I have to admit that I’m rather perplexed at how mask-wearing has become such a hot topic. Admittedly, it didn’t help when the pandemic first appeared, and we were all told to not wear them in order to have sufficient masks for front-line workers. But now? I get that some medical exceptions need to be made. But holy cow: the amount of adult fit-throwing in Costcos and Trader Joes across the nation, captured on social media, is rather mind-blowing.

Part of my childhood was spent in Korea and Japan where masks are common whenever a person feels ill. It’s simply courteous. Sure—masks, especially the cloth ones most of us non-medical types are wearing, aren’t 100% effective. But the significant lessening of risks to other people seems like a no brainer.

Except it clearly isn’t to some folks. Indeed, one of the things one hears the most in these tantrums is language about “rights,” that “living in a free country” means one needn’t “be a sheep.” It is curious to me that these same people do seem willing to obey the shirts and shoes rules of these same stores, but perhaps they feel that the latter restrictions aren’t similarly ovine?  They also insist that private business should have all kinds of latitude about what kinds of rules they can make to not serve certain customers by refusing to bake cakes or take photographs or whatever—but they seem to not believe that those businesses have the same rights to make rules that apply to them.

As confounding as this all is, I actually think we go down an unproductive road when we default to the language of rights. As Americans, we love to talk about our rights to all sorts of things—and, don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for our many freedoms—but I wonder about our witness as people of faith if this is our primary discourse, the main way we frame situations.

Instead, it has been helpful for me to think about my response to COVID-19 in light of kenosis, the idea of Christ’s self-emptying. In Philippians 2, Paul explains this concept:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

In other words, Christ—who had the right to absolutely everything, to every “advantage”—gave it all up out of love in order to serve, even unto death. Paul is clear that as Jesus’s followers we must cultivate this “same mindset”: even if we have a superior claim, we put others’ interests ahead of our own. In this pursuit of humility, then, Christianity is completely at odds with a “rights-driven” orientation. In other words, it doesn’t actually matter if I have the right to do something or not. And even granting that I do, if it is not helping me lovingly and humbly serve the “interest of others,” it is not something I should be pursuing. The minute my most pressing motivation is “my right,” I move away from the kenotic stance that my faith requires of me.

Our faithful witness in the world doesn’t end in times of crisis—in fact, these times magnify our real beliefs through the actions and attitudes we adopt. It’s not political to care about others. We can vote however we feel led, but like the Christians in the first centuries following Christ, we should be marked by our radical care for others, even when we don’t “have to.” It’s okay to be a sheep if you’re following the Lamb.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

8 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jennifer. For those who would prefer a little more robust faith, there is Psalm 18:25-29, -“To the faithful you show yourself faithful; to those with integrity you show integrity. To the pure you show yourself pure, but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd. You rescue the humble, but you humiliate the proud. You light a lamp for me. The Lord, my God, lights up my darkness. In your strength I can crush an army; with my God I can scale any wall.” – Or, as a Christian, you might claim your rights with Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” – What do you mean, you must wear a face mask? – “Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world.” (1 John 4:1)

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    “It’s okay to be a sheep if you’re following the Lamb.” Amen. We are supposed to be like our leader, the one who washed his disciples’ feet. Our rights come with responsibilities. Not sure why we always so often insist on one without the other (but then I grew up in mask wearing Asia too). There is a big difference between a communal culture and the American individualistic culture. We need a better balance between our rights & responsibilities.

    • Harvey says:

      Thank you, Jennifer, for this morning’s “sermon.” Pointed and yet gentle. As we put our masks on, perhaps we could see it as clothing ourselves with humility (Colossians 3:12).

  • Mero says:

    I get it, wear a mask whenever you’re feeling ill as you said they do in Korea and Japan. However the whole healthy population there isn’t required to wear a mask or are they?
    I guess I don’t see the relationship to Christ giving up His rights to wearing mask or not. Stretching scripture a bit don’t you think? I do wear one when I go out.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Maybe stretching but if the sickness does not present itself as obvious, doesn’t the loving response compel us to wear the mask all the time. I could be sick and not even know it. As a diabetic predisposed to a significant co-morbidity, other people wearing masks is really important to me. It tells me that this stranger cares enough to protect me, even though they don’t even know they are doing it.

  • Trudy De Windt says:

    I don’t see any evidence that the refusers are following our shepherd, Christ, do you? Makes all the difference!

  • Jennifer, you’ve expressed so well what I’ve been thinking. The Philippians 2 passage has been a lifelong challenge to let my life
    pour out in service to God and his children. Thank You. Luci Shaw

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    AMEN, Jennifer!

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