An ethical case for wearing a mask during this pandemic

In January of this year, I took a business trip to New York to speak to a group of technologists and ethicists about artificial intelligence from a Christian perspective. While I despise the idea of wearing a mask because of how uncomfortable they are and how they fog up my glasses, I wore a mask throughout my time in the airports that day because my wife was, at the time, undergoing chemotherapy treatments. With New York City being a world hub for economics and business, I chose to deal with the stares, avoidance, and general concern from others as to why I was wearing a mask in public. To me, that was a small price to pay to protect the love of my life.

In the last few weeks, as unemployment claims have skyrocketed to the worst point since the Great Depression with over 30 million Americans out of work, there have been increasing calls and guidelines asking Americans to wear simple masks as we try to open back up our communities while protecting the vulnerable among us. With the virus still very active in our nation and many carrying the virus asymptomatically, the calls by public officials to wear a mask are often simply out of kindness to others and concern for public health.

Our nation and the wider world is experiencing a once in a lifetime generation-shifting moment. Throughout all of this social upheaval and global health crisis, some are beginning to protest the simple guidelines to wear a mask in public on theological grounds or even out of a sheer rebellious spirit. While there are some obvious reasons that some might not wear one given health concerns, a rebellious or contentious spirit should not be one of them. But the Christian moral tradition calls us to not only love God but also to love our neighbor even if that means having foggy glasses or receiving weird stares.

The importance of the face

One of the main reasons that many Americans feel uncomfortable wearing masks is because of the theological influence on our democratic ideals and way of life. Recently, an Ohio state representative, Nino Vitale, publicly commented on the fact that he would not wear a mask based on his understanding of the imago Dei or image of God, which serves as the bedrock of Christian ethical thought. Rep. Vitale argued that the image of God is seen most clearly in the face of our fellow neighbor, and he called on Ohioians to defy health department orders to wear masks in public. This call came even as Gov. Mike DeWine said that he highly recommended citizens to wear them but stopped short of making it an order.

Rep. Vitale is correct in his view of the importance of the face in Christian theology, but his application of this essential doctrine misses the mark in my opinion. Roger Scruton in his book, The Face of God, points out that for humans, “the face is an instrument of meaning, and mediates between self and other in ways that are special to itself.” The face is the main identifier for humanity with one another, and the place that our emotions and thoughts are often on full display for those around us to see. The face reveals a person, and it holds a high place throughout the Scriptures.

Before the Fall of humanity in Genesis 3, we see that Adam and Eve lived in perfect communion with God and each other. But then sin entered the world through their rebellion, along with shame and fear. Adam and Eve covered their bodies and faces in shame, seeking to hide from God’s all-seeing presence and love.

In Genesis 4, God asked Cain why his face had fallen. It was obvious through his facial expressions that something was bothering him. This question was not because God didn’t know what was troubling Cain, but it was a reminder to him that God sees and knows all things, including the deepest recesses of the soul, such as emotions and desires. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The face is the entry point of our inner life, the recess of our souls. With the prominence of the face in Christian theology, it is easy to see why we naturally feel uncomfortable and uneasy covering our faces, much like my fellow travelers did in the airport.

Loving Our Neighbors by Wearing a Mask

While it is understandable that many, especially in the West, feel uneasy about covering their faces in public, we must not forget the purpose of these facial coverings in the first place. It is to slow the spread of the virus and protect the most vulnerable among us, especially those who are unable to wear a mask for various health reasons and concerns. We should also welcome healthy and focused debate on the role of government in protecting the public health by encouraging people to cover their faces. Good people will disagree on these public calls to wear masks. We should not shame others for their conscience, but refusing to wear a mask out of sheer rebellion is not becoming of the people of God. Wearing a mask in public can be one of the simplest ways to show the watching world that our hope and peace is in the Lord Jesus Christ, not in our bravado, arrogance, or rebellion. 

For those who can, simply donning a mask during this public health crisis can model for our neighbors how we care about them more than keeping our glasses fog free or getting a stare or two. It shows those around us that we will put their health and livelihoods before our own comforts if that means slowing the spread of this deadly virus and saving lives, as we seek to open up our communities and provide for our families. To act as if wearing a mask in this season is cowardice or not trusting the Lord is not only reckless, but it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of how God calls us to live in a broken world.

An ethical case for wearing a mask is found in Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-39 when he calls us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves, sacrificing our comforts and freedoms in order to care for those who desperately need someone to help protect them from this virus. Christ himself had every right to proclaim that he didn’t have to go to the cross and protect his own life, but he chose to sacrifice himself in order to love those who spat on him and treated him like a criminal (John 3:16, 10:18).

Covering our faces during this season in order to care for the vulnerable and weak seems like one of the simplest and most effective ways to love our neighbors, as well as to stand up for those whose bodies are experiencing the weight of brokenness and disease. There are many among us who for various reasons are more susceptible to this virus and even some who can’t cover their faces for health reasons. Regardless, Christians are called to lay down our lives for one another, bearing one another’s burdens, as we seek to fulfill all that Christ commanded (Galatians 6:2). And as we are able, wearing a mask isn’t that big of a burden to bear if it helps save a life of another made in God’s image.