It's now been a little over a year since life as we knew it ended and Covid-19 went from being a problem in some other part of the world to being THE problem for the entire world. It quickly became clear that we were facing a crisis that would define a generation across the world. Of course, it did not help that we Americans were facing that crisis in the middle of an election year right after a bitter impeachment trial. Many have observed that our nation has become polarized like never before. Everything, it seems, is politicized. Yet, I foolishly thought that this would perhaps be like 9/11, and that out of this tragedy we would unify as a nation, at least for a time. That hope was short-lived.
To be sure, there have been several remarkable examples of courage, kindness, and sacrifice over the last year. However, I generally feel that those are the exceptions, not the rule. Covid-19 was politicized and seems to have only exacerbated the polarization of society. This was nowhere more evident than in policy regarding face masks. One may wonder why exactly Covid-19, and particularly face masks, became such a divisive issue. The answer is certainly complex and multifaceted. Our public officials could not articulate a coherent message, seemed all too willing to tell a noble lie, and were obviously interested in weaponizing the pandemic for their own political ends, eroding whatever trust the public had left in our media and public officials.
I have my thoughts about all of these matters, but it isn't my place to share them. After all, I am not a political pundit, nor a doctor or scientist. While I can't stand to be talked down or lied to, I will readily admit that I am not an expert in the science of infectious diseases or masking. I am a pastor, and my job is to represent Christ. I don't think it's my place to take a side in the masks wars, other than to say what God has told us: love your neighbor (Mt. 22:39), and respect those in authority over you (Rom. 13:1). However, I do have something to say about why the controversy happened. Hopefully, we are now far enough along for me to be heard.
righteousness you can wear
Given the charged political climate and the complexity of the problems, it isn't surprising that the right and left wound up sharply disagreeing on how to handle the pandemic. But out of all the issues, including shutdowns, schooling, travel bans, and social distancing, masks seemed to always rise to the forefront. Not only was it a major talking point on tv, but also started fights in public that often went viral. We have seen video after video of people trying to violently enter a store maskless, or adamantly demanding someone else, perhaps even a child, wear one. I've even witnessed such a shouting match in person. What was it about face-coverings that sparked such vitriol?
Unlike other pandemic issues, masks are visible. When I see a stranger in public, I cannot tell from looking at them how they voted, if they are pro-lockdown, if they want schools open, or if they will take the vaccine. However, I can see whether or not they are wearing a mask. I might be inclined to make some judgments based on their mask or lack thereof. If they are wearing one where it is not required, I could assume that they believe the science, they value other people's lives, and they are respectful of the rules. Conversely, I could also assume that they are a coward, they have been misled into thinking that a piece of cloth will protect them, and they are sacrificing liberty in the name of fear. If I saw someone with no masks, I could assume either that they are reckless and ignorant or that they are courageous and freethinking.
In all of these examples, I didn't just notice that they were pro- or anti-mask. I made assumptions about the kind of person they were—good or bad. It's not just about the masks. It's about what kind of person that stranger must be, and whether or not they belong in my tribe. To the anti-masker, the pro-masker is not just pro-mask, but against liberty, easily deceived, and cowardly. They are, in other words, evil. To the pro-masker, the anti-masker is reckless, ignorant, and self-centered. They are, in other words, evil.
Throughout the pandemic, I heard several conversations that followed the same basic script. News would break that someone had died of Covid-19, and would be followed by a comment about whether they were for or against masks. In the wake of someone's death, why would their views on masks be important? Because we want a reason to believe that it won't happen to us. If the person was cavalier regarding the virus, we might think, "well, I wear my mask, so I should be better off." In the opposite situation, someone against masks might say, "See, these masks don't work!" However, people seldom changed their minds. If the pro-masker got the news that another pro-masker died, they didn't question the effectiveness of masks but instead blamed anti-maskers for spreading the virus. But if an anti-masker got news that another anti-masker died, they might have thought, "see! All of these masks out in society and it's not stopping the virus!" People are always right in their own eyes. But given the dire consequences of the virus, this wasn't a simple matter of preference or being correct or incorrect; it is a matter of life and death. This means those who disagree with you are not simply incorrect, but evil. Of course, we seldom see ourselves as evil. We assume that our positions are not only correct but righteous. We are then tempted to wear or not wear the mask not because we think it's the right thing to do, but because it shows that we are the right kind of people. We are not one of THOSE people; we are good people! You can tell because we wear/don't wear a mask, and our righteousness will protect us!
The mask has become more than a tool. To many, it is a symbol. Of course, it isn't the only symbol of righteousness in our culture. There are increasingly more and more symbols which we must adopt or reject to signal our righteousness to our peers: what we watch or don't watch on tv, where we shop, what we wear, how we vote, what we post online, and so on. The symbols proliferate as we struggle harder and harder to prove to ourselves and the world that we are good people.
People naturally crave justification. We want to know that we are not bad people, but good people, that we are on the right side of history, and that God or our families or friends or coworkers will look on us with approval. This should not be a surprise for Christians, given that the Bible spends so much time talking about forgiveness, righteousness, and justification. We should be disturbed but not surprised that people without Christ are seeking justification in whatever cultural symbol is hot at the moment. However, we should be surprised to find so many in the church playing the culture's justification game.
Consider Paul's words in Romans 3:20-24: "For no one will be justified in his sight by the works of the law, because the knowledge of sin comes through the law. But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." In Paul's setting, some thought that the works of the Law (the books of Moses) were necessary for salvation. One must be circumcised, keep kosher, observe Jewish holidays, and so on. After all, God had commanded it in the Scripture! Such laws quite visibly marked people as Jewish and therefore as belonging to the Lord. However, Paul states that such laws cannot justify anyone and never could. They signaled that someone was Jewish, but they did not signal that someone was righteous. Righteousness came apart from the law through faith in Jesus. It is not an outward symbol that justifies, but rather believing that God has freely justified you through Jesus. The righteous has died for the unrighteous, and his righteousness is now ours as a free gift received not through the adoption of symbols or rituals, but through faith.
What is faith? Faith is trusting what God says. It begins with acknowledging what He says about you. You are a sinner. We all are, and hopelessly so. No one is righteous in the eyes of God, and no amount of masks, voting, protesting, tweeting, or anything else will ever change that. To think that we could be good enough is to call God a liar and to make ourselves even worse off. However, if God's first word is condemnation, His second is mercy. Despite our hopeless unrighteousness, God loves us anyway. So much so, that He took on our nature, lived the life we should have lived, died in our place, and rose again to share His life with us. He shares that life free of charge if you can believe it.
Taking God at his word
But we struggle to believe that God has really justified us; we need a sign! How can we know for sure that we have been justified? God has given us some signs: baptism and the Lord's supper. But for our foolish hearts, these are just too ordinary and dull. After all, it's just water, bread, and juice, and anyone can take these things. We don't want to be just anybody; we want to be with the good guys! We need something more than a word from God. We need a word from people! So, because we cannot take God at His word, we perform for people. We form groups of people in real life or online who think just like we do, and we show them our masked or unmasked faces, and let them tell us what good, brave, intelligent people we are! And we wait for someone from the opposite camp to challenge us. When we are asked to wear a mask at a grocery store or confronted on Facebook, we get an opportunity to stand up for our cause and sacrifice for what's right!
In a nation where men ran towards almost certain death on the banks of Normandy to free another nation, it is remarkable that we think we are brave heroes for sharing Facebook posts. It is even more remarkable for those of us who follow the man from Nazareth who refused to insult those who crucified Him, but this is what happens when we exchange justification from God for justification from men. Whereas God's justification is a free gift, man's justification must be earned over and over again. We must constantly work to prove that we are part of the good people. When you live this way, you eventually become more focused on the performance than actually doing the right thing.
But, you might ask, "Shouldn't Christians live a particular way? Sure, righteousness is a gift, but shouldn't we actually live righteously as well? What about Romans 6?" You are right! Of course, Christians should try to do the right thing, but that won't be possible until you accept God's gift of righteousness. Unless we receive that gift, we will be trapped trying to earn it. When we feel righteousness must be earned, we can't do anything from a pure motive. Instead, the desire to be righteous always taints our actions so that we do them, at least in part, to earn acceptance from God or people. If we can't believe God giving His own Son to us means that He has accepted us, what could we possibly do to earn that acceptance? We will work ourselves to death trying, and in doing so will make God out to be a liar because our actions will say that Christ isn't actually enough and that God has lied about salvation! And as far as earning approval from people—do you really think you can do that? Only if you change as often as they do, in which case you won't do what's right—only what they say is right on that particular day.
But if we can believe that Christ really is enough, that God really has made us righteous, then we are free from the performance. We don't have to live for anyone's approval. There is nothing left to earn. This gives us the freedom and the clarity of mind to do what is right without regard for what benefit it might bring to us. In other words, it purifies our motives. I don't have to do anything hoping that I'll be accepted for it. I already am accepted. My good works are no longer a performance, but rather something that I am free to do simply because they are good and right, even if no one ever sees it. That is the freedom of Christ. It is freedom from the performance, from the constant need for approval, and from a destructive sense of self-righteousness. It is out of this freedom that we become the people God made us to be.
But it starts with believing God. It is no easy thing because there is nothing else to prove your justification but His word. You either believe Him or you don't. It is worth asking why we do the things we do. Do we do them because we are free—because God has been good to us and so we want to be good to others? Or do we do them because we are trying to prove something? Our minds and motives may be our greatest struggle as Christians. While other sins are done in a visible way that other believers can see and rebuke, no one knows what's in our hearts and minds but God. For this reason, we should ask God to search us and show us when we don't trust Him (Psalm 139:23-24). From this position, we can say, "I believe! Help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). God is faithful to answer these prayers.
Some practical advice
What is the right thing to do, then? Should we wear it or not? I've refused to answer that because the issue is complicated, especially for those of us who are not medical experts. In these kinds of situations, Christians of good conscience will sometimes disagree, but there are some biblical principles that we should follow to get us started. First, love your neighbor (Matt. 22:39). Second, respect those in authority over you (Rom. 13:1). In this case, they are not asking you to sin. Finally, bear with your weaker brothers and sisters (Rom. 14). You might be convinced that masks are pointless, but a brother or sister in Christ is convinced they work, and they would be uncomfortable if you didn't wear one. In this case, wear one so that you don't offend your brothers and sisters. Your freedom is not more valuable than your family. No lost person wants to be a part of a Church that is devouring its own, so be kind, not judgmental.
"For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love." Galatians 5:13