Like most people I know, wearing a mask during the pandemic is a no-brainer. Science tells us that it helps prevent spreading the virus and may somewhat help in preventing becoming ill.
So, I’m astounded by the anti-maskers.
Recently a Springfield, Missouri, woman sued her city over an ordinance requiring the wearing of masks. She was quoted as saying, “Your health is not my responsibility…Your emotional well-being is not my responsibility.” As her attorney held a news conference explaining how the pandemic was overblown, an older woman behind her was applauding while wearing an “I Love Jesus” hat.
And I thought, “What alternate universe is this?”
I started imagining what it would look like.
That universe would have to be one where everything centers on individual rights, with personal freedom being the cornerstone. If there’s a hint of restricting my ability to choose for myself, then the “Don’t Tread on Me” flags come out of the closet.
There’s a profound distrust of authority in this cosmos. If a higher power makes a mandate I don’t like, there’s probably an ulterior motive behind it, especially if limiting my choice is involved. Conspiracy theories abound.
I thought of the woman in the I Love Jesus hat. What would religion look like here? Probably it boils down to individual salvation. Since the world is fallen (another reason to distrust authority), then do everything to be among the saved/righteous/to-be-raptured. Life on this planet is a lost cause.
So, if I live here, I’m of course going to say, “I’ll wear a mask if I choose, but you not going to tell me to.”
What’s the parallel universe?
It would have to be one that focuses on communal responsibility. The rights and welfare of all people take precedence. Are all persons free? Do all have equal access to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?
Our nation, in this cosmos, must be judged by its higher conscience and not by unbridled, self-centered freedom. We’re “we the people,” not “we the individuals.” We’re judged by how we realize the ideal of equality and well-being for all. We’re driven to realize the values laid in our nation’s foundation, neither idealizing nor idolizing them through sugarcoated history.
In Universe Two, religion shifts from me-centered to God-centered. The Bible reveals a God wiser and more loving than the one who trapdoors people to hell. The focus is walking in Jesus’ footprints, those steps that trampled down traditions that aided the few at the expense of the many.
So, if I live here, I’m of course going to say, “Why not wear a mask? It’s a small price to pay for my neighbor.”
To be faithful to Jesus, we cannot build our homes in Universe One and refuse to move.
To be consistent with his teachings, and to loosen as much as possible the chains of unconscious prejudice, we must reside in Universe Two. We must let compassion and justice drive our lives. In loving our neighbors as ourselves, we must eliminate qualifiers on who that neighbor is. We must neither idolize the past nor the Bible, but rather let each freely inform what’s happening now and lead the way to a more compassionate and just world. We must not think of the Holy Spirit as Someone who primarily makes you feel good about grace, but Someone who overturns tables in the temple out of obedience to a just and loving God.
Only when we find ourselves as fellow citizens in Universe Two can we learn from each other and our differences. “Conservative” and “liberal” Christians need each other. We understand sin, salvation, repentance, renewal, and transformation only when we’ve grounded our faith on loving our neighbor as ourselves. In other words, when we stand on unconditional compassion and justice.
There is a wormhole from the first universe to the second.
I grew up in Universe One. I shared the fundamentalist’s view that dictated the landscape. Then, in spite of warnings about Satan lurking in higher education, I went to college, followed by seminary. Different people, experiences, cultures, religions. When I went back and read the Bible, I discovered that Jesus wasn’t defensive of such differences but embraced them. I found him more alive and dynamic in Universe Two.
That’s the wormhole, which I accidentally stumbled upon. It’s when someone broadens their experiences and then reexamines their beliefs in light of what they learn.
That means listening to the voices speaking from different backgrounds. It’s suspending judgment so others can tell their stories without censor. It’s hearing those narratives expressing unfulfilled hopes and as well as the consequences of corruption and prejudice. It’s working with such diversity in order to realize the dreams of our nation’s ancestors.
To go through the wormhole may be a fearful process. But maybe that fear is the indicator that we must enter the portal and see what’s on the other side.
The loud, angry voices protesting mask wearing are also fearful ones. Deep down they know the sand is shifting under their feet. They’re like the preacher who scribbled in the margin of his sermon, “Argument weak here. Pound pulpit hard.”
Letting go of fear, trusting the power of Jesus’ teaching and presence, leads to freedom.
The late Henri Nouwen, in You Are the Beloved, stated this eloquently:
As we keep our eyes directed at the One who says, ‘‘Do not be afraid,” we may slowly let go of our fear. We will learn to live in a world without zealously defended borders. We will be free to see the suffering of other people, free to respond not with defensiveness, but with compassion, with peace, with ourselves.
Don’t we all yearn for just one universe, without zealously defended borders?