SACC Ecumenical Theological Task Team – February 8, 2021
The novel Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has plunged the global community into an extraordinary crisis; turning the world upside down. Life for humanity has grounded to a sudden halt as the Coronavirus takes total control. Humanity has been brought to its knees by the microscopic virus. The personal, social and economic impact of COVID-19 is incalculable, unlike anything experienced by the world in nearly a century. Christians and other people of faith have prayed and continue to pray ceaselessly for God’s intervention. The scientific community has worked around the clock and God is answering our prayers. Thankfully, a vaccine has been developed within a year of the outbreak of the pandemic, which is no mean feat in the history of vaccines. As South Africans we have wondered if no shortcuts were taken to occasion this. Different trusted South African scientists have severally assured us: “The research was done faster with large numbers of people ensuring safety and efficacy measurements were not compromised”; and “The trials were totally ethically and scientifically sound and the licensing completely thorough. The speed of development is really a reflection of the level of scientific advancement we are now at rather than it was in any way recklessly rushed through.” The rollout of the vaccines is already underway and we have a long road yet ahead of us.
Ecumenical Theological Task Team
However, the development of the vaccine has brought a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, confusion and fear among South Africans. Concerns are circulating all over social media, instilling fear and panic in the minds of many. While many are warmly embracing the vaccine, still many are resisting this advance in medical science, and at times.
It is against this background of the apparent resistance to the vaccine and concerns raised by Christians and South Africans in general, that the leaders of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), set up the Ecumenical Theological Task Team comprising theologians from a broad spectrum of the Christian churches affiliated to SACC: Anglican, African Independent churches, Catholic, Charismatic, Evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Reformed traditions. They met on Wednesday 3 February 2021, to discuss and come up with a united churches’ response to the COVID-19 vaccine. Chaired by Prof. Simangaliso Kumalo of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the Task Team included:
Dr. Vicentia Kgabe, Anglican; Dr Louise Kretcshmar, Baptist: Fr. Sbu Statu, Catholic:
Bishop Ezekiel Mathole, Grace Bible Church; Bishop Thami Ngcana and Bishop Nat Phomana, Council of African Independent Churches: Dr Elijah Mhlanga, Assemblies of God; Rev. Pumla Nzimande, Methodist; Dr Daniel Andrew, Apostolic Faith Mission; Dr Moses Hobe, Full Gospel Church; Rev. Lungile Mpetsheni, Uniting Presbyterian Church; Dr Sandile Ngiba, Evangelical Lutheran; Prof. R. Tshaka, Uniting Reformed Church.
COVID-19 vaccine and “mark of the beast”
Some sections of the Christian community have strongly argued that the vaccine is not from God but is part of the “new world order” governed by the devil and has 666, the “mark of the beast” (Rev. 13:16). Many fear that by taking the vaccine, they will be forced to take “the mark of the beast.”
This association of the vaccine with the beast is based on a wrong and literal interpretation of the book of Revelation and ignores its historical context. Biblical scholars agree that Revelation was written to the seven churches in the first century to address the issue of the Roman imperial cult.
It was thus, situational, personal, and contextual. It was most probably written during the reigns of Emperor Nero and Domitian, the most notorious of the Roman emperors, who were deified and demanded to be worshipped even while they were still alive. Scholars associate “the mark of the beast” particularly with Nero. This is because when transliterated into Greek, the sum of the letters of his name results in the number 666. Thus, the use of the number 666 was coded (hidden) reference to Nero used by a persecuted Church. Emperor Nero’s demand that he be worshipped is also tied to the worship of the beast’s image (Rev. 13:15; 20:4).
The emperor’s image and his claim to be worshipped were also on coins, the medium of exchange, without which one could not participate in the local economy. To buy or sell anything meant participating in pagan worship. By participating in the local economy, one automatically could be said to take “the mark of the beast” at the expense of faith in Christ Jesus. To take “the mark of the beast” therefore meant loyalty and worship, which requires full awareness of what one was doing.
The taking of the vaccine does not demand any Christian to forsake Jesus, as was the case during Nero’s reign. It does not demand complete devotion to anything. Far from causing fear and anxiety among Christians, Revelation actually has a positive message that we should focus on Jesus who is the sole object of worship and embrace the vaccine as a gift for his people during a period of intense suffering, as was the case during the persecution of the early Church by Emperor Nero.
“5G and its implications on COVID-19”
There have been widespread social media expressions of concern on the suspected link between the 5G technology and the spread of the Coronavirus which led to unfortunate incidents in which community members in Umlazi, KwaMashu, and Ntuzuma in KwaZulu-Natal set fire to 5G towers in January 2021, claiming that they were responsible for the spread of COVID-19 through radio waves.
Research from reputable organisations such as the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has shown that there is no evidence whatsoever that 5G technology spreads COVID-19. There are many countries in Africa without 5G technology, yet the virus is wreaking havoc there too. Viruses cannot travel on radio waves or mobile networks. If anything, let us warmly embrace 5G as it will deliver faster connections and connectivity in our internet age, including advancing in research on future viruses.
“Coronavirus was made in a lab”
It has been claimed that the Coronavirus is not an accidental pandemic like other historical pandemics but was engineered in a laboratory by companies so that they could profiteer through vaccines.
This has further been given credence by the speed with which the vaccine was developed and approved for use. There is indeed some concern that big pharmaceutical companies in cahoots with some governments will use the pandemic for massive profits and self-enrichment. There has, however, been no credible evidence that the virus was engineered in a lab. Pandemics caused by viruses have emerged throughout human history, and in the last two decades we have seen the SARS and MERS Coronavirus outbreaks. So, we should not be surprised by the arrival of the COVID-19 virus. On the massive profits, we call on companies and governments to ensure that the vaccine is equitably accessed and for no profit or at low profit. We call on these to share the know-how so that most countries can help to scale up the production of these vaccines and together attain population immunity.
“Vaccine and population control”
Another common misconception is that the COVID-19 vaccine is a ploy by the rich industrialized nations or by a cartel of the richest people in the world under the leadership of Bill Gates, or machinations of the empire to reduce the global population through the elimination of the black race. This theory is baseless. In fact, vaccines are not new. Vaccines have been a reality for all of us from birth.
When our children were born, we gladly accepted the vaccines prescribed by hospitals and health clinics without any questions. In fact, most of us still have the marks of the vaccine on our arms. Most of us could have died of diseases such as measles and polio in infancy had it not been for the vaccines we received. In our day, people in malaria prone countries are vaccinated against the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria. The same with yellow fever; to travel to Kenya or Tanzania one needs a yellow fever vaccination certificate.
COVID-19 is a pandemic like any other and the COVID-19 vaccine is a vaccine like any other. Furthermore, COVID-19 does not discriminate. As the numbers tell, currently, there are over two million people who have lost their lives worldwide and a quarter of these is from the global south and 93 219 from Africa; of which, regrettably, some 45 000 are South African. Every part of the world has their share of the pain, let us continue to show global solidarity through mutual support and care for one another as Christ would want us to.
Vaccine and DNA
Another popular circulating mistruth is that the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines will alter one’s DNA. It is argued that because the vaccine is genetic material injected into the body, it could somehow mix in with our own genetic material and change it. However, mRNA is not the same as DNA, and it cannot combine with our DNA to change our genetic code. It is also relatively fragile and will only be inside a cell for about 72 hours, before being degraded. mRNA is naturally made by the body; it encodes instructions for our bodies’ cells to make protein. Any mRNA vaccine has the same purpose, to teach and train our bodies to make an immune response toward a particular pathogen. If the pathogen gets into the body, the immune system can attack it.
“Vaccines are made from aborted foetus”
Ethical concerns have also been raised, and understandably so, on the production of the COVID-19 vaccine. Many from the pro-life campaign are concerned that the vaccines may have been made from cell lines of aborted foetuses. There is a history of the use of foetal cell lines in the research and development of vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis A, rubella, chicken pox, ebola, shingles, rabies, and the early polio vaccines. As part of that history, some vaccines are said to be present-day derivations of the original scientific research process that developed protein sourced from a foetus. Although there is no evidence that current vaccines are directly made out of foetal tissue, the connection to cell lines related to foetal tissue in the originating of the technology can pose an ethical question. But in the unavailability of alternative measures to save lives in the current public health crisis, the use of the vaccine is morally justifiable to protect people from the killer disease.
Are vaccines safe?
Many people have also raised concerns about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. The safety of the people receiving the vaccine has been a top priority of the vaccine manufacturers. ALL vaccines go through clinical trials to test their safety and effectiveness. There is also rigorous monitoring to see if there are any side effects and will be withdrawn if the side effects are serious. Even if these vaccines were produced very quickly, no steps were skipped on the way. They have already been given to millions of people of all races around the world.
However, some side effects such as fever, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, fatigue and headaches have been reported. Most side effects happen within the first three days after vaccination and last only one to two days. Besides, all vaccines claim a certain percentage average efficacy. It cannot be lower than 50% effective. Available vaccines have been ranging from about 65% to 95% effective. That means there would be cases that fall outside of the declared efficacy threshold for that vaccine. So far, even with the stated limits of efficacy, the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the side-effects, and are well worth the effort to save lives.
We recognise and appreciate the openness with which South Africans and our congregants have expressed their concerns and even objections to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is healthy for the Church to have a dialogue on such matters. People’s voices must not be silenced but must be heard.
Humanity as co-creators with God
We have been praying for God’s intervention to end the pandemic and for life to return to normal. God moved and inspired our scientists to develop effective vaccines. That way, our scientists are co-creators with God. Christians should view the vaccines as part of the answer to our prayers. The swift effort that has gone into developing effective vaccines is something of a miracle. Christians should see the Spirit of God at work not just in the Church setting but in every sphere of life. Any appropriate medical discovery that can heal the land should be discerned as a present from God. The vaccine is not the saviour but God is. There is therefore, no legitimate Christian reason for refusing to take the vaccine. Let us rather continue praying for God to give our experts, whom God has called, to bring healing and end suffering, to continue to give the experts all that is needed to save lives. As Apostle Paul writes (1 Corinthians 3:9), “For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building”; that the words of Prophet Jeremiah might come true for our time: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”. (Jeremiah 29:11)
Sanctity of human life
We have lost too many lives due to the pandemic. Also, we have lost much that makes for livelihoods. Every life is important; and livelihoods help sustain life with dignity. Let us preach and act holistically for the sanctity of human life. COVID undermines not only human life through the lonely death that it visits on individuals and their families; it also occasions havoc on the dignity of the human person as households are plunged into the extremities of poverty and want.
The saving of life requires also the commitment to help create the environment for living in the compassion of God that is manifest in Jesus. He felt compassion for the people, “Because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The same Christ instructs us, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36). This compassion of Christ impels us to champion life-giving vaccines against COVID-19.
Vaccination: a show of love for our neighbour
Getting vaccinated against the Coronavirus ought to be understood as an act of charity towards other members of our community. Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). Thus, being vaccinated should be considered an act of love of our neighbour; for it ensures that we shall not be the cause of the infection and suffering of your loved ones. Thus, it is part of our moral responsibility for the common good. Protecting the health of the community takes precedence over individual ideologies. The guiding principle should be the Jesus cause “that they may have life”; saying, “I will take the vaccine not only for what I hope will be the good of my own health, but for others as well.”
The vaccine: a justice issue
As the churches, we will ensure that we advocate for every South African who wants a vaccine to get it, especially poor people, and those who live on the margins of society. We will raise our prophetic voice in ensuring that the process of the distribution of the vaccine is not fraught with corruption as was the case with the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and that all who are found to have committed acts of corruption are dealt with accordingly.
In this context we call for a spirit of global solidarity in access to these vaccines and sharing the knowhow and with preferential options for the global south, which remains poor. In these circumstances we wish to make the moral point that we believe that for the COVID-19 vaccine there should be cause to bypass some of the standard commercial considerations in pricing, and the standard 20-year patent protection period.
A three to five-year protection should be adequate under these special circumstances, especially because, given the worldwide concentrated demand of the vaccine occasioned by the pandemic. This is a justice issue. For this reason we join in the lament that the rich nations of the world are hoarding for themselves inordinate volumes of vaccine supplies, in some cases in multiples of their populations. This is an injustice that the world should not tolerate.
An urgent challenge is to counter misinformation. Information is key. Knowledge and wisdom are key biblical ideals, as Proverbs 15:14 instructs: “The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly.”
Without accurate and authentic information, people are misled by many discredited and fake tales from outlandish sources.
We need to get as much information as possible from those who are knowledgeable, and we also need to encourage our congregants to seek as much information on vaccines and the pandemic as they can from experts. That requires us to learn to trust that South African scientists are as good as any in the world; and not be misguided by every quasi-scientific post on the internet. We must popularise also the use of the SACC’s dedicated COVID-19 website – https://www.churchinaction.org.za that gives advice and guidance to church and society in various South African languages, based on researched and verified information on matters COVID-19, including the latest on the vaccine. Let us be the voice of reason that gives hope in a hopeless situation.
Walking the talk
Church leaders have an important role to play in communication about the vaccine and getting people to be vaccinated. Having Church leaders publicly support the vaccine is very important. When Church leaders get vaccinated in public, they make a difference in the fight against COVID-19. That way they can help restore trust in vaccines among their congregants and the broader society. Not so long ago, some church leaders were tested publicly for HIV-AIDS, to dispel the stigma. We can do this again.
Leaders of SACC member churches will offer to take the vaccine in public to demonstrate confidence in the COVID-19 vaccination, for vaccines are a vital part of the solution to the pandemic. There are two known and interconnected ways to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. One is the non-pharmaceutical measures of wearing masks, social distancing, hand hygiene, ventilation and sitting outside to socialise.
The second and more long-lasting measure is the vaccination of enough people to affect a reduction of infection through population immunity. Therefore, Church leaders, should encourage their congregants and their loved ones to take the vaccine and dispel misinformation. With the trust earned, we can tip the balance between trust and distrust, confidence and fear.
As Christians, we believe in freedom of choice. We should not force the vaccine down the throats of our congregations. Their membership of and standing in the Church should not be affected by the decision that they take on the vaccine.
Cooperation with the Government
The Church should cooperate with the Government in its attempts to vaccinate our people and save lives. We should give the health authorities all the support that they need. We should open our Church buildings to be vaccination centres when called upon to do so.
The development of the COVID-19 vaccine should be viewed as a major milestone in the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic. The vaccine represents the best hope to save lives in the midst of the pandemic. It will help protect people who get infected with the virus from becoming sick. As more people are vaccinated, population-wide immunity develops, families and communities will be able to gradually return to a more normal routine, thus saving lives and livelihoods. Science is clear at this point that our very best hope is getting as many people as possible vaccinated.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) is an ecumenical association of affiliated Christian Churches, and blocks of churches such as The Evangelical Alliance, the International Federation of Christian Churches, and the Council of African Independent Churches, with a mandate to lead common Christian action that works for moral witness in South Africa. SACC does not exist for the propagation and the advancement of its doctrinal position, but is the place where our diverse interpretations of our faith come together in action for social justice. It therefore seeks to achieve a visible, just socio-economic and ecological impact, enabled through engaged churches-in-community for a reconciled South Africa and our sub-continent.