Some thoughts on Covid-19

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(This post is a work in progress; it is likely to get changed and updated whenever my opinions shift or I have had occasion to think more about different aspects of the subject. Last update: 2022-01-18 17:15:18)

We’re at the beginning of the third year of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and the widely differing opinons on the pandemic, and on the various measures taken by governments and businesses to deal with it increasingly divide society, affecting families, churches, workplaces, and of course politics. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

First a few words regarding my personal situation: I waited a long time to get vaccinated because it seemed a logistical nightmare, due to my health-related mobility problems. My GP does not vaccinate, and normally does not do house calls, either. The various vaccination stations either required long walks from the car park, or else (in the case of mobile stations) long waits outside, neither of which appealed to me. And in view of my living arrangements, in a remote village and again, due to my mobility problems, my largely house-bound state, I did not see the urgency.

In mid-December the opportunity arose, on the occasion of a visit with my daughter, to have her GP come to the house and give me a jab, and in a couple of weeks we will repeat this exercise for my second jab.

In my immediate family there are several people who are unvaccinated by conviction, and who wish to remain so, and I must and can live with that, and live well with that.

When it comes to the big discussion the first question is, of course, whether the pandemic is a thing or not, whether it isn’t simply a new variant of the flu, which we ought to treat just like the flu, with voluntary vaccinations, vitamins, and rest, and nothing more. Those who hold this opinion usually doubt official statistics on the higher mortality of Covid-19 or the strain on the healthcare system; they assume that the numbers have been manipulated by governments in order to justify those draconian restrictions of our civil rights which they impose for undefined but certainly malevolent reasons.

I find this hard to believe:

When I look at our politicians, both here in Europe, in America, and elsewhere on this earth, they do not strike me as intellectual giants, nor as the most knowledgable and able people (those typically occupy the much better paid positions in the business world). I don’t believe for one second that these basically second-rate people, across the entire political spectrum, manage to conduct a worldwide conspiracy which only a handful of cogniscenti have penetrated; that they manage to seduce the media, business (which, with the exception of vaccine and mask producers suffer from the restrictions), as well as the entire medical establishment to quietly go along with their conspiracy. After all, we are here talking about people who are surprised that their text and WhatsApp messages can be used to blow their corrupt deals wide open; we are talking about people who are surprised that the voters are not thrilled when they impose restrictions on us and then flout them, etc.

For such a conspiracy to work the majority of the world’s medical doctors would have to be corrupt and play along; business people whose companies are at risk because of lockdown etc. would have to be quiet; really all politicians would have to be corrupt.

It’s the adherents of such conspiracy theories who drive the divisions in society because they consider anyone who complies with the restrictions to be complicit and traitors who cannot be trusted.

There are others however, who do not believe in a worldwide conspiracy but have various doubts about the need for and the efficacy of the measures imposed by government, whether it is masks, social distancing, or vaccinations. Others consider the potential risks of vaccination to be greater than the risk of dying from Covid-19; or, among Christians, who do not see death as a huge tragedy and prefer it to potentially disabling permanent side effects of vaccination. I think that such considerations, such views deserve some respect even where we disagree; we should feel free, however, to restrict our contact with people who hold such views if we consider it necessary for our own safety.

So what do I think of the various measures imposed by government to deal with Covid-19?

I have absolutely no doubt that the measures are not always well thought through, and of course they are not either argued or communicated in an optimal manner. The reason for this is exactly that weakness and imperfection of our politicians which has me doubt the global conspiracy, as well as the tension between the need for measures and restricitions on the one hand, and the realization that implementing such restrictions could negatively affect a future election outcome: If government does not implement measures and restrictions to guard against the risks of the pandemic, and there is a sudden rise in the number of deaths, or a collapse of parts of the health care system, they will get blamed and may loose the next election. If, on the other hand, they implement all the measures recommended by the experts, when they, for example, require that masks be worn, or impose a lockdown, people may get so annoyed that they will vote for someone else next time around. This tension frequently causes politicians to do what is likely to result in the biggest number of votes, rather than what their conscience tells them is the right thing to do; this is one of the biggest weaknesses of democracy, however, the alternative systems of government have their own, even worse weaknesses.

Add to this the fact that politicians, both those in government and those in opposition, are typically neither medical nor economic experts but depend on expert advisers. Even when there is broad consensus on the necessary measures and restriction, there are also frequently very loud and vocal dissenters, and this makes it even more difficult to know what is the right course of action.

The other big question is how we as Christians should deal with the pandemic and with the “Covid Culture Wars”. I maintain a directory of evangelical churches in Austria, and have recently added a page summarizing the relevant government rules and regulations as they pertain to churches and church services. On this page I linked to two videos by two German Christian leaders, Johannes Reimer and Johannes Hartl, and I also linked to statements from the Evangelical Alliances in Austria and Germany (sorry, all of that is only in German).

 

Das andere große Thema ist die Frage, wie wir als Christen sowohl mit der Pandemie als auch mit dem großen Streit darüber umgehen. Auf der Covid-Infoseite auf dem Österreichischen Freikirchenatlas habe ich zwei Videos verlinkt, eines von Johannes Hartl, und eines von Johannes Reimer, sowie Stellungnahmen der Evangelischen Allianz in in Österreich und Deutschland.

I also wrote the following: “As Christians we are called to regard others higher than ourselves, and to obey the laws of the state as long as they do not contradict the commandments of God. And we are not to usurp God’s role as judge, and for this reason I would like to challenge us, as followers of Jesus, to be very careful in how we express our opinions. Much of what irritates us when it comes to government measures is most likely not the result of lies or an attempt to brazenly restrict our civil rights, but rather the result of politicians being overwhelmed by the situation and the tension between possibly necessary measures and the desire to win the next election and thus not to excessively annoy voters. I am expressly not saying that we should not criticize government — that is our constitutional right — but we should not be quick to attribute malevolent motives  to people, not to mention dealing in conspiracy theories.”

On January 18 German evangelist Ulrich Parzany posted on Facebook, “In view of the painful conflicts in Christian churches regarding vaccination and Corona restrictions I recommend reading Romans 14 and 15. However, there’s still plenty of conflict potential there: Who are the strong, and who are the weak? Those who advocate vaccination? Those who oppose it? In any case, it would be helpful if both sides stopped swinging their moral baseball bats.”

That was not a very successful appeal as the comments show: with a few exceptions, both sides continued to swing their “moral baseball bats”.

And actually, one can read Romans 14 in such a way as to defuse this situation. Let me paraphrase Romans 14:2 in two different ways:

One person believes he should be vaccinated, while one who is weak does not want to be vaccinated. One who is vaccinated must not judge one who is not vaccinated, because God has accepted him.

and—

One person believes vaccination to be unnecessary and dangerous, while one who is weak considers vaccination to be good and necessary. One who is not vaccinated must not judge one who is vaccinated, because God has accepted him.

 

The argument that opposition to vaccination is objectively wrong, or that it springs from a sinful ideology (as one of the commenters writes rather judgmentally) is as irrelevant here as the fact that Paul says that the Jewish food rules absolutely don’t apply to Christians. Accepting the other because God has accepted him (or her) has absolute priority here.

We should also remember that the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:5 that we should take every thought captive to obey Christ. And Christ tells us in Matthew 5:22f, «Everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister will be subject to the court. Whoever says “You fool!” will be subject to hellfire.» Therefore we would be well-advised, when we think of those we disagree with, even if we consider their views wrong and foolish, to discipline our thoughts to think “This man, or this brother, is wrong!”, rather than “This idiot is wrong.” I am convinced that if we disciplined our thoughts in this way, we would end up treating each other differently.

And let us not forget that we owe each other respect not because of our correct opinions, but because we are all created in the image of God, however distorted that image might be by sin or ignorance.

Then, when some argue that love of neighbor requires one to be vaccinated, keep in mind that every one of us is responsible for our own loving or unloving actions; pointing the finger at others has never been helpful.

Here are a few more thoughts on the notion that the pandemic and the restrictive measures implemented by government are some sort of conspiracy to restrict and take away our civil rights:

Especially here in Austria I would be very careful with such accusations. Unlike in some other countries, here in Austria churches and church services are explicitly excempted from the various Covid-related regulations; the public health orders explicitly excempt “venues for the practice of religion”, and every lockdown, including the lockdown for the unvaccinated which is still in force, had as one of the exceptions the “satisfaction of basic religious needs”, with government clearly stating that that his includes attendance at church services.

Basically Christian churches (and other religious organizations) are responsible to make their own rules as seems good and necessary to them; the most elaborate such rules are the Guidelines for Church Services (sorry, German only) by the Austrian Roman-Catholic Bishops’ Conference. It contains this remarkable sentence which evangelical churches would do well to adopt: “In order to not exclude anyone a priory from attending church services participation continues to be possible without proof or minimal epidemiological risk as defined by government regulations (i.e. tested, vaccinated or recovered).”

This situation concerning church services, as well as the fact that regular public demonstrations against the government’s measures continue unhindered, despite the fact that a majority of demonstrators ignore the distancing and mask requirements, is  sufficient evidence for me that the government is not simply trying to restrict or take away our civil rights — else this is where they would have started.

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Allister Heath on the Fall of the American Empire

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Allister Heath of the British Telegraph newspapers has recently published two compelling – to me, anyway – commentaries in the Daily Telegraph, one on Aug. 4, 2021 on the American “woke” crisis, and one on Aug 18, 2021 drawing conclusions from the chaotic fall of Afghanistan. Because these articles are behind a paywall, here are a few excerpts which seem to summarize his main points.
 
Despite my growing conviction that the stance most compatible with the New Testament is Christian pacifism, I have nothing but gratitude for the role of America in defeating the Nazi regime and providing Marshall Plan aid to rebuild Germany and Austria, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time we lived in Texas. So I regard the current situation not with “Schadenfreude”, but with sadness and a heavy heart.
 
(Italic emphasis is mine; “liberal” and “liberalism” does not carry the derogatory meaning in which the terms are used by American conservatives and Evangelicals.)
 
«America’s elites, led by younger graduates, have abandoned their post-1960s liberalism and embraced instead what Wesley Yang has described as its “successor ideology”: the sinister “woke” secular religion of so-called “social justice warriors” who see the world through the distorted prism of “intersectionality”, oppression, identity politics and the catch-all of “white supremacy”. These people say they want to fight racism but, in reality, are Balkanising America and have no interest in a truly meritocratic, colour-blind society finally at peace with itself, the original liberal ideal.»
 
«In the authoritarian, anti-democratic worldview which now dominates universities, big business, government and cultural institutions, free speech is dismissed as violence, conservatism as fascism and differences of opinion as “micro-aggressions”. Capitalism is loathed, as is free enquiry. The old elite – whether Left-liberal or Reaganite – tried to help the poor: the new elite dislikes the working class and seeks to deploy “cancel culture” to stamp out dissent. It attacks selective state schooling and campaigns to defund the police, moves that have led to an explosion of crime and are hitting minorities especially badly.»
 
«The Right, for its part, has also gone mad: too many Republicans have ditched their old principles – be it free markets, limited government or social conservatism – and instead embraced a dumbed-down, populist demagoguery on a long list of issues. Many Republican voters still believe, against all facts and evidence, that the election was rigged; on Covid, conspiracies have been rife. Trumpism could be the death of the Republican party. Left and Right hate each other: they refuse to talk, to live together, and they don’t want their children to marry one another. Race relations are also deteriorating again after years of gradual progress, according to polling.»
 
«No empire is eternal: all eventually fall amid hubris and humiliation. The heart-wrenching, humanitarian calamity that is the botched Afghan retreat is merely the latest sign that the American era is ending: Washington is no longer the world’s policeman, and an unsettling future of clashes between expansionist, authoritarian regional powers beckons.»
 
«In the late 1980s–early 1990s America’s global clout peaked.»
 
«Twenty years on, America’s global plan lies in ruins, its elites confounded on almost every issue, the stupidity and incompetence on display over the Afghan withdrawal confirming that they don’t understand the rest of the world, and aren’t fit to govern their own country, let alone the globe. Blinded by a simplistic universalism, they no longer understand religion, tribalism, history, national differences or why countries want to govern themselves.»
 
«America’s internal problems are immense: its constitution is broken, its predilection for second-rate gerontocrats such as Biden unrivalled. Racked with self-doubt, its elites in the grip of a bizarre “awakening” centred around a nihilistic, ungrateful self-loathing, it no longer has values to sell, neither capitalism nor democracy nor the American dream. How can people who live in terror of “micro-aggressions” find it in themselves to defeat real evils? As to the public, it doesn’t want to know about the rest of the world: how, under such circumstances, can the US empire not be in terminal decline?»
 
«The West has lost control: there will be mass population movements, currency wars and battles over natural resources. The American empire at least believed in freedom and democracy; what replaces it won’t even pretend to be liberal.»
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Lived Experience Trumps Open Debate – Should It?

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Let’s get this out of the way first: I am so sorry for the Trump reference in the title of this post—it does not refer to the former POTUS but is a quote from one of the articles I refer to in this post.

In an opinion column in today’s Daily Telegraph (unfortunately behind a pay wall for many) spiked columnist Ella Whelan comments on The Twitter mauling of Joe Rogan in the wake of the US comedian and podcast host suggesting that «the trajectory of “woke” culture is such that eventually “straight, white men won’t be able to talk”».

Her article illustrates and confirms something American theologian Voddie Baucham said in a recent interview (text summaryvideo) with Church Leadership Magazine and in his book, Fault Lines.

Here is the section from Ella Whelan’s column in the Telegraph:

According to some Black Lives Matter activists, white people need to “sit down” and stop talking about race. Feminists have long argued that men need to “lean out” or “shut up” and listen to women when it comes to issues relating to women. Transgender activists claim that any non-trans person deviating from the repetition of their “trans women are women” mantra must be a bigot, and therefore should be silenced. Teenage climate activists tell us we should be quiet and “listen to the science” rather than debating the best way to tackle environmental challenges.

In a recent online debate on intimacy during lockdown, I was told I couldn’t possibly comment on the benefits of dating apps for sexual exploration because I am married. In almost all aspects of contemporary politics, lived experience has trumped open debate, meaning that unless you fit into whichever identity or experience is being discussed, your views are deemed less valid.

In the interview in Church Leadership Magazine, Dr. Baucham discusses Critical Race Theory (CRT) which underpins the current social justice movement. He says it isn’t just a pseudo-religion but is rather its own religious movement. It has all the trappings of religion, a point which even atheists have made. The movement has its own cosmology, its own saints, its own liturgy, and its own law.

And here is the section where it meshes perfectly with what Ella Whelan says in her column:

What we have in our culture is not an objective truth, but we have a cultural hegemony that is designed for the purpose of oppression. Because of this we have to look at other ways of knowing. This is where narrative becomes very important, story telling becomes important, it’s one of the central tenets of Critical Race Theory. So in Critical Race Theory, if you want to know the truth when it comes to race and racism, you have to elevate black voices, you have to listen to the voice of the marginalized. And this is what people are talking about in church today, right: We have to listen to black voices, we have to elevate the voice of the marginalized. Well, in Critical Race Theory we do this because that’s the way you know truth—not through knowing God, not through knowing God’s Words, but through listening to the voices and the experiences of  the people who we determine to be marginalized.

So, even when we talk about having the conversation—and people will say, “You’re just trying to shut down The Conversation About Racism!”—that’s rooted in principles of Critical Race Theory, that’s saying that storytelling is the way we find knowledge and not through pursuing objective truth.

Since narrative, story telling, are the ways to find true knowledge, when folks tell their story they must be believed, their story must be taken at face value, however much it flies in the face of your own experience, of objective—even scientific—knowledge, or revealed truth.

But because it is only the narrative and the stories of the oppressed and marginalized, whether it be people of color, women, or those who identify with “alternative sexualities”, only their stories are worth listening to, and others, especially privileged white males, need to shut up rather than contribute their own experiences or opinions.

And finally, even those who belong to the oppressed and marginalized groups are only welcome to tell their stories and experiences if they fit into the grans narrative of Critical Race Theory. A black man, like Dr. Baucham, who tells a different story is dismissed as having “internalized racism.”

This edict, that all who are not fully supportive of the narratives and stories considered authentic voices of the oppressed need to be silenced, is at the root of what has come to be called the “cancel culture”, with the “de-platforming” of speakers who represent contrary views.

One of my own observations, and which all this bears out, is that it is typically those who call for tolerance and even affirmation of their own views and positions end up most intolerant of other views and positions. Even Christians are guilty of this: demanding freedom of religion for Christians in places like Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, etc., while at the same time discriminating against followers of visibly foreign religions in our own countries. It seems to be part of our sinful human nature.

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Is Austria’s Solidarity With Israel Unconstitutional?

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When two days ago (Friday, 15th May 2021) the Austrian government expressed solidarity with Israel by flying the Israeli flag on the Chancellery and Foreign Ministry buildings, several particularly intelligent individuals (i.e. FPÖ chair Hofer as well as Facebook commenters) have opined that this expression of solidarity contravenes the consitutionally mandated perpetual neutrality of Austria.
 
 
But Austria’s neutrality has always been understood in military terms, not in terms of ideology or world view: The Austrian constitution itself just mentions neutrality but doesn’t define it, while the Neutrality Act of 1955 (which is considered part of the constitution) clearly defines it in military terms—no membership in alliances, no foreign military bases in Austria (see the attached screenshot).
 
During the talks which produced the Austrian State Treaty which in turn terminated Austria’s occupation by the WWII Allies, Austria’s negotiators in Moscow used the expression neutrality on the Swiss pattern to make clear that this was not a moral or ideological neutrality—hence Austria, while not a NATO member, was nevertheless always a western country, and today cannot be morally neutral vis-á-vis terrorist organizations such as Hamas.
 
It is this same Hamas which for a number of days has relentlessly been firing rockets at the Israeli civilian population; and they do this using bases and launchpads located in the midst of civilian residential areas, often next to hospitals and school—so that the inevitable and justified Israeli counter strikes will produce a high civilian death toll, including children, which can then be exploited for propaganda purposes.
 
In the face of this situation the demonstration of solidarity by the flying of the Israeli flag is clearly not unconstitutional or in contravention of Austria’s perpetual neutrality; rather, this solidarity is entirely appropriate especially given Austria’s history.  We should not forget that when Austria’s anthem waxes poetic about being “home to great sons” this includes the likes of Adolf Hitler and not a few of his henchmen—great, of course, in terms of their tragic impact on world history, not in the sense of moral greatness.
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