DIVIDING US

COVID-19 has thrust a sword through Singapore, dividing us in many areas. Our churches have not escaped vaccine differentiation, one of the pandemic’s most worrying incisions.

By Lee Chung Horn

A sea of Singapore flags at a national day parade at the National Stadium. Photo by Rogan Yeoh, Unsplash.

 

No country seeks division within itself. Every nation lauds unity. As a concept, unity is always enshrined in a country’s constitution.

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins with the three words, “We the people.” Ratified in 1788, the three words are a deep cry, a reaching toward unity.

It’s not just about constitutions. In Singapore, many of us grew up reciting a pledge to build a society founded on justice and equality, a country of happiness, prosperity and progress. This resounding vow, all 38 words of it, builds our national consciousness, ringing out across school assemblies and national day parades. It was written in 1966 by our founding fathers. One united people.

Like countries, the Church speaks of unity, longs for it. No church wants to be divided against itself. I have never heard people at church forums say division is unavoidable. I have seen Christians quickly push arguments out of sight with an appeal to church unity.

 

The pandemic’s sword

But COVID-19 has thrust a reluctant sword through Singapore, dividing us in many areas. The Singapore church, though an altogether different organism, has suffered many cuts.

The starkest cut came arguably on 27 September with the disallowing of unvaccinated church people from joining the vaccinated assembly in Sunday worship.

 

History is filled with examples in which groups of people, usually minorities, are identified and separated from the larger populace. They become the “others”.

 

The reasons are sound. Vaccine differentiation – in its simplest understanding, treating unvaccinated people differently from vaccinated people – springs from a protective motivation. We are told it does not punish the unvaccinated.

But it could feel that way.

History is filled with examples in which groups of people, usually minorities, are identified and separated from the larger populace. They become the “others”. From 1939, Adolf Hitler began rounding up Jews, removing them from their homes and putting them into ghettos, where they lost jobs, the liberty to go shopping, and the right to mingle with non-Jewish friends. Finally, six million Jews lost their lives.

Vaccine differentiation in Singapore has nothing at all to do with Nazi Germany. The rules churches and religious organisations are required to abide by in their meetings are not unreasonable or egregious. But anti-vaxxers in the West have already claimed centuries of Jewish anti-semitism to look like martyrs. This is a false equivalence.

So what has happened in church?  Well, the new vaccine- differentiated measures that were added to our safe management measures now allow for up to 1000 vaccinated worshippers to gather, but this number falls to only 50 if there were unvaccinated worshippers present in the group. Unvaccinated persons are excluded from joining groups larger than 50. The reasoning is that joining larger groups may put the unvaccinated person at risk of contracting COVID-19.

The TraceTogether app on our smartphones is now a flaming sword that guards the entrance to Sunday worship. You can’t sidle in.

Nor would you want to. Not if you, like unvaccinated persons I have spoken to, feel any combination of these emotions: embarrassment, marginalization, or hurt.

It has been three months now. Unless this rule changes, is it conceivable that our unvaccinated church members will find it harder to join future Easter and Christmas services, future church camps, the combined Lunar New Year service, and more?

 

The vaccine

When news came late December last year that a vaccine would soon be available in Singapore, I registered to get vaccinated as soon as possible. I discovered that many doctors at our hospital made the same decision because my name was only called on the third day.

Were we not worried about the newness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine? Well, doctors are used to reading thousands of words a day, and the published early research we examined was good enough for us. This was a global crisis. We were experienced enough to know we had to act.

Because we take care of patients who rely on us for advice and counsel. If we didn’t read the data quickly and exhaustively, if we chose to dawdle and sit on the fence, how would we lead our patients?

I didn’t want to tell a patient: “You decide for yourself. Don’t ask me.” I didn’t want to have to tell her: “I’m not obliged to answer your question, but if you must know, I’ve not taken the vaccine.”

The first COVID-19 vaccine was given to a 91 year old British woman on 8 December 2020. By 7 December 2021, 8.24 billion doses have been administered worldwide. Despite their demonstrated safety and benefit, there remains a large group of vaccine sceptics around the world.

 

Who are the unvaccinated?

After twelve months of the vaccine year, I have garnered some observations about the unvaccinated. Who are they? 

Firstly, they are not homogeneous. As I got better at identifying the traits of these people, I’d also been surprised in a few instances by a person’s non-vaccinated status. But there are many sub-tribes.

Secondly, the months sifted the group. As March became June, and June became September, and September became December, the unvaccinated group discarded, in succession, the vaccine-tardy, the vaccine-hesitant, people who wanted to wait “till 30 of my friends have taken the jab and survived,” the people who naively thought the crisis would end in nine months, people with genuine allergies, the folks who flirted with, and shared, fake news, the ones who whimsically believed their bodies would crumble under the needle, people with imagined allergies, people who worked at jobs that didn’t require them to leave their homes, and the ones who didn’t have a regular doctor to talk to.

Right now, only 15% of our total population remains unvaccinated. Actually, we can break this figure down to children under 12 who account for 9%, leaving a 6% group who is holding out. Singapore has done very well. Most people got vaccinated without fuss. But from August, we saw a lot of persuading. Some people refused to yield, but woke up in September to the reality of big numbers and deaths. These people finally rolled their sleeves up, muttering under their breath that if the vaccine made them ill, they would sue the government.

At the bottom of the pile we have a 6% number. Who are these people? Well, it is useful to first state who they are not. They are largely not people with medical exemptions. This means they don’t have serious medical illnesses that made vaccination a life-threatening action for them. Even lay people now know that cancer patients can safely take the vaccine. Kidney patients, heart attack patients, lung patients, lupus patients. Pregnant women, too.

So the unvaccinated will be revealed, as the sifting continues, to be people who can take the needle perfectly safely, but just don’t want to be vaccinated. Their anti-vaccine stance isn’t supported by medical exemptions.

 

For nearly a year, I have seen people running from rock to rock. But the rock won’t hide them.

 

They don’t go to the doctor, because when the doctor tells them that they can be vaccinated safely, they are dismayed, because they can’t hide anymore.

This means that this late in the game, if you still have not taken the needle, you have to be a vaccine refuser, or vaccine denier.

For nearly a year, I have seen people running from rock to rock. But the rock won’t hide them. This has happened in many countries. In the U.S., 3 out of 10 adult Americans have yet to receive a shot. Perhaps there is still safety and power in a number like 30 percent. But in Singapore, when the number is now 6%, where can you, if you’re a member of a shrivelling minority, shelter?

In churches, when services are differentiated by vaccine status, where do you go?

 

Under attack

As much as anti-vaxxers can be strident and unapologetic, as a minority, they’re also under attack. They are blamed for many things.

In the liberal West, where trust in government and public institutions is thin, and human rights inalienable, unvaccinated people can stand tall. In Singapore, apart from a vocal fringe, the unvaccinated know it’s safer to be quiet and hide.

Our respective national and cultural histories are different. We read that some U.S. churches have openly decried masking. Some American pastors have refused to stop or limit Sunday services. In the U.S., there are anti-vaccine pastors who teach their flock how to get a legal certificate on the grounds of religious liberty. In Singapore, our churches and pastors do not do this. This is a mercy.

In May, a patient told me of her neighbours who steadfastly refused vaccination. But it wasn’t just father, mother, daughter and son. The family refused to let their Filipino domestic worker get vaccinated, too. They knew the national vaccine program welcomes all persons on long-term work passes because the coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Thai or Chinese national. Every vaccinated person protects the country.

This story shocked me. But my patient’s story took a gleeful turn. She said that when her own vaccinated domestic helper heard the story, mistress and helper decided quietly to register the first helper for vaccination. The little plot succeeded. The vaccine-refuser family never knew their household now has a vaccinated soul.

 

A weak chink

The phrase “No one is safe until we are all safe,” was first used by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. It reminds all of us that the strongest chain can be undone by a weak chink. This fact bears repeating as the cumulative global number of deaths is expected to rise past 5 million as the year ends.

 

Mandates around the world

From August onwards, there was a wave of international news that employers were starting mandates. If an employee refuses vaccination, he loses his job. Employers like UPS, Goldman-Sachs, Delta Airlines, CNN, Uber, Walgreens, Cisco, Amtrak, Starbucks, McDonald’s and many others made announcements.

On November 2, when the U.S. military’s first deadline arrived, the U.S. Air Force discharged 40 service members who refused vaccination. It is now going through the files of thousands of others who failed to get a coronavirus vaccination. A spokesman said: “Now that the deadline has passed, there’s a clear line to begin holding people accountable.”

In our country, the first announcement of a vaccine mandate for employees was couched in softer language. The Public Service Division announced on November 5 that public officers who choose not to get vaccinated despite being medically eligible may be put on no-pay leave, or not have their contracts renewed. PSD is Singapore’s largest employer with about 153, 000 officers.

A joint advisory from Ministry of Manpower, NTUC Congress and Singapore National Employers’ Federation predated this announcement.  The advisory said any job termination from an employee’s inability to perform his contracted work because of his unvaccinated status would not be wrongful dismissal.  

These changes to employment terms may come to churches and religious organisations. Why should we receive different treatment, if all of us want to see the light at the end?

 

More questions

In Singapore, our hospitals have been turned upside down when an unrelenting surge in daily infections began in October. Many people, not just doctors, are beginning to ask a series of hard questions. For example, should hospitals treat the unvaccinated differently? The kernel of this query: if we have the resources to save only one patient who’s battling COVID-19, should we save the unvaccinated one or the vaccinated one?

This troubling ethical question is hard to answer. In medicine, we try to save every man, regardless of race, education, religion, whether or not he can pay the ICU bill or not. Saint or sinner. But what if he’s a man who has refused to take the needle?

How should weary doctors, running out of strength and compassion, treat the unvaccinated?

As we begin to open up our country, should the unvaccinated minority hold back the vaccinated majority?

A bone-weary doctor friend said: “Enough of waiting, shall we pass a law to mandate vaccination for persons 60 years and above, the high-risk group who may well die? If we can’t mandate vaccination for the 35 year old who will fight us, should we just save the older people with a mandate?”

Another doctor friend said: “You can’t do that. Are you prepared to lock up the white-haired grandmother?” 

 

Peace and a sword

In March 2020 when the coronavirus outbreak struck, Californian megachurch pastor John MacArthur complied fully with health orders requiring churches to close, telling his congregation that Christians should live peacefully with the government.

Defiance of safety measures is a “foolish” thing to do, he said, that makes “Christianity look anything but loving.”

But by July, MacArthur had changed his stance, reopening his church against orders. His people came back. A statement on the church’s website said: “Jesus would want the church to reopen. Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church.”

This led to Los Angeles County bringing a lawsuit against MacArthur and his church for holding large, indoor services in violation of the county’s health order. Within hours, lawyers representing MacArthur and the church countersued the state, county, and L.A. city officials, alleging that the order violated their First Amendment rights.

 

Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

 

The legal battle ended in August 2021 with the county forking over $400,000 in damages to MacArthur and the church.

Whatever our view is about MacArthur and his defiance of county laws, we might see in it the cosmic war that Jesus warns us about.

Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:34-39)

Jesus says “I have come to bring a sword”. To divide. He was talking about discipleship. What else did He mean?

The reality that America has become a divided country was visible to the world when pro-Trump protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol to contest the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. The result was five deaths, at least 138 injuries,15 hospitalisations, and $30 million of property losses. Four security officers died by suicide after the riot. Photo by Roberto Schmidt.

 

The meaning of unity

I think unity among two or three people, or people in a group, gets its virtue entirely from something else. Until it is given goodness or badness by something else, unity itself is neutral.

Paul and Silas singing together in their prison cell for Christ’s sake (Acts 16:25) is an example of good unity. Pilate and Herod united in ridicule for Jesus (Luke 23:12) is not good unity.

We know, more than just creedal words, our unity is given us by the Holy Spirit. “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).

Jesus’s words in John 17 describes for us the profound spiritual unity between the Father and the Son, and with those whom God has chosen out of the world (John 17:6). “I ask that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

Because the Church teaches us that we are all one body and should behave like one body, we are uncomfortable with difference, alternate views and dissent. But our world is filled with complex, pressing problems, so Christians do not all hold one view on issues like climate change, sexuality, poverty, and justice. But not one of these issues has forced us like COVID-19, pressed us to decide where we stand. COVID-19 has revealed the fault-lines in every country, and they aren’t pretty.

In this time of state-mandated divisions and vaccine-differentiation, how may we who call Singapore our home relate to people who turn their backs on the things we hold to be important? We want an answer because we have watched with concern the violent January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol when supporters of former president Donald J. Trump took part in an undemocratic act, refusing to accept the results of a democratic national election.

We want an answer because the tongues of even American writers ring true to us, particularly the words E pluribus unum, promising “Out of many, one.”

We want an answer because we are afraid that lines would become rifts.

As Christ followers, how do we hold on to Christian unity, whatever it is, and whatever it is not? If a Christian brother has lived in a fake news silo, should we hold him at arm’s length?

 

Loving across lines

That answer is easy. It is no. We cannot dismiss that brother. We must not hold him at arm’s length. But this stance can be hard to practise. We should love across differences those who are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ. Hate serious blunders, not sincere brothers. We are never good at this. The socio-political climate today makes it even harder.

Not only loving, but also serving. For the sake of a witness to the world, we must seek out ways to show love for brothers and sisters who stand on the other side of the line, who are angry at us. The line that now causes pain may yet be removed, though I think this will not happen for some time.

Whichever side we are on, we must avoid the language of ‘persecution’ to describe our circumstances. We must also remember how Jesus often unsettled our certainty that God is on our side. When Jesus says “Whoever is not against us is for us,” he blurs the lines we want to darken, reminding us to “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).

We often teach our people that unity in the church is attractive to the fractious, watching world. When everything is nice and dandy and we can all come together in church, there is perhaps not too much that impresses the world. But when we’re at a place where there is a real difference, where our passions are roused, where there is a majority and a minority pitted against each other, and we exhibit observable love, then that is something that the world can see. It may be the thing that may lead the world to judge that these ones really are Christians, and that Jesus has indeed been sent by the Father.

Lee Chung Horn is a medical doctor. He is a church elder.

 

Opinions expressed are those of our authors. This is the second article of our December 2021 issue. All rights reserved. Please send comments to together@trueway.org.sg. Previous issues are available at truewaypc.com/newsletters.

 

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