Face masks and freedom

Face masks are the new cultural signifiers. Forget flags, accents, dress-sense to tell the difference between Brits, Americans or South Africans – just bring up the subject of face masks.

The Brits, for example, are law abiding people (more or less), and in order to be law abiding you have to know precisely what the law requires. Over the last few weeks there has been an intense debate in the UK over the relative merits of 2m vs 1.5m. Do cops really go round with tape measures there? (The Estonians meanwhile, I have heard, are very frustrated by the 2m rule, and can’t wait to get back to their normal 4m.)

But then last Friday England introduced a rule requiring the wearing of face masks in shops, and the conversation shifted dramatically. There is a whole new swathe of potential uncertainties to iron out now. For example, if I go into Pret to buy my latte and prawn salad baguette, I will have to wear a mask while I queue up (at 1.5m or 2m separation) to buy it at the counter. BUT if I sit down at a socially distanced table to drink my latte and munch my baguette, I won’t have to wear a face mask. Well I’m glad we sorted that one out!

South Africans, meanwhile, have a totally different concept of what law abiding means. The law is a menacing threat used to make us behave, but it probably won’t be enforced with any consistency. And certainly not if you have political connections. The Nationalist government was masterful at pushing out ill-considered, blanket, authoritarian regulations, and the ANC has eagerly taken up the baton.

So South Africans must wear a face mask outside their homes. Where outside the home exactly? Well no one really knows. The police don’t know. The government doesn’t know. In fact no one will ever know until 5 years after Covid-19 when some case finally lands up before the Constitutional Court who will belatedly rule on the matter. Actually we’re quite glad no one knows because that makes the infringement debatable and the penalty negotiable. Ignorantia legis neminem excusat. Ignorantia a lege omnes excusat. So in the meantime we begrudgingly carry a mask around and wear it at half-mast as a token gesture.

And then there’s the good old US of A. Oh my goodness me! Perhaps it’s because of the upcoming election, but the face mask issue there seems to have assumed nuclear proportions. Yes I know the 73rd amendment guarantees all citizens the right not to wear a face mask unless they are robbing a bank (or something like that), but is Western civilization really going to crumble and fall if Americans don’t take a stand against face masks?

The pivotal word is Freedom. Land of the Free and home of the Brave. A fierce ideology of freedom is a uniquely American thing (probably dating back to oppressive mis-rule by the Brits). Every encroachment, however minor, on my right to live my life the way I see fit, is resisted with a religious passion. And face masks are clearly a gross violation of my freedom.

Now the Americans may well be right. It may well be that without their ideological fervor (see how Microsoft made me spell fervor!) we would all be living under oppressive socialist regimes right now. But I do want to make this point – that ideological freedom is not the same thing as gospel freedom. Not even close.

When Paul declares that “it is for freedom’s sake that Christ has set us free”, he is not making a pitch for small government and self-determination. He is telling the Galatians that they have been set free from the requirements of the Torah. Which is quite a different thing. There is a new righteousness in Christ quite apart from the old way of the Torah. So they should resist people who tell them to get circumcised. Which is a bit more serious and permanent than wearing a face mask.

And when Jesus says that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”, he is not talking about freedom from governmental overreach, but freedom from the power of sin (read John 8:34-36). And in setting us free from sin, Jesus has also set us free from death (Rom 8:2).

So let’s push through for freedom. Let’s resist petty regulation and abusive government, but let’s be clear that it’s a political value, not a gospel one.

(Sincere apologies to anyone who feels their nationality has been insulted. Aussies, Kiwis and Lithuanians who feel offended because I haven’t insulted you in this blog, please let me know and I will try to include you in the next one!) Also weren’t you impressed by my Latin! The first part is the famous legal dictum: “Ignorance of the law excuses no one.” The second part is the South African version: “If the law is ignorant that lets everyone off.”

Polarization, Peace and Pentecost

There was a brief moment at the end of April when the sun broke through the gloom. Covid-19 was gaining a foothold around the globe and the true scale of the threat was emerging. Suddenly it seemed there was a real possibility of genuine international cooperation to beat the virus. “It’s like a world war except we’re all on the same side!” Would a common enemy called coronavirus enable the human race to get over themselves and realize that we share living space on a rather crowded and infected planet?

Alas, the clouds rolled in quickly. In very short order world leaders were trying to corner the market in non-existent vaccines for their own nation, unproven medicines were stockpiled, and PPE consignments were hijacked in mid-air (a governmental equivalent to buying out all the toilet paper you can find). America was busy putting America first, and Britain Brexiting. There was a league table of who was doing better than who in fighting the virus. While everyone else was preoccupied, China was surreptitiously trying to grab Hong Kong, Taiwan and a chunk of India. And Kim Jong-un blew up a liaison office on the border with South Korea. Nice one that.

The re-energized polarizations were not limited to political leaders. Social media space has become a war zone of who is hoaxing who, whose lives matter and who is allowed to say what, who can use what bathroom, and who likes Donald Trump. I didn’t tell you that the quote in my first paragraph came from Bill Gates, because I knew some of you would stop reading at that point. That’s polarization.

So world peace lies in tatters again! Was I dumb for even hoping? It used to be a regular feature of beauty contests that contenders would vacuously claim to “dream of world peace”. But followers of Jesus Christ, whether they are beautiful or ugly, really should dream of world peace, because that is what he came for. He is the Prince of Peace, and the promise of his kingdom is that it will come with ever-increasing peace.

In the midst of this chaos we celebrated Pentecost, the amazing day when “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” together heard of the mighty works of God. The church was the original United Nations. Pentecost was the day when God reversed the curse of Babel through the gift of tongues so that the nations could once again speak to each other. On the day of Pentecost, God put us back in the place where “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” What a prospect!

Since that day, we haven’t, in all honesty, been great stewards of the kingdom of peace that was birthed in our midst. We are the salt to flavour the earth, but our saltiness has been questionable. I have a modest proposal for world peace(*): that we believers start learning to live in honour with other believers, especially those we disagree with and who differ from us (like how to spell “honour” properly! 😁 ) We can’t blame the world for being the world if the church is failing to be the church.

(*) Acknowledgment is due to the Mennonites who have their own version of this proposal