I’d been thinking all week this would be an interesting column to write: “Would Jesus Wear a Mask?” My column would develop along the lines of the popular question: “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD — found on bracelets, shirts, hats and dozens of other items). That question almost always generates interesting discussion when we talk about moral choices at our church. But no matter how I twist and turn the question, the answer always comes out simple and the same. Would Jesus wear a mask? Yes, of course. Given that wearing a mask is primarily to protect others from infection and offers only minimal protection for the one who wears it, how could anyone argue that Jesus would put others at risk by not wearing a mask?
Judging by my last trip to the supermarket, there are many people who haven’t considered whether Jesus would wear a mask, or have come to a different conclusion: that Jesus would choose NOT to wear a mask. More likely, people haven’t given much thought to what Jesus would do during such a pandemic. Remember, in Jesus’ day it’s reported that he only healed a handful of people — not everyone. It’s recorded that he healed maybe a couple dozen people suffering from leprosy. He did NOT vanquish the disease of leprosy. At the supermarket there is probably another group of people who don’t really care what Jesus would do. I speak from a Christian perspective and realize there are many who do not share my faith perspective. I cannot speak to the theological grounding of their moral choices regarding the common good. As one of our national health leaders said the other day about wearing masks: “It’s hard to make people care about others.”
Whether churches should be open for face-to-face worship may seem even murkier. The shameful politicization of public health policy is costing lives. I wonder, when public worship presents such a demonstrable risk to those who are most vulnerable among us, why the big push for the “opening” of churches?
It lifts up some fundamental misunderstandings about church. First, our church has been open all along. We are open to patience and wisdom. We are open to common sense. We are open to discovering new ways to connect when it is unsafe to do it the way it’s always been done. We are open to saving lives by giving up some of our traditions and sacraments we hold dear. We are open to new ways of being the church in the world. We are open to wearing masks when we go out to show we love our neighbor. In fact, even without face-to-face worship, there are ways the church can be open for ministry more than ever — it just looks different.
The second misunderstanding about “opening” churches is the sad and limited view of God’s vast, surprising and relentless work in the world. The call for a quick return to the familiar reveals a tragic lack of imagination that has put many churches in a steady spiral of decline. Do we think the Spirit of the Risen Christ will be stymied by COVID-19? We have survived war, pestilence, plague and persecution. I fear a more dangerous threat is absolute certainty that we possess the whole truth (that would be an entirely new column!). If the loving presence of Christ cannot survive our several months of exile from indoor sanctuaries and chapels — then heaven help us! Our ancient Hebrew forebearers kept their faith alive for a generation in exile!
This is a crucial time for churches to consider who we are and what we are called to be in the world. Don’t we exist to nurture justice and the thriving of all people, to persevere in modeling Jesus’ love of neighbor and love of God?
Like many, I miss church the way it was in February. I miss much of what life looked like five months ago. But as Madison Reid McClendon of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School writes: “The most essential business imaginable is the protection of human life. And [by keeping our buildings closed] the church pays witness to these values in the world when all others forget and move on and pay the price in blood.”
There is plenty of ministry to be done, even if it's not as familiar as sitting in a pew.
Rev. Nathan Miller
Minister - Head of Staff
First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ