Trusting the Man
Those Against the Vax Don't Need to Trust, They Need Empathy—yours and mine
In my teens, my toddler brother had a severe allergic reaction. His entire body was covered in hives, down his throat, in every crevice. When he was taken to the doctor, the doctor remarked (to the best of my memory), something along the lines that it was a good thing he wasn’t yet vaccinated because he could have died if he had gotten the shots. A variation of the story was told and retold for years, a thing of legend in our anti-vaccine community.
I loved my brother more than anyone in my life at that period. He was my chum, my little buddy, my constant. He would crawl into my bed at night to sleep, we would read the same books together ad nauseam, he was my absolute delight. To think of his life being snuffed out irrevocably changed, gutted me. None of us knew that only a few years later the life of another one of our brothers would be snuffed out, on a single rainy April morning in the middle of road less than a mile from our home.
Death has always been a fear of mine, reenforced when it came true.
We subscribe to a few news sources in our home, one of which is The Dispatch (the best $200 bucks we spent all last year). Every Sunday we read David French’s missive into the world and nod our heads in solidarity. This morning was no different. Afterwards we watched the video he shared (which you should watch now before continuing to read), and nodded more.
I’ll summarize it for those of you who didn’t click on the link, but please click on it because original sources are always better than people gabbing on about them. In short, Curtis Chan makes the argument that trust is at the bottom of the pro-vax/con-vax conversation, i.e., that we all trust institutions we don’t understand and helping those against the vaccine see their own trust in institutions like the USDA or health departments, will help them be more willing to trust institutions like NIH, FDA, or CDC. His argument is that God set up the world in such a way that we build our trust in Him by trusting those he’s set over us. I agree with his main point.
Where I disagree, though, is that I believe the core issue in the minds of many against the vaccine, is not necessarily distrust of institution, but trust in their own real and traumatic experiences. They see correlation (and sometimes causation) between vaccinations and autism, developmental delays, developmental regression, severe allergic reactions, or any number of very real, very scary experiences they or someone they know has had.
The question for them is not “Do I trust the FDA or NIH or CDC?” it’s, “How can I trust these institutions when I nearly lost someone I love when they took a vaccination deemed as ‘perfectly safe’?” It’s a good question and it needs to be reckoned with.
At the core of the pro vax/con-vax conversation is the same deep root divide that exists country-wide right now: it is the divide between my experience and your experience, and an inability to practice empathy for a different experience than my own.
This is at the center of the conversations around systemic racism, abortion, incarceration, war, economic justice, welfare, healthcare, voting rights or regulations, and more. Name a single divisive issue that exists in our country today that doesn’t have, at the core of the divide, an inability to not simply understand the other’s argument, but truly enter into their experience as best as we can? There isn’t one. The problem isn’t a lack of trust in certain institutions, it’s a lack of empathy for one another.
We don’t need more trust in the world today if it’s not linked irrevocably with empathy. We teach people to trust by empathizing with them in their sorrows and story. This is what Jesus did through his incarnation: he inhabited our story in flesh. He taught us to trust him by keeping his promise to dwell among us, experiencing what we experience, and becoming acquainted with our sorrows.
I love the video from Chang, but I think it stops short of what is actually needed. It isn’t enough to try to convince our Christian friends who are against the COVID vaccine that the vaccine is safe and the institutions can be trusted. Or to make the argument (like French does), that the Christian thing to do is to love our neighbor by getting the vaccines (although I agree). We actually have to care for our most immediate neighbor too, the one we’re engaging with over this divide, the ones with an experience that says vaccines can’t be trusted. How do we care for them? By empathizing with them in their sorrows, by hearing the fears they experienced when their loved one was hurting, by mourning with them at the losses they’ve experienced by trusting the institution. Those aren’t small losses. Not at all and they matter to God.
When I look back to my (albeit fuzzy) experience in my teens, that story colored my opinion on vaccinations until only a few years ago when I began to do some work in healing my story. What healed my broken experience wasn’t the belief that vaccinations are 100% safe, but someone sorrowing with me over the fright of believing my brother would have died from a vaccine. I didn’t need to know the science behind that story, I didn’t need to perfectly recollect the doctor’s qualifications, I didn’t need to understand his reasonings. I needed to heal from the trauma of being terrified that the most precious person in my life could have died. When someone did that with me, I began to heal. I began to trust again. I began to grow more interested in what it means to be a people who are engaged in the work of trusting, submitting to, and learning from authorities in the church, the family, the government, scientists, and all those God has given wisdom to and set over us.
My trust in science wasn’t the issue, my traumatic experience was.
I loved Chang’s video and I think it may help those who are pro-vaccination, but nearly every person against vaccines who I know (and I know a lot) will object to it and I don’t blame them. My work, then, is to try and empathize with them in their sorrows, to believe their story, and find ways to live among them, my neighbor, in peaceable ways despite this deep and weighty disagreement.
My aim cannot be for the entire population to be vaccinated or for herd immunity to be reached. Those are good goals, but they stop short of what’s most important: being of one mind in Christ. And that only happens when, instead of making them the enemy, Christians help heal other Christians so we can help heal the world.
*There’s also a lot to be said for the Black demographic’s resistance to the vaccine as well, and those more learned/experienced in it should be listened to. My friend Jasmine Holmes is constantly educating others on the Black experience. You can find her here: https://jasminelholmes.com and follow on her Twitter or Instagram for education.