Debates about masks seem to be happening everywhere. In the debates, I ask myself what Christian ethics has to offer all the perspectives, confusion, and misinformation about how to act responsibly in the pandemic. I'm certainly a fan of good science. Most kinds of ethics require the best knowledge we have. Christian ethics is no different.
Pastors and preachers who tell members to "have faith" and defy public health recommendations are dangerous. This is neither Christian nor ethical. Faith doesn't make anyone immune to COVID. Nor does faith adequately explain the random chance why you may get COVID or not.
I don't advocate pitting faith against health science because viruses don't care what we religiously or politically believe. Ignoring mask recommendations, social distancing, and vaccination (for those who can be vaccinated) - even when worshipping - is irresponsible because it puts others at risk.
Ignoring the welfare of your neighbor cannot be reconciled with any kind of biblical faith.
Many of us are used to religion in black and white, either/or terms. But, Christian ethics actually help us live in the grey of practical life. Such ethics begins with the premise that none of us have absolute knowledge, power, or control. That means embracing life in the grey. Like Christian spirituality, Christian ethics begins with humility before God. Nothing better fits our current predicament.
The pandemic has rendered our lives extremely unpredictable. The politics around masks, vaccination, and public health authority have only amplified the irrationality and chaos around us. It’s left many of us feeling unsafe and with little control.
Whether you are an advocate of mask mandates or an anti-masker, Christian ethics requires us to consider the Greatest Commandments. Jesus names them in Matthew 22:34-40: Love God fully and wholly, and your neighbor as yourself. On this teaching, the primary question I ask myself is simple: Do I want others to help keep me and my loved ones as safe as possible midst COVID? For me, the answer is "Yes, absolutely." So, I do for others what I want them to do for me - I social distance and mask up. I choose it freely. My freedom isn't an issue.
I don't feel particularly self-righteous about my ethics with this. Sometimes, I forget a mask. Sometimes, I'm sick of wearing it. If I'm with others that I know are vaccinated, I've been known to take it off. But, if I do I try to ask whomever I'm around first. Why? That's what my ethics ask of me to do. Consider my neighbor. I'd want to be asked. Another aspect of living in the grey.
Some of the confusion out there, however, isn't grey. It's just plain confusion.
When I read sources and engage in social media conversations, the issues raised by some around masking are conflated and confused. This makes for misunderstanding and irrational arguments about masking.
For example, public health reasons specifically on what is critical for preventing disease and upholding public health, not individual medical concerns or political opinions. Public health policies must consider what is the greatest good for the greatest number. Individualistic perspectives and private political concerns will either need to uphold every individual equally or broaden scope. By nature, pandemics require us to consider our health and safety in light of others.
Likewise, the meaning of "freedom" is often confused or misused. Market freedom, as freedom of choice, differs from democratic freedoms that concern universal and equal rights. The two are not fulfilled the same way. Market freedom is fulfilled by exercising individual will and choice. Democratic freedoms are fulfilled by equal protection and opportunity. Online conversations and media I read often miss these critical clarifications and make confused arguments. Statements about “freedom“ are loaded with more emotion than clarity. such politics puts vulnerable people, who also have freedoms and can't always isolate themselves, at risk.
I'm not an epidemiologist or public health professional. I don't have the knowledge or understanding to judge policies from public health agencies or make practical recommendations on how to keep people safe from a virus that doesn't care what we believe or think. What I can do is consider the science alongside my faith, which point me to love of God and neighbor.
The CDC, WHO, MIT, and John Hopkins (to name some) all recommend wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, at least when inside. But focusing on masks and mask mandates alone misses the point. Narrow consideration on masking adds to the problem. Public health authorities point to is a holistic approach. Masking is recommended alongside social distancing, hand washing, vaccination (for those who you can), and avoiding closed and close spaces with others for long periods. These work together to slow or prevent the spread of disease.
I understand the science and interpretation of research vary. For example, this commentary from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy emphasizes the limited data around masking research, and advocates for respirators instead of masking. Ok, if the science is not conclusive about masks, are my neighbors really ready for respirator mandates?
I understand wearing a mask is not a fail-safe against getting infected or infecting others. But, focusing too narrowly is part of the challenge for all of us in any pandemic.
Looking beyond ourselves is something Christian ethics and public health practices have in common. It’s necessary in a pandemic. That requires living in the grey and, as a Christian, masking up for others. I want my neighbors to do it for me and my loved ones. So, I'm good with doing the same for them.