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.”