Elizabeth Welliver Hengen (she/her), MTS, is an interfaith leader and an immigrant rights advocate. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she enjoys walking the greenways.
This morning, as I scrolled through my news feed and sipped on coffee, I encountered alarming news. Dr. Michelle Fiscus, my state’s top vaccine official, was fired. In her statement on the controversial departure, Dr. Fiscus signaled that she is not alone in this position; several other vaccine officials have left their positions, voluntarily or not, in response to political controversies over the vaccine.
“I am afraid for my state,” Dr. Fiscus wrote. COVID-19 cases are ticking upward in the face of variants and low vaccine rates, signaling the pandemic is not yet over. Recent lockdowns in Australia, South Africa, and Bangladesh illustrate the persistent threat of COVID-19 for communities globally.
Dr. Fiscus’ departure comes at a time when only 38.1% of Tennesseans have been fully vaccinated against a deadly virus.
Yet the debate about the vaccine in Tennessee is not solely a debate about science. Rather, I believe the vaccine debate is also a referendum on our public capacity to embrace vulnerability.
The COVID-19 vaccine, a feat of scientific discovery and collaboration, is also a reminder of the fragility of the human body. The vaccine offers protection that we cannot muster for ourselves, no matter how strong or supplemented by vitamins our immune systems may be. We can take safety and health precautions to protect ourselves and others against COVID-19, yet we remain at risk. The debate around the vaccine reminds us that we are not in control as individuals; we need the help of scientists, healthcare providers, and public officials to protect us and our neighbors and children against yet another deadly surge. The vaccine makes us stronger, not weaker; our response to the vaccine, especially for youth vaccination, is bound up in our fear of our vulnerability as human beings.
Our response to this human reality is a public health concern. Shame researcher Brené Brown says that our capacity for vulnerability is at the core of our public and private lives: “Feeling vulnerable, imperfect, and afraid is human. It’s when we lose our capacity to hold space for these struggles that we become dangerous.” In this pandemic, we have witnessed first-hand how deeply we crave human connection, and how fervently we seek reassurance that we are going to survive. We have witnessed the susceptibility of our human immune systems to a virus that steals the air from our loved ones’ hearts and lungs. On a collective level, the virus has exposed the vulnerability of American democracy and justice, in a nation where Black communities, Indigenous communities, Latinx communities, and people of color have suffered the most devastating health and economic losses and griefs of the pandemic. Under the weight of white supremacist ideologies, policies, and practices fueled by racial capitalism, communities of color have struggled against the highest levels of unemployment, eviction notices, deaths of family members and friends, and losses of opportunity.
The threat of another wave makes my chest tighten. My heartbeat quickens. My stomach fills with worry. This fear, anxiety, and vulnerability is thoroughly human. Brown reminds us that it is when we turn against this vulnerability - when the care of children becomes political - that we become dangerous. We turn children into political tokens. We place unprotected individuals at the risk of harm.
Our response to this vulnerability, laid bare by the catastrophic grief of the past sixteen months, is the litmus test of our spiritual health as a state. When we deny our vulnerability, we deny the justice that God requires of us.
As a Religion major at Davidson College, I learned from my theology professor that the Hebrew Bible calls for the protection of the most vulnerable in society, including the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. God provides and cares for the well-being of the most vulnerable in society (Deuteronomy 10:18). God commands the Israelites to protect the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, or else be judged by God (Exodus 22:21-24). In the New Testament, Jesus identifies himself as one of the vulnerable; whatever is done to those without power, Jesus suffers, too (Matthew 25:40). Jesus suffered when, today, Tennessee lawmakers made a political game of denying resources to unaccompanied children seeking asylum. Jesus suffers when children do not have access to life-saving vaccines. According to Jesus, vulnerability is the starting place of our justice-making, especially in relation to our treatment of children. In the Book of Matthew, the disciples ask Jesus who is greatest among those in God’s kingdom. In response, Jesus names a child. He reveals his solidarity with children who are at risk of exploitation: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5).
Our capacity for vulnerability will shape our local and global response to COVID-19. Like our bodies, our political systems are fragile under the weight of chronic stress and vulnerability. Yet it worries me that those who are most well-positioned to protect Tennesseans are being silenced, and the most vulnerable will continue to suffer. The vaccine has become a weaponized symbol of power, rather than an empowering source of strength and protection. Tennessee’s elected officials who are entrusted with protecting the vulnerable will be accountable to their own vulnerability, now symbolized by the COVID-19 vaccine.
We can choose how we respond to our individual and collective vulnerability. “May God bless the people of Tennessee,” Dr. Fiscus writes. I echo her prayer: May God bless us with the courage to embrace vulnerability. Our lives—and justice—may depend on it.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.