Opinion: Love thy neighbor, wear thy mask

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2020 has been a year marked by tragedy, heartache and, unfortunately, great division. A quick glance or scroll through social media makes it very clear that our society is fragmented. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center published a study regarding the division in the United States. They found that the U.S. is facing an exceptional political divide and most individuals agreed that Americans had fundamental disagreements about core values.

Personally, I have been most struck by the response of the Church and the Christian community to this divide. While the pandemic persists and hospitals throughout the nation are overrun, many in the Church have responded not with compassion but, rather, with contempt. The overwhelming Christian response to the pandemic is clear – resist lockdowns and government intrusions.

Obviously, this hasn’t been the response of every church or Christian person to the pandemic. However, it is clear that many see COVID-19 restrictions, like wearing a mask, as a violation of liberty and a way for the government to oppress the Church. Popular Christian leaders have propelled this thinking by teaching their followers that there is no pandemic and suing the government over mask mandates

For those that do not believe in masks or in COVID-19, I’m not here to try and convince you. By now, I assume that most people have made up their minds regarding the pandemic and their opinions are unlikely to change. However, I am imploring the Church and Christians to follow COVID-19 guidelines. 

I know some reading this will vehemently disagree with my opinion. You might believe that COVID-19 is being blown out of proportion, or you might think that the lockdowns and masks don’t really work. That’s fine. As Christians, however, we have an obligation to humbly and obediently abide by the authorities instituted above us. 

Fine, you might say, but what if the government persecutes the Church? Shouldn’t we resist government regulations that oppose the Bible? I completely agree. If the government tells Christians to throw away their Bibles, we should resist that. If the government starts imprisoning Christians for praying, we should keep praying. However, COVID-19 restrictions in the U.S. are not acts of persecution.

Christians in India face persecution with laws that ban conversion to Christianity. Christians in Libya face persecution by being subjected to extreme physical violence and imprisonment if they identify as a Christian. I hope you’ll agree that having to wear a mask during a church service or limiting singing in a church due to concern for public health fails to qualify as religious persecution.

I don’t think the problem is that American churches are being persecuted, but that most Christians are currently placing their political and personal priorities above the needs of others. Wearing a mask is uncomfortable. Restrictions on gatherings are inconvenient. Yet, our health and medical professionals urge us that these things will help protect others. 

You might disagree with the medical professionals. You might believe that masks do nothing and protect no one. I’m not a health expert, but I know that our nurses and doctors are telling us the hospitals are reaching max capacity. I know individuals disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 cannot go to the grocery store because many people at the store refuse to wear a mask. 

Even if you disagree with the effectiveness of masks or the restrictions on gatherings, I urge you to consider how defying these regulations impacts our community. Every time you refuse to wear a mask, you isolate those who believe it provides protection. When you disregard health protocols, you tell others that your gatherings are more important than the safety of the community. 

I often think about how the early Christians would view our response to COVID-19. In a Christianity Today article about how Christians should respond to COVID-19, the response of early Christians to epidemics is examined, as they lived through two different epidemics. This article draws upon Rodney Stark’s book “The Rise of Christianity,” in which he explains how the early Christians responded to these epidemics.

“Christians laid themselves down, even to death, and comforted those who were dying, bringing solace to those afflicted by the deadly contagions,” the article said regarding the behavior of early Christians during these epidemics. “With their extraordinary acts of kindness, Christians were then viewed as a caring community and their faith [was] taken more seriously.

The behavior of early Christians was not marked by protests or contention, but by love. Stark argues that part of what allowed Christianity to grow during these epidemics was the fact that radical love on the part of Christians attracted more members to the Church.

Unfortunately, I fear that this would not be said of the Church’s response to the epidemic today. Christians have an obligation to respond to the pandemic with love. We have a duty to humbly submit to authority and show kindness to those around us. 

In the past few months, I have also begun to wonder about how Jesus would respond to this pandemic. If, in a hypothetical world, Jesus were here today and living through COVID-19, what would he be doing?

Jesus was not a political leader. I know that so many of you wish he was. You wish that Jesus would have encouraged us to rebel against the government and told us who to vote for – but he didn’t do that. In fact, Jesus didn’t even condemn the government. Rather than speak of the government and political figures, Jesus was focused on the religious leaders of the time and showing how those leaders weren’t actually helping the community. 

Jesus was concerned with the fact that the religious leaders of the time were hypocritical. These leaders acted as if they were righteous and spiritual, but were actually greedy and self-centered. Though these leaders said they were upholding good, religious practices, they were neglecting mercy and justice. 

So, when I think about how Jesus would act today, I think it would look a lot like it did over 2000 years ago. He would come in humble submission, willing to serve the vulnerable and downtrodden members of society. He wouldn’t be in the front line of the protest against government regulations or in the courtroom suing the state. I think he would be comforting the family who just lost a loved one or sharing a meal with the nurse who just worked a 12-hour shift. 

You can still be concerned about the government. You can still be concerned about who gets elected and what policies are put in place. However, we must recognize that those concerns should never outweigh one of our greatest commandments: love thy neighbor. 

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