Reading Ramblings – November 1, 2020

October 25, 2020

Date: All Saints Day – November 1, 2020

Text: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Context: All Saints Day evolved as the number of Christians martyred for their faith became too numerous to celebrate on the specific anniversary of their personal date of execution. Remembering those martyred for their faith also merged with remembering Christians who died in the faith but not because of it. Readings for today naturally focus on the eternal hope we have in the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead. Frankly, I wish the readings for this day were different for each of the three cycles of the Revised Common Lectionary. There are so many other beautiful texts we could draw from, such as Job’s profession of faith in a bodily resurrection from the dead (Job 19:23-27)!

Revelation 7:9-17 – St. John is privileged a glimpse at the gathering of all the redeemed in Christ gathered around the throne of God. Some interpret these verses as applying only to those who perish in the final cataclysmic disasters and confrontations immediately preceding Christ’s return, but I think a wider interpretation is certainly possible and perhaps even warranted. The preceding verses detailing all the Tribes of Israel and numbers of completion (12, 100, 1000) indicate an emphasis on completeness – everyone is present who should be. Nobody is forgotten or overlooked. Additional emphases in v.9 about the immense number of people also point towards an interpretation that includes not just those martyred for their faith, and not just those who die in the tribulations immediately preceding the Day of Judgment (unless such language includes all of creation history as precursor to that day!). The net effect is one of both celebration and comfort. Whether we live and die in obscurity or enjoy the prestige of wealth and celebrity, all are present. John doesn’t (or isn’t able) to specifically identify important people in this gathering. The important thing is that everyone is there.

Psalm 149 – Foreshadowing the great song that runs through the early chapters of Revelation, this psalm is beautifully appropriate on this day when we remember the author of all creation as well as the salvation of mankind. What starts out as a beautiful psalm takes a curious turn in the second half, transitioning from praising God to wielding swords, executing vengeance and punishments, binding rulers and judging them! Does this work? Is this faithful?! It is. Praise of God and the wielding of the sword for his vengeance is distinct from our own sinful inclinations to draw our swords not so much in praise of God, and to implement our own vengeance or justice rather than the Lord’s. The rulers of this world may well require this sort of deposing, unwilling to cede their authority to the one and only King of Kings. But Jesus’ promises in his empty tomb are not simply an escape from sin and the pretensions of personal and worldly power we struggle with now, but a defeat of any and all powers that do not acknowledge and welcome Christ’s rule on Christ’s terms. Kingdoms are by nature anything but neutral, and in this psalm stand for those powers that would not only resist the reign of the righteous Lord of all, but would in the process seek to enslave and imprison those who are rightly citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

1 John 3:1-3 – We are given the Father’s love. What an apt metaphor. Just as a baby does nothing to earn the love of her parents, so we receive the love of God, a love that precedes our birth and extends beyond our death. Yet those who embrace the receive and embrace the love of God will look strange to a world that does not itself know God. Here in this world the love of God – which John always links to obedience, as per Jesus (John 3:36, or 1 John 5:2) – will often be labeled as the opposite. We see that more and more in popular media, where Christians are condemned for obedience to the Word of God rather than embracing the arbitrary and constantly shifting definitions of love our culture wants to substitute. But one day the truth will no longer be hidden, and people will no longer be able to peddle their own substitutes for God’s truth and love (Romans 1:18-23). One day, we are promised that as we come into the full presence of God, we will know ourselves and one another for who we truly are in Christ – perfect, holy, righteous, children of God.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes may seem like an odd choice for the Gospel lesson on All Saints Day. Though we must admit that, more often than not, those who are publicly acknowledged the title of saint are usually the lowly and the humble, those whose lives are wrapped up in a fair deal more sorrow or mourning or hungering or thirsting than most of us would aspire to for ourselves. Perhaps the essence of sainthood lies in that tenacity of faith that has no strength or time for a snappy, snarky comeback to the putdowns of the world, but simply clings desperately to the promises of life in Christ. The essence of sainthood is the absence of nearly all other significant, personal details, attributes, or accomplishments, and therefore by worldly standards may well indeed look undesirable, pointless, or wasted. But this tenacity of faith as small as a mustard seed and perhaps silent and well outside the spotlight is who we are in Christ. Not that our identities are lost or absorbed in him, as in some Eastern philosophies and religions, but that we can only be truly and best and fully known as ourselves in and through him. Almost like the reverse of the various digital photo filters so ubiquitous these days on smart phones, everything about us that is sinful and broken is stripped away in Christ and all that remains is actually everything that never was – you and I as we were envisioned by God the Father at the dawn of all creation. There is no room for any form or shape of worldly glory or beauty, as though any such thing were even possible outside of God!

To such saints, obvious or hidden around us, the promise of Christ is the kingdom of heaven and a reward there not dependent on elections or stock performance, that can never be threatened by the uncertainties of our daily existence here and now. So it is that, with what breath we have and while we have it, we can with the psalmist rejoice in the goodness of God and be glad despite whatever struggles we bear for the time being. And for those who pass from this life through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we can mourn their passing for the way it lessens life for those who remain, while looking forward to that day when we will all be together again forever!

Lutherans & The Real Presence & Eucharistic Miracles

October 22, 2020

Lutheran theology affirms that in Holy Communion, the consecrated wine and bread are united with the real body and blood of Jesus. This union is not symbolic – we are not just pretending the bread and the wine are also body and blood. But the union is also not necessarily discernable to empirical methodologies. If you place the wafer or a drop of wine under a microscope, a Lutheran would not be surprised that no elements of human tissue or blood are detectable. We affirm Christ’s bodily presence in a unique and special way – as opposed to the immanent presence of God that infuses all of creation, creating and sustaining all things and beings moment by moment. Holy Communion is different, we maintain in distinction from many of our other post-Reformation brothers & sisters in Christ. But we draw back from the full concept of transubstantiation as taught in the Roman Catholic Church. But our theology is closer to Roman Catholic than to many other Protestant denominations (and non-denominations).

If you’re interested in discussions of how and why Lutherans affirm the unity of the incarnate Christ in Holy Communion, here’s an excellent article. It explains why we interpret Christ’s words at the Last Supper literally, with a systematic explanation of how we maintain this interpretation. If you prefer a less systematic (but only slightly so) and more artistic explanation of Lutheran theology related to this, you might enjoy this article (and this corresponding image). For a Roman Catholic evaluation of Luther’s position on transubstantiation, this is a fairly accessible read.

But I got started on this track here. I’m aware of a tradition mostly in Roman Catholicism (exclusively?) of Eucharistic miracles – events associated primarily with consecrated hosts (bread) exhibiting supernatural characteristics. But it’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to. Many of my colleagues might dismiss it as a Catholic thing. But my avoidance of this topic mostly stems from a skepticism over the circumstances of the alleged miracles. Isn’t it all just hearsay? Can any of it be proved?

But the article above references an event in 2006. That’s pretty recent. And it alleged eminent forensic experts provided expert testimony as to the nature of the miracle. But it didn’t give me names. A few clicks more brought up this article. The second of the four stories on this web site actually listed some names, and I Googled one of the experts mentioned, Professor Maria Sobaniec-Lotowska, MD. She’s a real person. A real medical researcher. And one of her many publications has to do with Eucharistic miracles. It’s written in Polish, though, and Google’s attempt to translate it into English was problematic, to say the least. It appears to be a more speculative article than a medical one, however. But at least the Eucharistic miracle allegation cites an actual medical authority.

Maybe these events – at least some of them – could be true? Certainly I’m not the only skeptic. This website has some interesting information I may follow up on in the future. I’m sure there are plenty of others. Some of these events are modern and apparently investigated and documented using not just modern scientific methods but perhaps even modern understandings of evidence integrity.

What’s the takeaway, though?

I don’t view these miracles as attestations to the Roman Catholic Church as an institution. Do I believe God could cause these miracles? Of course. Am I able to determine or decipher his purposes for such? Not necessarily. Do these miracles contradict my Lutheran theological understanding of Holy Communion? I don’t think so. Perhaps if anything they have the potential to strengthen it. It’s definitely something I’m interested in learning more about. It’s hardly a necessary expression or demonstration of the faith, but it’s potentially a fascinating insight into the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Updates to Roman Catholic Doctrine

October 21, 2020

News outlets made some brief mention of a new papal encyclical released earlier this month, but largely it was ignored. Curious, seeing Pope Francis takes this opportunity to potentially end the Roman Catholic Church’s tolerance of both capital punishment and war. A good article summarizing this can be found here.

Based on Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church has long recognized the legitimacy of both capital punishment and “just” war, even as it often encouraged world powers and leaders to carefully consider the application of both these tragic tactics. But now, Pope Francis may just have effectively overturned 2000 years of Roman Catholic understanding in a single letter. It all hinges, I suppose, on how authoritative a papal encyclical is. As near as I can tell, the answer is it depends.

Within the Church, encyclicals were historically letters from a bishop (not just the Pope) to other church leaders, either in a limited or specific area or on a larger, church-wide scale. But there is obviously some confusion or at least a lack of consistency in defining what an encyclical means today, as my Roman Catholic go-to site demonstrates. An encyclical has a particular style and form to it, particularly in both how it begins and ends. But not all encyclicals follow this form.

Popes have various distinct ways of communicating their thoughts on subjects of interest. Papal bulls and briefs are two common options, though Popes also speak through speeches as well as more specific writings. This all is interesting enough, but then we have Pope Pius XII’s statement in his encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 (section 3) basically saying once a Pope has communicated his thoughts on a controversy, the controversy is essentially ended. In other words, when a Pope speaks in an encyclical, his statements can be binding on the Church.

I’ll be reading and commenting on Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti encyclical shortly. For now, I’m just amazed at how many different forms of communication a Pope might employ, and how those various forms are known more by their physical characteristics as opposed to their level of officialness. To my mind, it would seem to make sense that if a Pope wished to issue a binding decision for the entire Church for all time on a subject, it would take one form. An opinion that was considered guiding but not necessarily mandatory would take another, etc. Maybe that’s actually the case and my Protestant ignorance and Internet research simply hasn’t made that clear to me yet, in which case I’d VERY much appreciate some pointers from some of my Roman Catholic readers on how to better understand this issue!

In the meantime, it’s fascinating to think that war and capital punishment might just have been officially condemned by the Church, despite the fact God commands in Scripture the exact opposite in various places, notably Genesis 9:6 on the issue of capital punishment along with Exodus 31:15. I can see how an argument might be made that war is one of the things Scripture describes but does not prescribe, and sections (like most of the book of Joshua) describing war commanded by God are exceptions and special circumstances rather than an acknowledgement that war is something we are free to instigate on our own as a last resort. Saints Augustine and Aquinas – some pretty heavy hitters in Roman Catholic theological tradition – both specifically write to the contrary on the topic of war, but I suppose since they weren’t Popes, their opinions or interpretations can be superceded.

Education & Family

October 20, 2020

Here’s a fantastic speech by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. I find it interesting that despite scathing attacks by critics, and by a White House characterized more often than not as an unstable regime, DeVos has remained in her post since Trump appointed her in February 2017.

As our culture grapples with the need for reform on any number of fronts, family is the first place reform take place if any other kind of reform is to be successful. Repriortizing family as the fundamental unit of all the rest of society rather than usurping it through increasing governmental intervention and substitution is crucial. This means the gradual unraveling of the Gordian Knot our culture created in the turbulent revolutions of the 60’s. It means acknowledging that a two-family income is not the best way to improve families and that public education must serve the family rather than replace it.

A tough row to hoe, without a doubt. But it’s heartening that some in positions of influence see what needs to be done. I pray they – and we the people – are able to remain steadfast in accomplishing it!

Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ?

October 19, 2020

I’m leading a study of 1 Corinthians and we were going through the opening chapter Saturday morning when a question was raised. Is there a reason St. Paul would say Jesus Christ as in v.5, and in other places Christ Jesus, as in v.30?

In one sense, the answer could simply be literary variety, so the same phrase or words don’t become too repetitive. But then thanks to Janelle, who forwarded me this article, with some further food for thought!

It’s good to remember that Christ is a title, not Jesus’ last name or family name. And as the article points out, Jesus is very specific in terms of the incarnate Son of God as the particular man Jesus of Nazareth, and may emphasize his humanity. Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word messiah, and may emphasize Jesus’ divinity. Together, they hold a central Christological concept – that Jesus the Christ was both true man and true God. Depending on what Paul is saying he may want to emphasize one of these two natures a bit more than the other.

Of further note in 1 Corinthians 1, when Paul says Jesus Christ he usually doesn’t just say Jesus Christ, but rather Lord Jesus Christ (with the exception of v.9, where instead of lordship Paul emphasizes Jesus’ sonship to the Father. When Paul places Jesus’ humanity first in this chapter he reinforces Jesus’ lordship. Jesus is our human lord as well as the divine Son of God. Jesus has a role in each of our lives, that of Lord. Present, not past tense. His lordship is here and now today, not just back then during his lifetime or somewhere in the indefinite future when He returns in glory.

It’s good to pause and think about the words of Scripture, especially when they’re so familiar we almost don’t even see them any more!

Reading Ramblings – October 25, 2020

October 18, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Reformation Sunday (Observed) – October 25, 2020

Texts: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

Context: Today we observe Reformation Sunday, as near an anniversary as possible to Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, asking for a theological discussion primarily centered on the issues of indulgences. Unknown and unanticipated to Luther, this would precipitate a series of unfortunate events and missteps resulting in a split in the Roman Catholic Church, a rift which has spawned innumerable forms of the Christian faith. The Reformation changed the world not just theologically but in many other aspects as well, as Eric Metaxas’ biography of Luther admirably enumerates. But chief among them all is the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the good news that what we cannot do on our own to erase our sins or establish our purity is done for us by Christ, and it is on the basis of his bitter sufferings and death, and his glorious and victorious resurrection from the dead that we are assured of our forgiveness as we trust his work on our behalf. In this season of acrimony and strife in the public space, all Christians should pause to give thanks to God for Jesus Christ. And while I can’t expect our Roman Catholic brothers & sisters to celebrate the Holy Spirit’s use of Luther, I pray they might at least acknowledge his clear and insistent declarations that it is God alone who saves!

Revelation 14:6-7 – The Good News of Jesus Christ as the sole means of salvation to any who would place their faith and trust in him (John 3:16) is indeed eternal. Often obscured, often an affront to our sinful desire to justify ourselves, the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be and will be eternally proclaimed – a call to faith and trust here and now, and our victorious refrain in glory and eternity. The emphasis on the diversity of peoples to whom the Gospel will come is interesting as Luther was adamant that Scripture and worship should be in the language of the people, rather in Latin – or any other language – they couldn’t read or understand. The goal of the Gospel is that God would be rightly acknowledged and praised as the Creator as well as the sole definition of goodness and righteousness. As such, He alone is able to rightly punish evil while calling all to faithful repentance that leads not to judgment and condemnation but mercy and life in Jesus Christ eternally.

Psalm 46 – There are several Korah’s mentioned in Scripture, as far back as one of Esau’s sons in Genesis 36. But the Korah we understand this and other psalms to be related to is mentioned in Exodus and then more notably in Numbers 16. Korah was a descendant of Levi and therefore of the priestly class. However Korah led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, objecting to Moses and Aaron’s more lofty position before God as intermediaries between God and the people of Israel. God judges Korah for his disobedience, destroying he and his household and several other leaders involved in the rebellion. But Numbers 26:11 indicates Korah’s sons did not die with him, and they become associated with the service doorkeepers to the tent of meeting (the Tabernacle). Another group of Korahites are indicated as powerful fighting men (1Chronicles 12:6), but they are Benjamanites not Levites. It is most likely that the door-keeping Korahites are the ones associated with sacred singing and with certain psalms. If they are descended from the Korah of the rebellion in Numbers 16, it is interesting this psalm refers to the earth giving way – the fate which befell Korah and those who rebelled with him!

Romans 3:19-28 – Paul has just concluded his condemnation of all peoples – Jews and gentiles alike- in their disobedience and rebellion against God and his order. What hope do we have if not even the Chosen people of God who knew his laws and sought to keep them could be saved by them? Paul points clearly and plainly to our hope, hope based not in ourselves but in the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Just as all have fallen short of God’s expectations because of sin, so all may be saved through the righteousness of the incarnate Son of God and his death not for his own sins but for ours. All sin stands condemned before God, and in Jesus all sin has been atoned for – past, present and future. We are saved through Christ’s blood as demonstrated in his resurrection from the dead. The debt of sin to death has been paid by him in full. Therefore we have hope. Death does not own us in our sinfulness, but our sin that would lead to eternal death has been paid for already in Christ’s death. In faith, we are set free from eternal death. Not because of ourselves but only and completely because of Christ!

John 8:31-36 – We are slaves to sin. As Americans just as surely as the Jews of Jesus day and everyone in between. We are not free on our own. We are not morally neutral, able to determine whether we are in need of God’s love in Christ or not. Rather, we are slaves and must be freed from the death which is our sinful due. The Word of God clearly tells us this and points us to look towards a solution, a solution not in ourselves but from God, though one of us (Genesis 3:15). We learn in this exchange that you can be a master of God’s Word, knowing it forwards and backwards and yet blind to what it’s telling you. The Jews believed their freedom was earned by their obedience to the Law and through the sacrificial system. But Jesus makes it clear that salvation comes through him alone. Only if the Son sets a slave free is that slave truly free. The slave cannot determine for themselves that the terms of their service entitle them to freedom. The Law and the sacrificial system were intended not to erase sin but to drive God’s people to reliance on him for forgiveness and grace – on his terms, not theirs.

How far are the religious leaders and experts in the Word of God from what the Word actually says? They are so far off the path they not alone fail to see Jesus for who and what He is, they believe they are justified in plotting his murder, that somehow breaking the Fifth Commandment will actually please God, the same God who commanded his people not to murder! Likewise, whenever we feel justified in acting against the Word of God we would do well to set aside our arrogance and return in repentance to the one who died that we might be set free.

Parents as Teachers

October 12, 2020

COVID has forced many parents to become teachers to their children. Our society in the last half decade has worked hard to convince parents this is a job better left to experts. But parents are their child’s first and best teacher. Not sure you agree? Here’s a great essay that defends that notion not just with Scripture but with a lot of data.

How could congregations better resource future and current parents to take on this task? How could congregations become the place where cultural assumptions – such as that both parents must work – begin to be challenged? How might congregations begin to insist that the well-being of children is not necessarily served best by economic advancement of the family unit at the expense of time for children and parents to be together?

Important questions for the future, not just in a time of pandemic.

Reading Ramblings – October 18, 2020

October 11, 2020

Date: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 18, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Context: The dividing line between worldly affairs and divine providence is fuzzy at best, non-existent most likely, and a source of endless debate and confusion. Suffice it to say we fail to adequately marvel at the glory and power and wisdom of God who can use even those ignorant or directly opposed to him for his own purposes. The accusations of Christians on either side of the political spectrum who denounce Christians on the other side as patently against God’s will have a disturbingly scant acquaintance with God’s Word and how God works in ways not only mysterious to us but through means that ought to be completely unacceptable to him! We can be sure that God’s will is going to be done, and we can be sure of his Word that guides our actions. But the interplay of these things and innumerable other variables should remind us in humility to be hesitant in asserting we know what God is doing and how He is doing it in any single given situation. Rather, we should constantly give thanks and praise and look forward in hope to the promised deliverance and will of God in our Lord’s return.

Isaiah 45:1-7 – Cyrus here mentioned is Cyrus the Great who as prophesied by Isaiah destroys the Babylonian Empire and allows the Hebrews to return to Jerusalem. He is widely regarded historically as a benevolent ruler, bestowed with the title The Father by his people and credited not simply for overthrowing other rulers and empires but also in establishing a stable one in his wake. But it is safe to say that Isaiah’s description of him here is accurate. He does not know the God of the Bible. Not in anything other than perhaps a passing or even academic way. He certainly does not acknowledge the God of the Hebrews as his god, as the source of his life or his successes. And he certainly could not know that among his many achievements, one of them – perhaps the smallest of them at the time – was the fulfillment of prophesy regarding the people of God. God is able to take even a pagan, foreign ruler and work his will through him. No doubt to anyone other than the Hebrews this would have looked circumstantial at best, yet Isaiah’s words over 100 years earlier testify to the power and glory of our God who is unparalleled.

Psalm 96 – Certainly a God who is able to work out a complicated plan that encompasses all of created time and space is worthy of praise! Certainly He should be the subject of and recipient of new songs constantly detailing his care and love for his creation, and his remarkable way of bringing things to pass we couldn’t conceive of otherwise, let alone accomplish for ourselves. There is, in fact, nothing more we can do than receive him and acknowledge him in joy and gratitude for who He is as well as what He does. Certainly any alternative gods are nothing but idol fancies compared to this God who works his will through even the most unknowing and even ungrateful tools!

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – We move on to another letter of Paul’s as the lectio continua aspect of the liturgical season of Ordinary Time continues. Some scholars think 1 & 2 Thessalonians to be Paul’s earliest letters (although others favor Galatians for this distinction). Dating of the letter is more or less reliably tied to somewhere in the vicinity of 51AD, with 2 Thessalonians following within a matter of weeks or 1-2 months at the most. Paul has only recently left Thessalonica, where he had to leave due to disruptions and attacks by his Jewish opponents (Acts 17). Timothy & Silas remained a while longer but rejoined Paul in Corinth, which is likely where Paul is writing from, having received reports that, despite the mistreatment of Jewish opposition, the Christians in Thessalonica remain firm in their faith. These ten verses are the introduction and thanksgiving sections of Paul’s letter, identifying the authors and the intended recipients and outlining Paul’s exuberance to hear the Thessalonians remain strong in their faith. Not only personally and inwardly but in ways that are observable and reportable, so that the young Christian congregation in Thessalonica is already being talked about elsewhere (1:7-8), an undoubted aid to Paul as he continues his missionary work.

Matthew 22:15-22 – Opposition to Jesus continues. Jesus’ popularity make it continually difficult to isolate him and arrest him without a crowd that might intervene or cause a commotion sufficient to summon swift – and brutal – Roman reprisals. We can better appreciate Judas’ instrumentality in notifying the Jewish leaders when and where to capture Jesus alone! But for now, they continue to try and trap Jesus in his words, pushing him to answer complicated questions that will either cause the crowds to abandon him (if He supports Roman taxation) or allow the Romans to arrest him for sedition (if He counsels against paying taxes). And as before, Jesus continues to elude these theological traps.

The issue of taxation has always been a sensitive one, particularly to a people hard-pressed to pay burdensom taxes to a foreign power or a disinterested domestic one. The leaders flatter Jesus, but more likely are playing to the crowds around him. Their flattery is likely intended less to goad Jesus to one particular response, but a way of gathering the crowd around him to give witness to either his complicity with Roman rule or his blasphemy of God. Once again, they are disappointed!

But Jesus isn’t really answering their question, because their question really isn’t real. They aren’t interested in Jesus’ economic policies. They aren’t seeking God’s will in Jesus’ answer, they believe it is God’s will they entrap Jesus in his words to demonstrate his falseness as a prophet – let alone as possibly the messiah! – and save God’s people from apostasy or persecution. Their question is intended to trap Jesus, and Jesus won’t be trapped. He gives an answer that really isn’t an answer to a question that really isn’t a question. For us to take his answer as some sort of authoritative statement on taxation is most likely incorrect.

After all, Jesus isn’t striking a balance here. Is there a balance in the kingdom of heaven? Does anything else in Jesus’ teachings in Matthew lead us to an understanding of our life of faith as one of compromise between the powers of this world and the kingdom of heaven? Is there any power of this world outside the kingdom of heaven? Jesus’ answer here leaves his adversaries – and you and I – to sort out the answer, and we as followers of Christ have the added benefit of the rest of Scripture (including the more explicit Romans 13) to guide us in our answers.

Forced Flu Vaccinations

October 8, 2020

Not that it’s gotten a lot of mainstream media coverage, but Massachusetts now requires flu vaccines for students attending in-person classes. There are religious exemptions, home-schoolers are also exempt from the mandatory vaccinations. Otherwise as young as six months old, children need to receive annual flu shots. The state is expected to mandate flu shots for certain workers in the state as well.

Although certain states already have mandatory vaccination requirements for students, this is the first time the seasonal flu shot has been made mandatory. Decisions like this are of keen interest to me since much focus is directed to the development and roll-out of a COVID-19 vaccine. Much like the flu vaccine, concerns about COVID antibodies not persisting in the body for more than a few months at a time mean seasonal COVID vaccines could be a reality, and I have concerns about nearly all mandatory vaccination programs, let alone a mandatory vaccination program that is both unpredictable as to it’s efficacy in any given season and for an illness that for the vast majority of infected people results in relatively minor symptoms and effects.

According to case law going back over 100 years, states do have the right to mandate vaccines and impose penalties on those who refuse to get them, an issue that will become more and more pertinent as the argument that public health trumps private health decision-making rights continues to gain momentum. The specter of wide-spread mandatory vaccines is unpalatable to people (even people who believe it’s the best course of action). We don’t like the idea that people could be put in jail or fined for refusing an injection from a stranger. We prefer the more pleasant options of public shaming or exhorting people to ‘voluntarily’ receive a vaccination, but those are just pleasantries the law currently does not require.

Vaccines in and of themselves are not necessarily bad things. But I’m very uneasy with broad assertions that vaccines are more or less completely safe and that concerns to the contrary are some how indicative of a lack of common sense. My concern is less with long-established vaccines with a long-term record (even if difficult to come by) of associated side effects, and more with the avalanche of possible vaccines being developed without benefit of easily available (and readable) discussions of interactions between vaccines or long-term possible side effects. I’m also very wary of mandatory vaccine laws (such as California’s) that don’t define an exclusive list of mandated vaccines, allowing for new vaccinations to be added under the existing law without notifying constituents let alone getting their approval on it.

So I’ll keep digging through the news to see how pushes for more and more mandatory vaccines are going. I’m grateful for advances in medical science, but I’m also all-too aware that even good ideas can have unanticipated consequences and we need to be very sparing in demanding people accede to well-intentioned programs, particularly when the individuals will have to bear the brunt of any problems that develop, with notoriously little support or acknowledgement from the institutions that caused those problems in the first place.

When the King is Law in a Democracy

October 7, 2020

I’ve been battered by my news feed this morning. Issues local and larger driven not simply by a pandemic but by government fiat about how we must handle this pandemic. I’ve touched on this topic before, particularly on the issue of the goals of state policy over the last seven months being shifted from flattening the curve to driving pandemic cases to an arbitrarily defined minimal number.

California has led the way in this from the very beginning. And the rules continue to change. Rules that have not been presented for a vote to the population but rather are dictated by the governor for implementation at the county level. The governor has created a tiered system of restrictions based on criteria he defines – and is free to alter at any point.

Case in point, for the past two months there have been two major criteria determining how restrictive a tier any given county is in – case rate and test positivity. But now a third criteria has been added. It is no longer enough that a county drops below arbitrarily defined thresholds related to case rate and test positivity. Now counties must also demonstrate – by arbitrarily defined means – that their efforts to combat COVID-19 are adequately distributed among all population groups in their county.

This new Equity Metric theoretically intends to make sure that disadvantaged groups in a county do not lag “significantly” behind other groups in the county in terms of case rate and test positivity. But in reality, the Equity Metric requires that disadvantaged groups report case rate and test positivity scores below the mandated metrics for the county as a whole. In other words, the county as a whole could meet case rate and test positivity requirements to move into or remain in a lower tier of restrictions, but if the disadvantaged groups in that county (which the county itself must identify) have higher rates in either of these two categories, the entire county will not be allowed to progress into the lower-restriction tier, or could be pushed up into a more restrictive tier.

On the flip side, the Equity Metric could potentially help a county move into a lower-tier of restrictions. If a county hasn’t met the requirements yet for the next lower-restriction tier, but the county’s lowest quartile disadvantaged groups not only meet that criteria but the criteria for the next level in lower down restrictions, the county would be allowed to move into the next lower tier.

Obviously, the intention is to encourage (force?) counties to invest more money in treatment, education, etc. for their most disadvantaged groups. At the same time, since these groups often consist of ethnic minorities known to be impacted by COVID at higher rates than less-disadvantaged groups, it means an entire county could be prevented from progressing to a lower-restriction tier just because one small subset of the population is struggling with higher rates of reported cases and test positivity ratios.

All of which may or may not make sense, but all of which is also a completely arbitrary addition to what the counties in our state (and country) have been focusing on for the last seven months. It smacks of ideological profiteering – taking advantage of a situation to distribute wealth and resources differently, rather than a strictly “scientific” approach to limiting the spread of a worrisome contagion.

I’m sure the governor had advisors on this, but I’m also pretty sure those advisors are similarly inclined to him, ideologically. And once again, we the citizens have to deal with the effects of his laws without getting any say in them. Presumably then, “science” in a very loosely defined sense supercedes rule by law and the American concept of rule by the people. Since these rules are ostensibly “for” the people (as defined by an unidentified subset of the people), it is apparently not necessary to get our feedback and approval on these rules.

For a short-term emergency situation this can be dealt with and accepted. That’s what we all more or less agreed to back in March. But seven months on, the restrictions are only piling up, and the impacts are being borne solely by the citizens of counties and states and not by the people elected to run the government. As I argued months ago, if our elected representatives are not impacted by the rules they make, there is no natural braking system for just creating more and more rules and restrictions.

For instance, our governor dictated that law enforcement was not allowed to enforce any laws regarding overnight camping on public property (beaches, parking lots associated with beaches, etc.). Citizens have frequently been banned from going to the beach on major holidays due to concerns about crowds and contagion, but if you pitch a tent on the beach and sleep there over night, nobody is allowed to bother you. Increasing numbers of tents are cropping up on beaches. Again, the governor can issue his order – don’t enforce the law – but he doesn’t have to deal personally with the ramifications of his ruling.

Presumably this is because of an acknowledgment by our elected leaders that homelessness is going to increase as a direct result of the economic restrictions they’ve put in place for the last seven months. Rather than mandating the protection of the most vulnerable populations, they’ve simply shut down – arbitrarily – large swaths of society. Small and mid-sized businesses are being devastated by not being able to open or only being allowed to open at a far reduced capacity (25% or 50%). Any economics major or businessperson can tell you that a business owner determines the viability of renting or buying a space and hiring workers and offering goods or services based on a certain minimum threshold of business. You can’t arbitrarily slash that threshold and expect a business model to still work. It might, for a short time. As long as stimulus loans are out there, for instance, but it isn’t sustainable.

I’ve heard predictions that anywhere from 30%-60% of restaurants will close and never reopen. The figures are as high as 85% for small, independently owned restaurants. They won’t be able to stay in business. The economic impacts of COVID restrictions are going to start cascading into the coming months. It will be a devastation of our economic landscape the likes of which haven’t been seen before. Could unemployment reach Great Depression rates? It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

And when a restaurant closes it isn’t just the owner who loses – everyone they employ loses. The community that enjoyed or relied on their service loses. The community also loses tax revenues from that business. The impacts are massive on this scale.

And this is just one particularly business sector.

So we’re going to have more homeless, our leaders presume, and therefore we just aren’t going to enforce laws against homelessness in communities. Never mind that beaches don’t have bathroom facilities or running fresh water. Never mind the trash and debris that accumulate under these conditions. Instead of mandating (and providing) resources for counties to address this grim reality proactively, the governor’s order to not enforce laws simply creates new or exacerbates existing problems while simultaneously limiting the ability of any given community to deal with them.

Or consider the law in our state preventing landlords from evicting tenants because they are no longer able to pay their rent due to being unemployed because of COVID. Why are property owners expected to bear the burden financially for problems created directly by executive orders from governors? How are property owners expected to remain viable leasing property to people who aren’t paying them? How is it fair for one group of people to create a situation where another group of people bears the exclusive repercussions and losses for decisions the other group of people dictated?

If our elected leaders are not directly and immediately impacted by the results of their decisions – especially their directed decisions that don’t go to popular vote – then we’ll continue to suffer under laws and rules arbitrarily conceived and applied. I don’t doubt the intentions of most of these laws and rules is good. I do doubt whether good intentions equate to actual benefits or the desired results – it’s notoriously tricky to directly correlate closing a broad section of the economic sector with reduced transmission rates of COVID. You can argue for a correlation but it’s hard to prove causation. There are just too many variables. And again, for a short period of time correlation may be enough. Is it enough seven months later? At what point – if any – does it cease to be enough?

I maintain that if our elected officials are going to declare that certain businesses simply aren’t allowed to open, then the salaries of these officials should be directly affected. I’m sure a smarter person could determine an effective ratio. I’m sure it’s rather draconian to say that if you arbitrarily shut down any one kind of business for an entire state or county you oversee, your entire salary as an elected official should be withheld. But then again, maybe it isn’t too draconian.

Of course, elected officials would not be penalized for laws approved by their electorate.

Not until our elected officials personally and directly feel the devastating effects of the rules they are making up on the fly can we the constituents be assured they are really, really, really grapping with and making the best possible choices rather than the easiest ones. If they’re personally having their life’s savings drained away by the very policies they’re demanding the electorate abide by, I would feel a lot more confident they’re trying to find the best way forward. A way that doesn’t simply create an explosion in homelessness when they’re in no danger of living in a tent themselves.

We’ve allowed our elected leaders to extricate themselves from real life as the average citizen experiences it for too long. Whether it’s a separate retirement plan from Social Security, or a separate healthcare package from what citizens have available to them (even with the ACA!), or salaries guaranteed from tax dollars and therefore only secondarily linked to the decisions made in state capitols or Washington D.C., we shouldn’t be surprised our leaders seem unsympathetic to the plight of their constituents if they are not dealing personally (and financially) with the effects of the rules they put into place.