Recently, I broke the most important rule for the internet, never read the comments. I was perusing an article in our local news media reporting the recent statistics in COVID-19 cases. The comments contained the usual suspects. The “We are going to die” along with the “There is no virus” sort of things. But about halfway through reading the comments, the topic shifted to the wearing of face masks. I though this to be unusual since the article had nothing to do with face masks, but it quickly delved into online bickering between two sides of this issue. One side was the “If you don’t wear a face mask you probably want people to die.” The other side was the “If you wear a face mask you are just a stupid lemming who can’t think for himself.” Nearly half of the comments on this article having nothing to do with face masks was debate between these two opinions.
This internet conversation along with onerous remarks on both sides of the debate that I have received personally caused me to wonder, “Why has this simple act of wearing a face mask or not produced such sweeping generalities and judgments?” And “Does the Bible guide Christians in how they ought to think and act when it comes to the great face mask debate?”
Right now, some reading this article are probably thinking, “What debate? Just put on the face mask you jerk.” And others are thinking, “Debate? There is no debate, face masks are stupid you ignoramus.” If you thought either of those things already, I ask you to take a deep breath, consider my opinion and then go back to calling me whatever name you choose. I assure you I am well aware that I often am both a jerk and an ignoramus.
The Debate Unravels
First, it is clear that the issue of face masks is indeed a debated topic. To date, there is no peer-reviewed scientific study that proves definitively that wearing masks (non-N95 or other filtered masks, I am talking about cloth and surgical masks) has effects on the Coronavirus. There are also no reliable studies that prove that it is dangerous for most people to wear cloth masks, except for those with breathing or lung disorders. This is not to say that there are not studies or that there is no evidence for either position, but that medical experts are reluctant to make definitive statements on mask wearing simply because they know that as of now, most evidence is anecdotal and circumstantial rather than data driven. Simply put, we do not know the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of masks with certainty because this whole particular Coronavirus and pandemic is still so fresh.
Three examples should be sufficient as to why I believe that this is debatable matter.
1. The CDC now recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.[i] They have changed their guidance only recently even in the absence of scientific proof (remember, scientific proof simply cannot be established in a matter of months). That is not to say they are wrong, I simply pointing out that there is still some level of uncertainty. But the WHO (World Health Organization) still recommends not wearing a mask unless one is sick or caring for a sick person or if coughing and sneezing.[ii] This is often where confirmation biases or ad-hominem fallacies come into the picture and people pick which agency agrees with their opinion (and of course the other agency is stupid). But the fact that the two largest and most influential health organizations in the world disagree on guidance when it comes to face masks should help us see it is an ongoing debate.
2. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading epidemiologist we have come to hear a lot about since the pandemic began said in March in a 60 Minutes interview, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.”[iii] He goes on to suggest that wearing masks may have unintended consequences which can spread germs. But then in April (one month later), Dr. Fauci reverses course and says everyone should essentially be walking around with a mask.[iv] I don’t know why Dr. Fauci changed course, but it wasn’t because scientific evidence has emerged to the contrary, because not enough time has elapsed. The man is allowed to change his opinion, he also may have good reasons, some of them I have read, but this is proof two, in my opinion, that mask wearing is a debated topic and certainty either way is not yet attainable.
3. An article from the website “Live Science” intrigued me.
“Researchers, writing in two new papers, attempt to tackle the efficacy of masks, one more rigorously than the other, and come to differing conclusions.”[v]
After reading the article it became painfully clear that they came to differing conclusions simply because we do not yet know enough about the SARS-CoV-2 to have certainty. Some viruses can be stopped by masks, some cannot. There are many factors that come into play from the size of the droplets, the force at which the droplets leave (sneezing vs. talking), where the infection is in the respiratory tract, the distance traveled. The conclusion of the article notes this, while not taking a side. “There’s been enough research done to be able to confidently say that masks wouldn’t be able to stop the spread of infection, that they would only have a small effect on transmission…We shouldn’t be relying on masks to help us go back to normal.” Yet the article is not hostile to mask wearing. Another article from the same website, “Live Science” argues strongly for mask wearing. The conclusion is simply this “We don’t know with certainty either way, yet.” My point is not even to argue for or against mask wearing, but hopefully we can agree that to wear a mask or not to wear a mask is a debatable matter in which we ought to engage with openness, intelligence and kindness. It is different than say the effectiveness of handwashing, something that has proven to stop all viruses and should be considered as such.
I Am Right, You Are Wrong, Because I Am Right And You Are Wrong, Dummy!
So why then has mask wearing become the hottest point of debate around the virtual water cooler?
Putting all of our energy on the face mask issue is a way for us to feel like we are doing something or a way for us to feel vindicated in our doing nothing. This need to feel in control is always present in stressful or crisis moments. It is a natural human thing to do to seek to control what we can when there is so much that we cannot control, to just do something.
But I believe that there is a darker reason that we turn from control to judgment of others in the great face mask debate of 2020. We humans are morally sensitive people. We want to be right; we want to be the good guys. And the easiest and quickest way to feel moral and upright is if those who disagree with us are seen to be immoral and evil, the bad guys. But we really can’t know if our “bad” neighbor has washed his hands properly. How do we know if they are staying home because they are sick? How do we know if they are six feet away from us? (We could walk around with a social distancing stick, I suppose). But I can look at someone’s face and immediately make my judgment. “Look at that fool wearing a face mask, doesn’t he know how ridiculous he looks? Guess he is one of the anxious sheeple who can’t think for himself.” Or “Look at that arrogant piece of work without a face mask, does he even care about anyone else but himself. I bet he secretly wants to kill puppies.” (okay, maybe that last part is a bit of a stretch) The principle remains, we all are more than happy to make snap judgments about a person’s character, morality and intelligence on the basis of a thin piece of material covering half of their face. Let’s face it, we are pretty efficient judges (although woefully erroneous) of other people’s hearts and motives.
Essentially, people will tend to fall down one of two sides based largely upon their perspective of this world, life and personalities. And, we will tend to swiftly judge those on the other side as woefully ignorant if not also wicked. Those who trend toward a “Life is filled with risks” way of living will likely not be so concerned with masks and those who trend toward “Better safe than sorry” will likely be more interested in mask wearing. (I know broad generalities are bad things, so feel free to dismiss me on this one).
So, the tendency of the pro-face mask group is to look at the non-face mask group and be tempted to determine, “They are selfish and irresponsible and don’t care about the vulnerable.” “You are all a bunch of stubborn jerks.” And the tendency of non-face mask group is to look at the pro-face mask group and be tempted to determine, “They are anxious and don’t care about the facts.” “You are all a bunch of ignorant weaklings.”
I am not saying all of us go to these extremes, but it is our nature to judge or to despise one another over debatable matters, “Why? We just like to be morally superior to others, it feels good.”
God Speaks Louder Than Our Disputes
This idea of being quick to judge the hearts of others by a seemingly unrelated issue (a cloth covering) is not new. We could think up dozens of examples (recycling, driving habits, clothing styles, diets, music choices, etc.) God’s Word has a very clear and certain word on these very unclear and uncertain disputable matters in Romans 14 (I changed the wording to reflect this current “mask” issue because the principle remains the same).
“Let not him who doesn’t wear a mask (doesn’t restrict himself with certain foods) despise him wears a mask (does restrict himself with certain foods) and let not him who wears a mask judge him who doesn’t wear a mask, for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand. For God is able to make him stand. One person wears his mask (esteems one day above another); another doesn’t wear a mask (esteems every day alike). Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who wears the mask, wears it to the Lord; and he who does not wear a mask, to the Lord he does not wear a mask for he gives God thanks…None of us lives to himself and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord and if we died, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or died, we are the Lords…but why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”
I personally am suspicious about the effectiveness of face masks to stop the SARS-CoV-2. I am not convinced that there are more effective and less controversial ways that do not spark such hot debate to responsibly social distance and slow the spread of COVID-19. But I also respect my brothers who disagree with me and refuse to think any less of them (despise in the Romans text) because of our opinions. I also do and wear a face mask where social distancing is impossible like grocery stores, I do it because I want the people around me to be at ease near me. But when I recently had a plumber come into our home to do some work, the first thing I told them is that they are free to work in our house without masks. If I were sneezing and coughing because of my allergies, I would wear a mask around other people, and if someone was uncomfortable meeting with me unless I wear a mask, I would gladly put a mask on. If my not wearing a mask causes my brother to sin because his conscience makes him think he should wear a mask, but he simply imitates my non-mask wearing, causing him a crisis of conscience, then I will wear a mask for the spiritual well-being of my brother. But I also cannot in good faith bind the consciences of other brothers by requiring them to wear masks in corporate worship. Why not? Because this is a debatable matter and the Biblical guidance is as follows:
1. Welcome one another without judgment or despite
2. Let each person work out their choices being fully persuaded in their own minds
3. Make your choice but be sure to have the right heart – the glory and honor of God
4. Hold loosely to your choice if it will blatantly cause a brother to sin against their own conscience.
The End of the Debate That Will Never End
The reality is that this debate will not end, the “I told you so’s” are waiting in the wings either way and judges gonna judge. The “I’m better than you’s” are looking for their opening and the “No one is as loving as I am virtue signalers are firing up their self-spotlights.” But the church ought to be different. We ought not to be known for our mask wearing or our non-mask wearing. The Kingdom of God is not about face masks. The Kingdom of God ought to be known for our love for one another. Loving and receiving one another when we disagree is the most Evangelically minded thing the church can do for the world.