Friday, August 07, 2015

On Spiritual Abuse

I haven't personally been in a spiritually abusive environment, or at least not experienced one as such, but I do talk to a lot of people about their experiences with church and churches, good and bad. There's a somewhat serious/not-serious term: "Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome". There was a resolution about spiritual abuse at the All-American Council this year that was approved by the Synod. It's short, but reading it definitely helped me to make sense of a lot of the bad experiences people had told me about. Take a look at it!

But what strikes me is that there seems to be an entire movement, at least on the internet, which seems bent on glorifying some of the bad behaviors outlined in the document and presenting them as the Tradition (Canonical). Particularly the rigidity and legalism and the aspects of shaming people who don't follow all the unwritten rules. Those people are, of course, mostly laity, so it's not such a big deal, but it is still a problem.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The risk of anti-vaccination ideology in the Church

Any place where a large number of people assemble, particularly children, risks spreading infectious disease. While we certainly spend less time at church with children than we do at schools or day care centers or whatever, it is still a gathering, and it often bridges communities that don't necessarily regularly interact (ie, the children are not all at the same school). It is also one of the few places that, for instance, a newborn infant who is not old enough for vaccines will be brought. And then there are all the old people there, too.

Unfortunately, in some parts of Orthodoxy, they are infected with absurd magical thinking about vaccines. In fact, I have heard it reported that a substantial number of seminarians, even, are opposed to vaccines, and as the leader goes, so goes the community. The risk involved is very concrete: an infant too young to be immunized or an adult with a compromised immune system will catch some vaccine-preventable disease - in the case of infants, say, pertussis - and die. Pertussis is especially risky because the current vaccine is not effective for as long as the previous formulation and adults typically don't stay current on their shots.

There is little that can be done. This is a major public health issue, but it is not any particular individual's right to butt into another family's business. Epidemiology and public health are not within the clergy's responsibilities or competencies, and, as mentioned before, it seems a number of rising young clergy are opposed to vaccines. It is thoroughly unsatisfying to say, "Well, if you're worried that other people are not vaccinated and you or your family are at risk, I guess you should forego church." This is not really a good option.

We are living in a society, and we should be aware of how our decisions make a difference in the lives of others. Anti-vaccination ideology is foolish, but foolishness isn't a sin. However, it is also selfish because, while there is no general warrant for refusal (hence why it is foolish), it is exposing others who are helpless to risks you are not exposed to. While an unvaccinated 12-year-old Timmy or Tammy is not substantially at risk of death if they catch pertussis, an infant too young to be vaccinated is. The resurgence of pertussis is a direct result of the rise of anti-vaccine ideology and is causing the deaths of infants. Humans are poor at risk management and prevention is undervalued. The only way things will change is if there is some major outbreak which causes massive harm. Indeed, some will think what they are doing is not immoral unless and until there is some direct harm that comes about (not just when it comes to vaccines). This faulty method of thinking is perhaps where pastoral responsibility can come into play.

Another place that may help is to talk about the harms that have already happened elsewhere. Vaccine preventable diseases have surely struck the church before. Parishes where they have should discuss it so that people can realize these are not theoretical consequences, but rather that refusal to vaccinate can cause disease to spread through vulnerable populations. I have heard a couple anecdotes of parishes where, say, pertussis has made the rounds. But one need not even look to current examples: the older generations remember the horrors of polio and other such diseases now all but eradicated by vaccines. Their testimony can be persuasive, and perhaps the church could give them a forum to address it.

In short: vaccinate your children or they may harm others when they come to church.


Honour a physician with the honour due unto him for the uses which ye may have of him: for the Lord hath created him. For of the most High cometh healing, and he shall receive honour of the king. The skill of the physician shall lift up his head: and in the sight of great men he shall be in admiration. The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them. Was not the water made sweet with wood, that the virtue thereof might be known? And he hath given men skill, that he might be honoured in his marvellous works. With such doth he heal men, and taketh away their pains. Of such doth the apothecary make a confection; and of his works there is no end; and from him is peace over all the earth, My son, in thy sickness be not negligent: but pray unto the Lord, and he will make thee whole. Leave off from sin, and order thine hands aright, and cleanse thy heart from all wickedness. Give a sweet savour, and a memorial of fine flour; and make a fat offering, as not being. Then give place to the physician, for the Lord hath created him: let him not go from thee, for thou hast need of him. There is a time when in their hands there is good success. For they shall also pray unto the Lord, that he would prosper that, which they give for ease and remedy to prolong life. He that sinneth before his Maker, let him fall into the hand of the physician.

Wisdom of Sirach 38:1-15