COVID and a Conservative Christmas Message: Beware Boris Telling Us To ‘Love Our Neighbours’
In his Christmas message to the nation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that getting vaccinated against COVID is what Jesus would have done had he been alive today. Standing in front of a Christmas tree in Downing Street, he went on to explain why:
“getting jabbed not just for themselves, for ourselves, but for friends and family and everyone we meet…that, after all, is the teaching of Jesus Christ, whose birth is at the heart of this enormous festival — that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves”
Who knew that Johnson was the source of all answers for all those asking WWJD.
To some extent, Johnson making reference to religion — and Christianity in particular — was to be expected at some point. This is because since the turn of the last century, successive Prime Ministers have in one way or another been ‘doing god’: a shorthand way to refer to how religion has acquired an increasingly prominent role in the British politic spaces. While Tony Blair and New Labour’s approach was rather more centred on Britain being a multi- rather than mono-faith society, since David Cameron being elected in 2010 the focus has been squarely fixed on Christianity. Repeatedly asserting the mantra that Britain is a distinctly ‘Christian country’, Cameron deployed this to good effect to discursively demarcate ‘us’ from ‘them’.
In terms of ‘doing god’, Johnson has previous. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Johnson evoked the Exodus story during Brexit negotiations to tell the then Prime Minister — Theresa May — to embrace the “spirit of Moses” and tell the European Union to “let my people go”. Irrespective of the personal religiosity of those ‘doing god’, research shows that the process is a cynical one where religion — and Christianity in particular — is utilised in wholly notional, symbolic and subjective ways.
While there is some convergence here with Johnson’s Christmas message, so too is there some divergence. This is most evident in how Johnson not only reinterprets Jesus’ teaching to fit with his own political agenda but so too infers if not lays claim to moral authority despite having no religious or theological expertise or credibility whatsoever. Whether the Prime Minister’s approach to the COVID pandemic is right or wrong, that Johnson is wilfully politicising Jesus’ teachings and Christian morality is extremely problematic.
Equally problematic is Johnson picking and choosing those of Jesus’ teachings that align with his own personal and political agendas. Personally, it is interesting that someone who is estimated to be worth around £1.3 million is able to easily overlook Jesus’ teaching that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew, 19:24).
Politically, it is interesting that someone who responded to 27 people — including three children and a pregnant woman — dying while trying to cross the Channel in a dinghy by calling on France to “take back” those who make it to the UK alive, conveniently overlooking Jesus’ teaching about the righteous: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew, 25:35–6). So too was Johnson was able to overlook the many teachings of Jesus about helping the poor and destitute when supporting cuts to Universal Credit which according to some, will result in deaths.
And this is where the problem lies, while Johnson pontificates and politicises Jesus’ teachings and Christian morality when it fits with his agenda so too does he disregard and deny those same teachings and morality when they sit in opposition or contention to his personal, political or ideological beliefs despite the fact they are socially and politically pertinent. As with his predecessors, Johnson ‘doing god’ is nothing more than cycnical.
Having said that, Johnson’s cynical and politicised re-interpretation of Jesus’ teachings have been afforded some credence by Justin the Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. During a recent interview with ITV, Welby — an Old Etonian like Johnson — stated that:
“Vaccination reduces…my chances of getting ill, [which] reduces my chances of infecting others…Go and get boosted; get vaccinated. It’s how we love our neighbour”
Welby went on to add that being vaccinated was indeed a “moral [Christian] issue” albeit refusing to confirm whether or not choosing not to be vaccinated was ‘a sin’. Given that Christianity teaches that God gave humans free will and therefore the ability to make their own decisions, it is interesting that the nation’s senior Christian figure added that when it comes to the COVID vaccine “it’s not about me and my rights to choose”.
In a country where a majority perceive the church to be immoral and irrelevant and where less than 1% of the population regularly attend Church of England worship, it is surprising that British politicians continue to deploy Christianity when deciding to ‘do god’. Irrespective, whenever politicians do rarely is it meaningful, sincere or importantly, true to the actual teachings and morality of the religion in question.
Maybe the litmus test for Johnson’s Christmas message will come in the new year when vaccine passports — if not vaccine mandates — will no doubt be introduced. At that time, it will be interesting to see whether Johnson — and indeed Welby — will choose to discriminate against an already largely vilified unvaccinated population or whether they will turn to the example afforded them by Jesus. In a tale that in included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 8:1–4, Mark 1:40–45, and Luke 5:12–16) instead of rejecting the lepers — the vilified population of his time — he reached out and embraced them.
While it would seem unlikely that either Johnson or Welby will do what Jesus did, as Christianity teaches us: miracles do happen.