It's the great theological question of the day. Christian writers are blogging about it. Churches are falling out over it. It has become a more divisive issue than Brexit, BLM, or Baptism! The question is: 'would Jesus wear a mask?'
In the good old days, churches used to split over issues like wearing hats, speaking in tongues, or having guitars in worship. Today we fight over wearing masks, speaking at all, or having any kind of sung praise.
Think of Rev Charlie Boyle, vicar of All Saints Brankscombe in Dorset, who on Easter Sunday carried a cross down the aisle of his church singing 'Thine be the Glory' without a facemask on! A member of his congregation dobbed him in – and for this heinous sin he has been suspended and could be sacked from his job. Denying that Christ rose from the dead on Easter Sunday would not get you sacked; refusing to wear a mask could.
Why has this become such a toxic issue – even in the church?
Tim Farron, the Christian MP sums up the case for Christians wearing masks – it's what Jesus would do, because it is the compassionate thing to do.
"The whole point of wearing a mask is to protect each other, not just ourselves. Studies (as opposed to that post you saw on Facebook...) clearly show that masks help mitigate the spread of droplets from your mouth if you cough, sneeze or laugh," he says.
Tim compares it with breaking wind in a lift. It's not nice. You wouldn't do it. Moving from the trivial to the holy, he then compares it with Jesus going to the cross – he did not call down angels to spare him from the cross so we should not be standing by our rights not to wear a mask.
There are as many holes in that argument as there are virus gaps in a cloth mask! Whilst the point is valid about not standing up for my own rights, that is not really the lesson from the cross. I am not atoning for my sin, never mind others, by wearing a mask.
To reduce the whole argument to 'it's a nice and compassionate thing to do' is to fall into the trap which Tim is trying to avoid – just repeating the memes in the culture war, because it presupposes that wearing masks works.
Some people used to wear those 'WWJD' arm bands. Perhaps we should have 'What Would Jesus Do' on our facemasks? But it would be better leaving it as a question, rather than a doctrine or the 40th Article – this, I'm sure, is what Jesus would do!
I don't really know whether or not Jesus would wear a mask. What I am more concerned about is what he would want us to do. Of course, we are to love our neighbour – which does include compassion – but it also includes thinking, and asking, what is the best way to love our neighbour?
I have looked at this issue before. And since then, have read a great deal more. It seems to me that at the very least the case for masks is not as crystal clear as we are being told. So, let's consider the downside to wearing masks.
What's the downside to masks?
They create and perpetuate fear. As a form of 'nudge' theory, so beloved by the behavioural psychologists advising the government, they act as a visible reminder of the ever-present danger. In that sense they have become a visible sacrament, fending off the evil Covid. But fear is a dangerous weapon to use and the collateral damage from it is far reaching.
The journalist, Laura Dodsworth, makes this point strongly in her book A State of Fear: "Introducing a measure without an exit strategy can create more problems. In this case, it is that we are still wearing masks. They have turned the UK population into walking billboards that announce we are in a deadly epidemic. Every time you go into a public space you are reminded by masks of the epidemic. And then the idea that they help (even if they do not) is reinforced. Did you survive your trip to the supermarket? Only because you were wearing a mask! Did you contract Covid on the Tube? No? It must be the mask that saved you! The unintended consequence of the masks is that they keep the fear alive and modify our behaviour, and this has proven useful as far as the behavioural scientists are concerned."
I'm not sure any Christian should be encouraging any fear – except the fear of the Lord. That doesn't mean we shouldn't wear a mask – but it does mean we should be careful about exaggerating what we are doing. Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist, who sits on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told Sky News: "The way in which we focused on that is, I think, another signal of the levels of fear – we're clinging to something which is visible, but doesn't actually achieve very much."
On the other hand, they give a false sense of comfort. Whether it is Joe Biden saying that masks are the weapon we have to defeat Covid, or John Swinney, the Scottish government minister who this week got in trouble for retweeting a false meme which states that if you are both masked and six feet away from people you have 0% possibility of getting Covid, the message has been wrongly given that masks give you a high level of protection.
Dr Colin Axon, one of the government Sage scientific advisers, points out that "the best thing you can say about masks is that any positive effect is too small to be measured."
The reason for this is that Covid 19 is spread by aerosol – not just the large droplets put out by coughing, sneezing, or laughing. According to Dr Acton cloth masks have gaps that are 5,000 times the size of the covid virus. It's like firing marbles at a builder's scaffold – some will hit the posts, but most will get through.
Masks limit communication. We are a visual species. Our faces speak. It's why preaching online is not the same as preaching in person – because you cannot see the faces of people. Our faces are essential in communication.
Masks hinder worship. This ties in with the communication. Singing, preaching, praying, interacting with one another is made all the more difficult with masks.
Masks pollute. We are all supposed to be climate friendly nowadays and against the proliferation of plastic. It is estimated that around 130 million masks are disposed of every month. According to the UN, some 75% of masks will end up in landfill or waterways – creating a significant pollution problem.
Masks themselves can become a health risk. The wearing of masks has seen an increase in the skin condition known as 'maskne'- which covers such things as acne, perioral dermatitis, and folliculitis.
And finally - masks divide. Sometimes literally. I know of at least one church where there is a section for those who are masked, and a section for the unmasked. It's almost as though there is a section for the unclean. For a while in the US, to wear a mask, or not to wear a mask, was seen as a sign of political affiliation.
Masks should be about health use. Period. Not about political affiliation, not about psychological manipulation, not about virtue signalling, and certainly not about theological orientation. To claim that wearing a mask is what Jesus would do is a big claim – because it immediately identifies those who do not wear masks as those who are 'un-Christlike' – which is about the worst thing you can say to a Christian.
And it does so on a fairly shallow understanding of the evidence and an assumption that the studies you have seen on the internet are better than the studies seen by those who disagree with you.
So, at least in the Church, perhaps we can tone down the rhetoric, the apocalyptic talk, and the cheap jibes at those who may not share our views? Perhaps we should let people think for themselves and let each be persuaded in their own minds (Romans 14:5)? I will wear a mask when I am commanded to by law, I will wear it when I am in the home of a weaker brother or sister who is afraid that I may be bearing the virus; but I will also reserve the right to think for myself and to refuse to participate in the fear mongering, vitriol and virtue signalling that goes on on all sides of this debate.
Meanwhile in a world that seems to be increasingly hiding itself under a shroud of fear and despair, I look forward to the day when all believers will see the Lord with 'unveiled faces' and be totally transformed into his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18).
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at The Wee Flea.