How did wearing masks become a political signal?
Lebanon County, where I grew up, is the last county in Pennsylvania to move out of the yellow phase of the pandemic. I asked some friends from high school what was going on. One person suggested it was the conditions of the Bell and Evans chicken factory—which are difficult. Others suggested it was the political resistance to precaution, social distance, and mask-wearing. We are seeing cases for the coronavirus spike throughout the country (thankfully not in Pennsylvania and New Jersey), and most experts are pointing to the fact that we simply weren’t patient enough with reopening. My dad called me to tell me a high school friend had contracted the virus. I asked him what was up with Lebanon, and he confirmed my suspicion that people weren’t careful. In fact, he’s had to address people that aren’t wearing masks and aren’t social distancing (bear in mind, my dad is an avid Trump supporter, too—but he’s also a trained physician).
My friend, who is an epidemiologist tells me that the basic idea behind mask-wearing is that it protects me from you, and you from me (here’s an article from NPR on it, so you don’t take my word for it). We wear them to keep everyone safe. Because the virus is aerosolized, we need to all be cautious. If we want our lives to be protected, our mutual care is essential. This is hard for Americans—and probably human beings in general—to consider. Normally we think the personal choices we make are largely to keep us safe. But in this case, the personal choices we make keep one another safe. Liberty doesn’t intersect well with livelihood in public health crises.
Nevertheless, our social contract is fragile in the U.S. Ideology and partisanship seem to precede it and destroy it. And I think that our leadership needs to communicate in a way that helps us avoid our tribalistic epistemology (a term I learned last night during a conversation we had about the upcoming presidential election). Unfortunately, in the U.S. I think our leadership is polarizing us.
In fact, somehow, wearing a mask has become a political statement in our time! I learned this when I made my profile picture on various social media platforms my newly shaved head with a mask on. I figured it was appropriate for the time. I didn’t realize it was a statement of political allegiance (again, I’m just following the advice of those who know better than me—and scientists on both sides of the aisle have suggested the same precaution).
Language can be polarizing: that’s a good and a bad thing
But in a time where a health precaution becomes a political statement, it is important to pause and consider how polarizing all of our language has become because it is a significant challenge in communicating to one another in a way that we can understand.
The language around the coronavirus is one thing: words are in our grammar that weren’t just a few months ago. But now that the racism of the country and of its police is on full display (I realize that claim, alone, is polarizing, for what it’s worth): we have a whole new range of additions to our grammar that carry with them political connotation—sometimes on purpose, and sometimes not on purpose.
As a person of color, when I hear “Black Lives Matter” without equivocation, trust is automatically built. When I hear “Defund the Police,” I am realizing that the person saying it is signaling an understanding of the intrinsic racist violence of police. When someone is conversant in terms like “white supremacy, “white power,” and “white privilege,” it is similarly comforting to me (and to others). This language, while it carries with it meaning, is helpful to certain people. It helps rally and organize us.
At the same time though, I know that when I utter those terms it is polarizing to others—it puts them off. So a comfort to me is a turn off to someone else. And so an attempt to confront someone else, or rally a group, can isolate others. It’s a big mess! And this makes the job of the leader very difficult. For every leader, because of how fundamentally polarizing our language is, they have to make a choice about who they are talking to and why. It’s almost impossible to try to talk to everyone all at once—as much as good Christian leaders want to.
Naturally, the way that I think you can talk to everyone is by personally relating to each person. This is why we’ve said in Circle of Hope that Jesus is best revealed incarnationally. But we also know that it is impractical to communicate in that way, and so we need to make choices.
Paul and Jesus know what words and tone to use
This isn’t a new problem—although the Internet does complicate it. The Apostle Paul, who helped spread Christianity across the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, had a term for how he approached the complication of language. Here’s what he told the Corinthians:
Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a servant to all people, to recruit more of them. I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews. I act like I’m under the Law to those under the Law, so I can recruit those who are under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law). I act like I’m outside the Law to those who are outside the Law, so I can recruit those outside the Law (though I’m not outside the law of God but rather under the law of Christ). I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means. All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel, so I can be a partner with it.—1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Paul is saying he’s trying to recruit people to the cause. And he uses different language for different people, organizing around Jews, Greeks, people who uphold the Law of Moses, and those who think they are above it. Paul even uses language from his time that signals something to the people he’s talking to. He’s not committed to using novel language—he strategically uses terms from his day.
I love his flexibility and his focus. He was given an opportunity to do this because he wrote letters to different people at different times. It is much different than a Tweet or a blog post, I have to say. But I still admire the effort, and personally I seek to mimic it.
I think for the individual, our language needs to consider the person we are talking to. This is easily done in a one-on-one context. We “code-switch” for our audiences. People of color often do this as a matter of instinct—yes, I talk differently with groups of white folks, with groups of people of color, and still differently when I’m chatting with my Egyptian cousins. That’s an example of “all things to all people.”
Sometimes the goal is to offer comfort, other times it might be to confront. Paul exhibits this in his letters, too. For his fellow Jews, for example, Paul reserves his harshest words (he doesn’t coddle them, remotely, because he’s built so much trust with them). And in my reading, it is clear that both Jesus and Paul are harshest with their own when they are blocking the way into the community from outsiders. See how harshly Paul rebukes the Jewish people who are insisting on circumcision. Or the violent language Jesus uses when addressing those who cause little ones in faith to stumble. And so perhaps we can take their advice, especially when talking to fellow believers.
What Paul and Jesus bring to the table is a firm idea of what their mission is and who they are sent for. Both Jesus and Paul are sent to Jews and Gentiles, and are trying to help them follow Jesus. They have a clear idea of the people they need to be gentle to and who they need to be more assertive with. I think that we have a similar mission here—and during this time, I think it is the most vulnerable that need our care, and those who need to be awakened to the harm they may be causing that need our assertiveness.
Being all things to all people requires a community
When addressing individuals, we get to make this call fairly easily. If we are communicating more widely, it obviously becomes a challenge. I have to admit my brother Ben and I have discussed this at length! And I am indeed grateful for our dialogue. And I think we are modeling something even in our dialogue.
In order to speak all things to all people, we need to speak and communicate in community. This of course makes online dialogue harder (and we’re even more online now than we were before the pandemic), but I think we need to consider who we are talking to and why. Our message may not be for everyone all at once, and so I think that requires grace from the hearer (and also grace from the communicator). Can we hold each other in love during this time? If we don’t understand someone’s anger, may we seek to understand it, as well as to be understood. There are many thing to be angry about! And sometimes signaling our anger or our support or alliance with those of us that are particularly enraged is helpful. Other times, we have to understand that anger is the best tool to soften someone’s heart. And so someone’s meekness may come across as too soft or too sensitive, but perhaps there are good reasons for it. (Of course, it’s important to note that both anger and meekness may be self-serving too,)
We live in an incredibly polarizing time and language is a part of that. I think we need to take care with the words that we use, but also take care of one another. What might seem like too aggressive or too soft to you may be exactly what someone else needs to hear. We’re working on team work, and allowing grace to flow abundantly.
 Full disclosure, I translated “ἐδούλωσα (edoulōsa)” to “servant” here instead of “slave” in an effort to actually apply Paul’s teaching, since “slave” is just a terrible term to use in this environment.