Wednesday, November 12, 2014


When I was 29 years old, I contracted chickenpox. The doctor who treated me informed me that it was an especially severe case which was being monitored by the local medical community. I experienced symptoms for a couple days before I realized I had something serious. I thought the outbreaks on my face were a severe case of acne. Since the virus went into my liver, this sickness could have proven fatal. I couldn't be in the presence of pregnant women or small children. So every time I went to the hospital for treatment, the whole 4th floor had to be evacuated. It was an eerie experience going through automatic doors and walking through the deserted hallways. (It reminded me of the opening scene of Get Smart.) I missed some weeks of work and will likely have shingles when I am older.

In what setting did I contract the virus? Church fellowship. A group of mothers at my local church decided they would expose their little ones to other children who had chickenpox so that their children could catch it and develop immunity. This occurred right before the chickenpox vaccine was made available, so I cannot fault them for not immunizing their children. However, I can fault them for their thoughtless disregard for others who might have contracted the virus. One Sunday, my car broke down, so some friends from church gave me a ride. I wasn't the only passenger my friends took to church that Sunday. My friends also gave a ride to a single mother who had been one of those who had exposed her child to the virus. In the process, she contracted the virus and passed it on to me.

I am reminded of this time when I read of childhood diseases making a comeback because parents refuse to have their children vaccinated. Not only is chickenpox resurfacing in the U.S., so is whooping cough, measles, and the mumps. Not long ago, a woman caller on the Rush Limbaugh program claimed that childhood vaccinations leave a tracking device in children so the government will always know their whereabouts. Recently, a Texas church affiliated with Kenneth Copeland came under scrutiny because of its opposition to vaccinations. Because of its stance, 20 people, including a 4 month old child, contracted measles.  (Kenneth Copeland's organization denies that it opposes vaccinations, so I don't know how fair it would be to blame his specific teachings for what happened.) The church later reversed it's stance on vaccinations. Many of these very same people are probably wondering (and rightly so) why the government doesn't ban flights from countries where the Ebola epidemic is spreading.  Many of these same people are probably worried (and rightly so) about children from Latin America illegally entering this country with infectious diseasesDaniel Pipes has documented how Muslim clerics charge that western vaccinations are being used to infect Muslims with various diseases. By stoking the fires of this conspiracy theory, diseases such as polio, which have been nearly eradicated, will continue to ruin the lives of countless persons.  When Christian parents come to believe in conspiracy theories similar to those advanced by those who would qualify as ISIS spiritual advisers, it doesn't take a whole lot of reflection to realize that not a whole lot of reflection has taken place on this issue.

There has been controversy over vaccinations in Christian and non-Christian circles. Some believe there is a significant risk to their children if they are vaccinated for diseases that in the past killed children by the thousands every year. Some parents charge the medical profession with covering up the risks. This belief is the result of the mindset that sees a conspiracy behind every negative event. In America, this mindset was encouraged by the speculation concerning government involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was further fueled by Vietnam and Watergate. In the 1960's, the young were told to distrust authority, and this distrust filtered into the Church through the Jesus Movement of the late 60's and early 70's. This mindset was alive and well in the Church when I was saved in 1986, and it is still rampant among God's people today.

Even those Christians who would admit that the health risks to children from vaccinations are small may still claim that the risks are too great. They may understand the risk to the general population from childhood diseases such as measles and chickenpox. Yet they believe that their role as their children's protectors extends to exposing the general population to that very risk. They hope God protects others from the consequences of their actions, but they believe their duty is to protect their children at the expense of everyone else.

Apparently, these parents haven't learned to apply this word from Jesus when considering their conduct concerning vaccinating their children: "...'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second (greatest commandment) is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (Mk. 12: 29-31, NIV) Loving God and our neighbors, these are the two greatest commandments. Parents, when it comes to the question of vaccinating children, following God means exposing your children to a very minimal risk. Loving your neighbor means doing the right thing to spare untold numbers of people from being exposed to sickness, disability, or death. I worked for two days before I realized I was seriously ill. Who knows how many people were exposed to chickenpox due to the thoughtlessness of a few Christian mothers who should have kept their children at home. Instead of acting out of fear and selfishness, if they had realized how the second greatest commandment applies to the question of protecting others, they would have trusted God and His Word. They would have acted on faith in Jesus Christ.

Let's apply the second greatest commandment to another situation. Medical science has discovered that jewelry worn by medical personnel can spread germs to patients. Hospitals are encouraging nurses and doctors to refrain from wearing rings or necklaces while on duty. In the U.K., some nurses were disciplined for wearing Christian themed jewelry. Yes, there is a rising tide of discrimination against Christians in the U.K. and Europe. But these nurses were not disciplined for the message their jewelry conveyed, they were disciplined because they were threatening their patient's health. These nurses sued and lost. I'm as big a supporter of the right to wear clothing or jewelry which promotes the Gospel as any evangelical. I have a small cross hanging from my car's rear view mirror. I wear a "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" pin on my shirt collar from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. Yet when it comes to medical workers wearing Christian jewelry while treating patients, I say, take it off. Apply the second greatest commandment. Don't put patients at risk because you think your right of self expression is more important than the lives of your patients. And don't charge the medical profession and the government with some diabolical scheme to deprive Christians of the right to spread the Gospel.

When the smallpox vaccination was first introduced into colonial America, many were fearful of catching the very disease they were being inoculated against. Clergy in New England took the lead in having themselves inoculated. They realized that they were exposing themselves to sickness and death in doing so. Yet they thought that the risk from refusing to be inoculated was greater than inoculation itself. They believed that eradicating diseases that caused untold misery was so important that exposing themselves to the risk was what God would have them do. The following describes the devastation Puritan New England experienced from smallpox and Cotton Mather's argument for inoculation:

"With the smallpox epidemic catching speed and racking up a staggering death toll, a solution to the crisis was becoming more urgently needed by the day. The use of quarantine and various other efforts, such as balancing the body's humors, did not slow the disease's spread. As news rolled in from town to town and correspondence arrived from overseas, reports of horrific stories of suffering and loss due to smallpox stirred mass panic among the people. By circa 1700, smallpox had become among the most devastating of epidemic diseases circulating in the Atlantic world.
Cotton Mather strongly challenged the perception that inoculation was against the will of God and argued that the procedure was not outside of Puritan principles. He wrote that 'whether a Christian may not employ this Medicine (let the matter of it be what it will) and humbly give Thanks to God's good Providence in discovering of it to a miserable World; and humbly look up to His Good Providence (as we do in the use of any other Medicine) It may seem strange, that any wise Christian cannot answer it. And how strangely do Men that call themselves Physicians betray their Anatomy, and their Philosophy, as well as their Divinity in their invectives against this Practice?' The Puritan minister began to embrace the sentiment that smallpox was an inevitability for anyone, both the good and the wicked, yet God had provided them with the means to save themselves. Mather reported that, from his view, 'none that have used it ever died of the Small Pox, tho at the same time, it were so malignant, that at least half the People died, that were infected With it in the Common way.'
While Cotton Mather was experimenting with the procedure, prominent Puritan pastors Benjamin Colman and William Cooper expressed public and theological support for them.[34] The practice of smallpox inoculation was eventually accepted by the general population due to first-hand experiences and personal relationships. Although many were initially wary of the concept, it was because people were able to witness the procedure's consistently positive results, within their own community of ordinary citizens, that it became widely utilized and supported. One important change in the practice after 1721 was regulated quarantine of inoculees
Inoculation visibly and directly aided man's control of the disease, the level of infection, mortality rates and the spreading of the epidemic. Planned inoculation led to better observation of the body's responses and allowed people the ability to time the onset of the pox and control the disease's intensity. For example, by inoculating in the months of milder climate, one had a better chance of fighting the infection and becoming immune instead of the alternative: natural exposure to the disease during harsher weather, when the body's defenses were already challenged...It was also discovered that inoculation produced less scarring and physical defects than a common, naturally contracted case."

Jonathan Edwards knew the risks of inoculation for smallpox, but considered the risks of not inoculating himself to be even greater. When he realized that he was indeed going to die from the disease because of the inoculation, he never regretted his course of action. On his death bed he spoke these words to his daughter, who wrote them down immediately afterward:

"Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now like to be fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you to seek a Father, who will never fail you..." George M. Marsden, Jonathon Edwards: A Life 

It is ironic that today the Puritans are considered to be reactionaries, opposed to all human progress. Today, what we know about the natural world makes us Einsteins in comparison with them. This is true even of mothers who purposely expose their children to the chickenpox virus. Yet it appears that trust in and obedience to God has declined since the days of Mather and Edwards. In trying to protect their children at the expense of the general population, some Christian mothers may do untold damage that their Puritan ancestors risked their lives to prevent.