Behind the Mask
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." -Spock
I write today to practicing Christians in the United States. I myself am a member of this group. I serve it as an ordained minister. Furthermore, as someone charged with oversight of our school's College of Ministry, I help train ministers and Christian leaders. In light of this, I feel I have some space to go on record in this matter.
I want to talk about masks. The very ones we've been wearing (or not) these past number of months. The ones that fog our glasses. Irritate our noses. Obscure the faces of those we come into contact with each and every day. The ones we would really rather not wear because, let's be honest, they look a little silly.
You can take it from my comments that I am not the biggest fan of having to wear a mask. I look forward to the day when I can stop doing so. I hope that day comes sooner rather than later. But until that day? I am going to wear my mask in those times and those spaces when wisdom, care, and governmental guidance ask it of me. And, my fellow Christians, I ask you to as well.
I grow concerned, in many ways, that our Christian faith runs the real danger of being co-opted by other concerns. That over time certain factors can lead us to diverge from the basic principles of love of God, love of neighbor, and the guidance of the the Scripture and the Holy Spirit. I can see some of this happening today in relation to masks and so much more. But, of course, masks are the presenting issue today, so let us start there.
I offer three reasons that the Christian believer should regularly wear masks in public areas and personal interactions:
Christian Responsibility to Our Neighbors: Amongst the most obvious things that the New Testament teaches us is that we are to be people of love. People who love God and people who love our neighbors (Mark 12:30-31). It doesn't stop there, either: this love extends even to enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). In light of this, I call on Christian believers to wear masks. We are told that wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of the virus to others around us who might be more vulnerable. We know that it is possible to spread the virus without being symptomatic. Wearing a mask, then, while at times inconvenient for us, may be just the thing that protects those we encounter. Just the thing that embodies our Christian love for others.
A Christian Call to Submit to Those in Authority: Romans 13 enjoins Christian believers to "be subject to governing authorities" (13:1). Now, clearly this command is not meant to be exhaustive. We do not, after all, take it to mean we should be submissive to evil manifestations of government. Furthermore, since we today live in a democracy there is a sense in which we are the government and have a right to share a dissenting vote. But, interestingly, I think that Romans 13 applies pretty directly to our situation, likely more so than many times it is debated. Because Romans 13:4 grounds some of its direction in this idea: "For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good." In other words, the government is there to help you out. It exists, in a sense, for the common good. Protection. Roads. Bridges. Food safety. Housing codes. And yes, a requirement that we be masked in public places. I realize that this infringes upon our freedom and can get frustrating at times. But if the government of our state, nation, or local municipality calls upon us to wear masks when gathered in retail, educational, social, or religious spaces? Let us put them on as they have asked. One can say, indeed, that there is a biblical duty to do so.
The Christian Call to Adapt for the Sake of the Gospel: The Christian message ceases being the Christian message when it leaves Christ behind. But our shared faith has never imagined that the ways in we express our faith should not adapt and vary from time to time and culture to culture. We hold tightly to Truth, but grasp much less firmly those things that change with time. In other words, there is something discernibly Christian in both how we worship today and how our second century ancestors did the same. But there is also something clearly different between the two. That difference is time and culture. Over two millennia Christianity has has outwardly expressed itself in a diversity of ways while never ceasing to be Christianity. In matters non-essential, it has wisely translated the Truth for the culture it is in. The Apostle Paul seems to have known this fairly early on, and his missionary efforts for the sake of Christ appear to have embodied these concerns. Writing to the Church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), he admits that while he is free to do whatever he wants, he does not wish to use that freedom unwisely. He lets go of his liberty for a higher cause. For Jews he is like a Jew. For Gentiles he is like a Gentile. He, in other words, adapts to the setting he is in. To the culture of the place. The corollary for us? Even if we think it will not make any difference for public health, even if we think the government is overreaching a bit, we should wear a mask if that is the expected practice of our community. The call to us as believers is to adapt to the culture of the place we are in so as to not bring reproach upon the gospel or make it seem as if we are being difficult simply to be difficult. I admit: sometimes the "mask culture" we can find ourselves in seems a bit more excessive than I might deem worthy. But then I am not a health expert. And, in any case, if that is the way things are done on that street, in that restaurant, or in this office, I am on board with the prevailing culture. To not do so would draw negative attention to myself for a thing that has nothing to do with the heart of God. Adapting to the culture of masks asks very little of us and does not damage the cause of the gospel a single bit. But not wearing masks when our communities are focused on it makes us stand out as people who appear not to care about others and/or confirms some of the worst caricatures those outside our faith have of us.
In sum, my sisters and brothers: I implore you to keep wearing your masks in the settings that we are asked to. For the sake of our neighbors' health. In light of our call to honor those authorities God has established for our good. And, like the Apostle Paul and the countless missionaries the followed him, as a way to adapt to the culture of our "new normal" for the sake of the gospel.