Punjabi. In California, the Jakara Movement also works to bring pop-up vaccine clinics to gurdwaras, Sikh houses of worship.

What kind of God do we believe in? It’s an important question. The answer has serious consequences for us, for our families, for our communities. Do we believe in a compassionate and merciful God, a God of love, a God who wants us to choose life? Do we prefer to believe in an angry God, a vengeful God, a God who tempts us to play Russian roulette with our lives and the lives of those around us? If we believe in that God, and we die, or we pass disease to others who die, do we think that we or they deserve death, that death is punishment for sin? Do we think that we are proving something if we die, that we will be rewarded for dying rather than choosing and treasuring our precious life?

Nancy J. Thompson teaches classes in history and religion for Community College of Vermont and Northern Vermont University. She is author of “Touching the Elephant” from Zio Apollo Press.


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