By Edison Garcia-Creitoff
When in March 2020 a pandemic hit forcing a lockdown in most of the world, Puerto Rico, a United States territory, wasn’t spared.
In December 2020, the Inter-American Division passed along a statement from the General Conference Ministries of Health, the General Conference Biblical Research Institute, and the Loma Linda University School of Pharmacy and Public Health about vaccines. The statement said
We have been entrusted with the Adventist health message embodied and expanded upon in the writings of Ellen White, summarizing healthful living through practical and wholistic healthy lifestyle behaviors. We advocate all of these practices to maintain a healthy immune system, and in the pandemic, even more is needed. Ellen White was not only an inspired conduit of health information much ahead of her time, but she modeled practical prevention in the face of the lethal disease in her era, smallpox, and took the immunization herself, as did those close to her. Today, smallpox has been globally eradicated.
After rejecting speculative pseudo-scientific conspiracy theories that thrive in the church, they conclude
We encourage responsible immunization/vaccination, and have no religious or faith-based reason not to encourage our adherents to responsibly participate in protective and preventive immunization programs. We value the health and safety of the population, which includes the maintenance of “herd immunity.” . . . As we witness the global magnitude of the pandemic, the deaths, disability, and long-term COVID-19 effects that are emerging in all age groups, we are encouraging our members to consider responsible immunization and the promotion and facilitation of the development of what is commonly termed herd immunity (pre-existing community immunity of approximately 80 percent of individuals as a result of previous infection and/or vaccination).
Meanwhile in Puerto Rico…
In Puerto Rico that public statement was not officially passed on by the Puerto Rican Union of Seventh-day Adventists. It was not posted on its official page or on those of the local conferences. Neither did I hear it commented on by the pastors in the local congregations.
Right now, in the month of August, the delta variant of COVID-19 is accelerating across Puerto Rico. The government has been pushing our citizens to be vaccinated. The state has a compelling interest: to safeguard the health and safety of its citizens.
Yet in a population of approximately 3 million, 400,000 Puerto Ricans have not been vaccinated. The government asks those who oppose vaccination for religious reasons to state in an affidavit signed by a pastor that the vaccination is contrary to the teachings of their religion, along with a medical certificate. They also insist that the dissenting citizen be tested for COVID-19 weekly.
On August 14, 2021, through WhatsApp, an Adventist pastor from Puerto Rico’s Northern Conference urged Seventh-day Adventists who oppose vaccination for religious reasons to gather at the offices of the Puerto Rican Northern Conference (APAN) to file there, before an attorney and a pastor, affidavits objecting to the vaccination.
There is no doctrinal statement in the church that opposes vaccination. As you see above, just the opposite. Yet here in Puerto Rico the Seventh-day Adventist Church provided its facilities, a pastor, and a lawyer to endorse the position of not getting vaccinated—precisely contrary to what is expressed by the Inter-American Division. In this the leadership of APAN contradicts the position of Ellen White, whom they constantly cite to justify other theological arguments, as well as the position of the denominational leaders.
Given the church’s statement, what Adventist pastor can back up such a claim with a clear conscience? Should they not make their sworn statements to a private lawyer? Why is it being done officially under the auspices of an office of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?
In the absence of a doctrinal statement opposing vaccination, or any biblical or Ellen White opposition, those who do not want to be vaccinated do so for personal reasons, questionable philosophical interpretations, conspiracy theories or pseudo-scientific speculation. It appears that the APAN leadership and its pastors are feeding rumors and conspiracy theories in Puerto Rico, notably that the COVID-19 vaccine is a fulfillment of prophecy.
On Saturday I attended my local church and here is what I heard: that the time of the end is near; that soon we cannot buy or sell; and notably, that the unvaccinated are being criminalized for religious reasons and persecution is beginning
It is interesting how strongly pastors, leaders and elders identified with this persecution identity. But what of human health? What of the health message? What of the church’s and Ellen White’s own statements about caring for people by means of vaccinations?
The GC statement
Even the aforementioned statement casts doubt on making vaccination an end-time fear. According to the GC statement,
The global turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has generated considerable speculation related to end-time events and misinterpretations of the Bible. A recent perspective, propaganda through social media and some Internet sites, has presented the theory that these next vaccines to combat COVID-19 belong to a process of control of the application of the mark of the beast. It should be noted, however, that Adventists hold the conviction that the end-time controversy will center on God’s law, and in particular the fourth commandment (Rev. 14:12). Likewise, the third angel’s message will warn against receiving the mark (Rev. 14: 9–11) and enlighten mankind on issues related to it. For that reason, it should be clear that Adventists understand that the “mark of the beast” is not a literal mark but a sign of loyalty that identifies the wearer as loyal to the power represented by the beast.
For those who cite Leviticus, arguing that the vaccine is unclean or impure, the statement says:
Another speculative view holds that vaccines make those who receive them impure because, supposedly, impure substances are used to produce them. In this regard, it should be clarified that the current biblical instructions prohibiting the consumption of unclean foods and blood (Lev. 11:1–20; 17:11–12; Acts 15:20) do not apply to vaccines for the obvious reason that vaccines are produced as medicine to save lives, not to be used as food.
Why is this happening in Puerto Rico?
This is, as we say in the law, res ipsa loquitur: the thing speaks for itself. However, it leaves us with some questions about what APAN is doing. The following paragraph describes what I see happening here:
Speculations of this nature cause God’s Word to fall into disrepute and cause confusion among sincere but less informed believers. Using the introduction of a vaccine to promote an eschatological scenario of spiritual and cosmic proportions, or to oppose it on the basis of a faulty interpretation of Scripture, only distracts sincere believers from the real prophetic problems and commitment of the Adventist Church. to proclaim the gospel.
We are left with questions:
- Is this a rebellion against the denomination?
- Why have these pastors done this? Were they tasked by their leaders with identifying with and facilitating the unvaccinated? Is it because they do not want to outrage or annoy the unvaccinated ones, so as not to lose their tithes and offerings?
- Is it possible that the leadership of the church today sincerely believes in the theories of persecution against Adventists, and that they have connected this to a vaccination conspiracy?
- Or is it a reflection of our Laodicean condition that we are more interested in politics than caring for the health of people?