Masks have been used for various purposes throughout history.
Some indigenous cultures wore masks to honor and communicate with their ancestors, while ancient Greeks and Romans used them for theatrical performances.
In many cultures, judges wore masks to prevent violent retribution after verdicts were rendered.
The ancient Aztecs placed masks on the faces of the dead, and some African cultures donned masks to help ward off evil spirits.
More recently, soldiers wore masks to protect from chemical attacks, firefighters to shield from the intense heat of fires, and surgeons to protect patients from infections.
With the spread of COVID-19 slowing, questions regarding mask-wearing are increasing:
- Do masks help prevent the spread of the virus?
- Are they worn for the individual wearing them or do they protect other people?
- As a person of faith, how should we be thinking about and practicing mask-wearing?
- Can businesses require employees and customers to wear them when physical distancing is impossible?
While the final question is a legal one, the others are questions we should examine more closely as people of faith.
In fact, how we consider and engage mask-wearing during a global pandemic might very well unmask our theology.
First, do masks prevent the spread of the virus?
According to the Mayo Clinic, masks are extremely effective in combating the spread of the virus.
Masks protect “the wearer’s nose and mouth from contact with droplets, splashes and sprays that may contain germs.”
The Mayo Clinic outlines the different types of masks and how they should be worn.
They also answer the question of why masks were not recommended at the start of the pandemic, citing “experts didn’t yet know the extent to which people with COVID-19 could spread the virus before symptoms appeared.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends masks when physical distancing cannot be observed based on scientific research and practical conclusions.
Second, who are masks really benefiting in the prevention of the virus’ spread?
With the CDC’s new recommendations encouraging people to wear masks in situations where physical distancing cannot be observed, the reasons are two-fold.
While masks will not absolutely guarantee people that they will not become infected with the virus, masks can significantly reduce the spread of the virus to other people.
Coupled with physical distancing measures and handwashing, the spread of the virus can be reduced when people take these measures seriously.
Even more so, masks are important when carriers of the virus are asymptomatic. In circumstances when people have the virus, even if they are not showing symptoms, masks should be worn to protect other people.
Third, as a person of faith, how should we be considering and practicing mask-wearing during a global pandemic?
At this point in time, there may be no better way to demonstrate one’s love for a neighbor than wearing a mask to protect them.
As Monty Self noted in his April 17 column on EthicsDaily.com, “Wearing a surgical or homemade mask is not primarily about one’s self. It is about our duty to care for other people.”
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus outlines what “love of neighbor” should look like for people of faith.
While the main emphasis of the parable focuses on a compassionate act by a stranger, we must not neglect to recognize the sacrifices the Samaritan made to help the victim.
The Samaritan went out of his way to assist the man, while “more religious” men felt inconvenienced to do so.
He bandaged the man, pouring oil and wine on his wounds. These acts cost the man time and resources on his journey.
He went even further by taking him to an inn, caring for him and giving money to the innkeeper for the man’s extended care.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not only about compassion, it is also about people of faith making sacrifices to help others in need.
If the Samaritan in the story can go out of his way to help a stranger by relinquishing his time and resources and paying for a stranger’s extended care, why can’t all people of faith wear a mask to protect others from COVID-19?
People of faith who refuse to wear masks in public when physical distancing cannot be observed reveal a theology of individualism, which places individual interest over the common good.
Let’s not mistake this with the importance of personal conscience that provides rights to individuals to practice faith as their conscience dictates.
A theology of individualism ignores sacred teachings that advocate for self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and Levite fall prey to a theology of individualism. They were more concerned about their personal piety and safety than the needy man.
Jesus asked an important question after the parable. “Which of the three (priest, Levite and Samaritan) were a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robber?”
The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.”
As the economy opens back up, let’s remember the lessons of the Good Samaritan and the words of Jesus that followed.
With every mask I see worn in public to protect others from infection of the virus, I hear the question and challenge of Jesus.
“Who in the grocery store was a neighbor to others?”
“The ones showing mercy and wearing masks.”
“Go and do likewise.”