I heard recently about a mother so frustrated about leaders asking ward members to wear masks that none of her children were interested in attending Church anymore. Then, just this week, came upon a Facebook post from a Latter-day Saint mother declaring her intent to cancel her subscription to The Friend after learning about an image set to appear in the Church’s magazine showing a child wearing a mask and being brave while receiving a vaccine shot. Her comment inspired a whole string of equally angry postings below.
This makes my heart hurt. Not because I don’t have my own questions. And not because I believe everything Dr. Fauci says. Like many, I’ve wrestled to understand the truth amidst all the competing messages.
Clearly, these are challenging issues for most everyone. But I’m convinced we make these sensitive conversations so much more challenging when we lay aside a basic level of humility about what’s going on, and what’s known (and unknown). From this place, it then becomes easy to lash out at others as malicious or reckless who don’t see things the same way as we do, whether leaders, professionals, or members of our own family.
Anger hurts all of us, especially when it’s chronic. It drains us, and starts to mess with our heads. In this specific online exchange, amidst the expressed worry at why the Church would advance a pro-vaccine message (“Nothing close to this should be pushed by the true church”), I was struck with how many people were concluding Church leaders somehow didn’t care about those raising questions or concerns: “Sadly, they don’t care. They have a very focused agenda and see those who think outside the narrative as a nuisance” said one person―with another insisting, “They don’t care how we feel. Anyone who feels differently than the way they want us to feel will automatically be labeled as apostate, or similar.” A fourth person said, “Time to cancel the main membership too!”
Humility about vaccine concerns. Amidst this feeding frenzy, I was hearted by one woman, Sally Linford, who raised another perspective:
I am so sad to see this page from The Friend being interpreted as a political manipulation. Alternate version: middle management told one of the writers to create this recurring article of The Friend. The task at hand is to illustrate “I can be brave.” So either the writer or artist conjured a common situation in which a child needs to be brave. That writer threw in some art direction―draw a coloring page of a kid in a doctor’s office getting a shot . . . to make it look current for the kids, they’re wearing masks. End of story. 💔💔💔 It’s easy for me to imagine how this happened.
She added, “Pointing the finger of scorn is personally dangerous, regardless of where you point.”
Another person pushed back, *How does putting on a mask and getting an injection show bravery in teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ?” Sally elaborated:
I’ll take a stab: “I can be brave” ― how do I illustrate that? What’s a situation where kids need to be brave . . . something to remind them that they’re already brave in many ways? How about when they go to the doctor and have to get a shot? That’s hard, and it takes courage. “We’re brave when we go to the doctor. I can be brave like that in other ways too, like when I want to share my testimony, but I feel scared. I can be brave like when I go to the doctor, etc.” I’m not saying it’s great, but dorky stuff like that is in The Friend all the time. The masks just show what kids are experiencing right now. That’s just an alternate way of looking at it.
When others continued pushing back on her take, Sally added, “I guess we all see what we want to see. This whole thread has taken on the same feeling I get from the opposite/MWEG (Mormon Women for Ethical Government) crowd―up in arms that church leadership is too conservative, etc.” In her closing note, Sally underscored, “I also have serious concerns over this vaccine. I just don’t see enemies in the apostles. That’s all. Peace.”
One man expressed similar sorrow with seeing so many going “as far as to discredit our church leaders over this issue.” As he put it:
I won’t be taking the vaccine, neither will my wife or most of my extended family. However I have learned that sometimes I don’t understand the reasons but I trust in the bigger picture of it all. I may not choose to get the vaccine but I still believe I can put my trust and faith into church leaders and God.
Notice how each of these people express confidence in prophetic leaders, even while harboring their own concerns about the vaccine. How is this even possible? On one hand, there’s a new pressure that has arisen among some who say, “I trust this vaccine because I follow the Prophet…why won’t you?” Then on the other side, others press, “if you have serious concerns about vaccines, how can you possibly follow these leaders who are recommending the vaccine?!”
Forced choice. Either-or. Black and white. Take your pick.
No thanks. Not me. Because, as this good sister and brother each know, there is another way.
When others asked him why he wasn’t willing (given his own vaccine questions) to fight more directly the brethren more on this, this man added, “Well, I guess it’s a great opportunity to strengthen our testimonies of a living Prophet.”
Different heart, different take. I was struck by how profoundly different these two responses were from the rest of the Facebook thread. Even though they clearly had some real concerns about the vaccine and their own questions about the Church encouraging it so strongly, these two were holding those wonderings in a completely different way, and from a very different heart.
As important as the whole truth is about vaccination, COVID, etc., maybe it’s this larger reality that is even more important? Namely: if we have honest questions or concerns about something our presiding leaders are doing, how do we hold those questions? Is it possible to hold questions with humility, in a way that we can still concede good intentions among those who disagree with us, including some of our leaders?
That humility doesn’t mean we can’t still stand up for what we feel is right. Nor does it mean we must yield to something we feel is wrong. Not at all.
It simply means acknowledging that, however convicted we may be, none of us knows the “full truth” about what’s happening, with a great deal still unknown. That’s very different from what we often hear proclaimed by many in our national media these days.
Humility about what is “proven to be safe.” On the other side of this debate, I told my wife the other day about a recent statement in a New York Times article that said: “Most experts agree that the risks to pregnant women from Covid-19 are far greater than any theoretical harm from the vaccines.”
I asked her, “how could they possibly say that?” Based on my own earlier review of the studies on the three main COVID-19 vaccinations and additional studies since, I was aware that most of the evidence for safety and effectiveness has relied upon short-term analyses of (mostly) healthy adults without substantial complications – not kids, not the very old, not people with autoimmune conditions, and not pregnant women.
Yet in the early months of 2021, there was a vigorous public call to get the vaccine out to as many of the elderly in nursing homes as possible. I couldn’t understand how they could be so confident, especially because no one has had time to examine longer-term results for anyone, let alone these subgroups.
Why not just acknowledge what we don’t know? And show a little more humility about that?
It seems many have concluded that the need to reassure and encourage the public is great enough that such acknowledgements are not wise. Hence, so many triumphant statements that these vaccines have been “clearly proven” to be safe and effective. And thus, any reported adverse side effect or even deaths following the vaccine are quickly written off (almost universally) as “not connected to the vaccine at all.”
Can we be more honest about this all? I’d love to hear more public health officials saying things like “yes, there have been some adverse effects and death in a small subset of people taking the vaccine – and it’s true, we haven’t studied the longer-term picture of its effects. Yet, we still believe the risk is worth it, given the larger benefit – especially for relatively healthy adults.”
That kind of candor could be reassuring for those of us still harboring honest questions, including about short-term impacts. In the case of pregnant women, the Times itself states in its FAQ, “The vaccines have not been tested in pregnant women or in those who were breastfeeding.” It goes on to acknowledge that while Pfizer plans to “test its vaccine in pregnant women over the next few months,” most of the evidence gathering is happening informally, as pregnant women get the shot and see how it goes:
In the initial rollout, it will be mostly pregnant or breastfeeding health care workers who must weigh the benefits and possible risks. By the time the vaccine is available to pregnant essential workers or to pregnant women in the general population, there should be a lot more data available….Moderna plans to establish a registry to observe side effects in women who were immunized with its vaccine.
That’s the evidence we’re using to encourage all pregnant women to consider getting the shot?
Yes it is. And with all due respect for people who say, “I’m sure they wouldn’t give us anything that would hurt us” (as one individual said online), history is full of tragic examples of pregnant women finding out later that something had an unintended effect on their baby. And based on the research available, some of this encouragement feels quite premature to many of us.
Let’s be honest about what we don’t know – and not try to pretend something is settled, when it’s not.
That’s why the basic humility enjoined in Jesus’ gospel is such a beautiful answer to this all. Over and over, the word of God reminds us this is a quality he needs to see from us. Peter anciently cautioned, “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” And Isaiah quotes God saying, “I dwell… with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”
This, of course, has relevance far beyond health matters. Many Saints have had serious questions about Church history, only a subset of which have gone on to accuse leaders of intentionally lying in earlier historical treatments. And many other members continue to have honest questions about sexuality and LGBT issues, only a subset of which have gone on to accuse the brethren of hating gay kids and attempting to erase the existence of a whole subset of humanity. Across so many important questions, the presence of a little more humility can change the internal dynamic out of which we hold a concern.
As small and subtle as that shift seems, what it can mean for our larger ability to hold these questions together is profound. To reiterate, none of this means we have to give up honest questions or serious concerns. But there’s a way to hold it differently inside, in a way that doesn’t eat us up or estrange us from fellow members and presiding leaders. And it can work equally well on both sides of the debate. The same humility that could soften the pain of people grappling over why Church leaders are encouraging vaccination, might also soften the pain of people grappling over why so many members are resisting vaccination or mask mandates. As one woman said on the same Facebook thread, “I have cut any contact with those who refuse to wear a mask.”
These are the kinds of sharp judgments causing undue suffering on both sides. Is it fair to insist the Brethren are actively joining forces with a global UN/Bill Gates/Pharma campaign due to their encouragement about what they see as good health practices? No. Neither is it fair to insist members questioning the strong public pressure to vaccinate and mask up are QAnon conspiracists who are actively threatening public health.
“C’mon, man!” as our new president likes to say.
I’ve appreciated how Utah’s new governor, Spencer Cox, has tried to encourage precisely this kind of respectful space, when it would have been very easy for him to come down strongly only on one side. As he was recently quoted as saying: “We need a measure of grace and patience with each other. There are some people that will want to wear masks for much longer. Don’t mock them, don’t make fun of them, all right?” And for those who have never worn masks, the Governor added, “that’s OK, too. We don’t need to pile on those people. We’ve all made mistakes through this. We’ve all been critical of others when it turns out our side was wrong. We can do so much better together.”
“So much better.” Amen, Governor Cox! And thank you for modeling that for us.
This doesn’t have to be how we do this. Like other difficult conversations in America, it’s possible to hold different perspectives ― even sharply different ones ― without impugning motives and character and accusing those on the other side of malicious intent.
In one of his most famous pieces of counsel to disciples, Jesus taught, “Take no thought [“do not worry…do not be anxious”] for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on.”
Maybe questions about our physical health are not the most crucial questions after all? However important our physical health still clearly is, for the sake of our spiritual health, may we embrace humility as an antidote for our times.
And whatever side of the vaccination, masking and COVID debates you are on (and whatever questions you think need to be answered), please don’t neglect a question even more important than safety and efficacy, as Alma put it: “Have ye been sufficiently humble?”