Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The H1N1 Vaccine Debate and a Christian Compromise

Polls show a majority of Americans are concerned about the H1N1 virus (swine flu), but also about the safety and efficacy of the swine flu vaccine. Is it ethical to say no to this or any vaccine? Are there valid religious reasons to accept or decline a vaccine? Will you get a swine flu shot? Will your children?

The H1N1 virus threatens the national and administration of the vaccine should be mandatory. Certainly, there are valid religious reasons to refuse or accept vaccination. However, in the face of a serious threat to national health, the United States of America has historically, and without remorse, set aside the religious reservations of a few in the interest of protecting the majority of its population. It must be done, but it need not be disrespectful. If we are compelled to ask our Christian Scientist and Jehovah’s Witness brethren, among others, to trample their religious principles for our benefit, the least we can do is be kind about it, be respectful, and if at all possible, grateful to them for threatening their salvation in favor of ours.

I compromise my principles a little bit every day in order to ensure religious freedom for my neighbors. In my own state of Illinois, a parent choosing to refuse state-required immunizations must jump through a series of state and county hoops, produce signed documents and testimonies and prove their religious affiliation. In exchange, the state offers me as much assurance as it possibly can that my vaccinated children will be safe from infection. It does not, it cannot, categorically promise to isolate my children from their unvaccinated classmates. This is a risk I live with because I would not want to live in a country that required “separate but equal” facilities for people who had made choices based on their faith traditions. Once in a while, in one fell swoop and in recognition of special circumstances, I ask these same neighbors to make a similar sacrifice for me. I am confident in their empathy and reasonableness.

Jesus told us to preserve the Sabbath and we respect people who honor the Sabbath. He also healed the sick on the Sabbath. He argued that violating the Sabbath laws did not invalidate the Sabbath but that his father in heaven valued human life above ritual purity. He made these arguments and he performed these miracles with respect and kindness toward those whose religions he compromised through his actions. We can do no less in his name.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dream into Being: A Post Racial World

Gravity works like this: everything we do, everything we have created to live on earth, every cell in our bodies and every expectation we have in our lives depends on gravity. We develop strong bodies, muscles, dense bones, parallel hips and shoulder structures, so that we can stand up in opposition to gravity. Our cells are oriented by and function in concert with gravitational pull. We design buildings and use materials that counter act gravity. The forces of gravity move the largest bodies of water known to man back and forth across the face of the planet. The force of gravity is so ingrained in us that we are able to anticipate a falling snowflake. Even our animals comprehend of gravity: my dog is not performing elaborate computations to predict the pitch and drag of the Frisbee he catches I his mouth. It is instinctive. Gravity is like that: so instinctive that we don’t think about it at all, it’s a given. And yet everything we do and everything we are is premised on gravity. That is being White in the U.S.

Now imagine that gravity increased ten-fold. Imagine it pushed you down. Imagine you could not build the structures or catch the snowflake, imagine that you had to use every ounce of your strength to stand. That is being non-white in the U.S.

This was brought home to me in an essay by Alice Walker called “Saving the Life that is Your Own” in which she examines role models she’s held for her own writing. It struck me that she had to go looking for role models who were not what she was, but what she wanted to be. She quotes Toni Morrison saying that she has to be “her own model as well as the artist attending from, learning and realizing the model.” What struck me about this is that my race has never defined my role models, because my potential is not limited by my race. In my entire life as a writer, until that moment, it never occurred to me that I could not aspire to be Leo Tolstoy.

I look around at the books on my shelves and their stories jump out at me. I know the characters like old friends, I know their lines, I can envision their most moving scenes with an immediacy that gives me great joy. I have to stop and think and in several cases Google and check the race and sometimes gender of the writer. This, in my sheltered little mind, is the road to the kingdom. In her essay, Alice Walker says that white writers tend to write the reality they live in now, “as if there were no better existence for which to struggle.” Black writers, however, expect a “larger freedom” and their characters struggle toward it.

One thing all theologians agree on is that human beings are narrative animals. They take their realities and write them into legends: they call that history. They write their dreams and imagine a reality that is more perfect, more satisfying than what they know: they call that fiction. But when those stories are read and their fictions take root in the imagination of the reader, then there is the beginning of reality. I know this story, you know it. A truth exists between us and between us we can live that truth into being, speak imagination into revolution, create the reality that once was only a dream.

I don’t know what I post racial world looks like. But I can imagine a city whose buildings are constructed in different ways and with different materials, I can imagine evolutionary adaptations that enabled people to walk and breathe comfortably. I can imagine bowling becoming a more popular sport than tennis. And then suddenly having the weight lifted, the entire paradigm changing and how a culture would have to adapt to their “larger freedom.” Imagine that.