I really try hard not to be partisan. That is, to be overtly explicit in criticism (or praise) of any particular candidate, politician, or party. I’ve learned (I hope) to appreciate even those with whom I disagree, and to allow that maybe, just maybe, they might be right, or at the very least have something worthwhile to add to the conversation.
That said, I also acknowledge that sometimes people are just plain (or worse) wrong. And they need to held accountable, and called out. Especially when lives are at stake. Maybe mine. Maybe yours.
I find during these days of ongoing and wearying pandemic that the attitude of the President, Vice President, and others regarding the wearing of masks is not just plain wrong, it is literally “dead” wrong. And I’m not the only one – I’ve had four conversations with folk in the past 24 hours, all expressing dismay that our leaders aren’t leading.
Of course, their response is that this is a matter of personal freedom. I even have some more conservative colleagues banging that drum. They are, quite simply, wrong.
Now, as I write this I suspect I am “preaching to the choir on this one,” that for most of you this is not new or all that contentious an issue. Still, there is something important here, even for us. I contend, and I hope you will be able to follow my conversation here, that this is not about freedom or politics. It’s not even about health. It is about faith and faithful living.
We speak as though the pandemic is a unique moment in human history, as though we’ve never been here before. But we have. From 1346 to 1667 the plague ravaged Europe, coming in waves that lasted several years each time. The death toll, just in Europe (not including Asia and Africa) is estimated at between 75 and 200 million. In Europe it took almost 150 years for the population to recover. Of course, part of the problem was an almost total lack of scientific understanding. Still, the numbers are staggering. And perhaps there are some lessons to be learned.
In 1527, in the midst of the waves, the Black Death returned to Wittenberg, home of Martin Luther. A pastor asked Luther what one might do. What was Luther’s response?
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.
“If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.
“If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” (“Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague,” Luther’s Works 43:132).
500 years ago, but there’s a lot of stuff in Luther’s response for us to consider, and quite frankly, change a few words, and it could be spoken even today! Not only that, but Luther’s words move us to faith and faithful living.
First, Luther affirms the value and importance of medical science. OK, Luther’s age didn’t have much to offer, but Luther respects and honors what they have. He will do what the medical science of the time told him he should do. Isn’t that what we should be doing? Isn’t that what our leaders should be doing? Every medical voice says, “wear masks!” I hate them, but like Luther, I respect that voice and I treasure the gift of that knowledge (remember, medical science is a gift of God to us!) So, I wear the mask.
This is where we begin to lose the “freedom to do what I want” argument. Medical science, God’s gift, calls us to wear masks. Exercising my personal freedom is denying God’s gift. You get to the Pearly Gates someday and explain that one to the Almighty!
But moving on, there’s more. Luther says that he does the right things, the things prescribed by medical science, including not being where he does not need to be, not for himself, for his own health, but so that he will not become contaminated and “inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”
There is it! This is not about me. It is not about my freedom to do what I want, and make the decision to assume my own risks. That’s what I do when I don’t eat well, or don’t exercise. This is different. This is about my care for my neighbor, and that makes this a “faithful living” issue. Faithful disciples do not put others at risk.
So much of what we are being asked to do these days is not just for ourselves, but for others, for the community, especially the wearing of masks. And that’s what makes this so frustrating. I hear the voices crying out, “personal freedom!” Yet, that freedom may be what spreads the disease, and somewhere, someone will die. Another thing I really don’t to want to have to discuss at the Pearly Gates!
Luther does say that if God wants me, he’ll take me. But…and this is important…he says he will have done what was expected of him (i.e. respected and honored the call to safe living). That is faithful living!
In contrast to those who say, just let the virus fly – God will protect me! As I pointed out in a previous Reflections, that is precisely the attitude Jesus rejects in the story of the Temptation (Matthew 4:1-11). Satan challenges Jesus to leap off the pinnacle of the temple, for surely God will protect him – isn’t that the promise in Psalm 91? Yet Jesus responds that to do so would be to tempt and test God, and that is not faithful living! Why would we do that now? So Luther also rejects tempting God with a false faith that is brash and foolhardy.
And that is why this is much more than a political, or even a health issue. Wearing masks, physically distancing, washing hands, and all that we are encouraged to do really is faithful living – it is respecting the gift of medical science, taking precautions for the sake of others, and it does not tempt God!
Finally, Luther does acknowledge that when his neighbor needs him, “I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely” and take the risk, but do so as carefully and safely as possible. That is the faithful living we are seeing in the health care community these days…the willingness to be in a high risk environment, but insisting that all take safe precautions. Absolutely boggles my mind that there are those who find that offensive!
Which brings me back to our leaders, and if you find this too partisan, well, too bad. Leaders, starting with the President, are simply wrong. They are elected – perhaps even called by God – to be a part of demonstrating faithful living. And they are not. The simple task of wearing a mask not only lives faithfully, but shows that living. They need to wear the mask – they need to physically distance – they need to take this seriously – they need to live for the sake of others.
I doubt they will listen to me. I hope you will.
For the sake of others, for the sake of faithful living, and in the end, for the sake of Jesus.