Masks, Freedom, and the Power of Covenant

By Sarah B. Drummond

In pandemic times, many of us find our friendships strained. Dissimilar comfort levels regarding in-person socializing require awkward conversations, where even the closest of confidants must awkwardly dance around questions of physical distancing and masks. None of us wants to seem like we are judging another, yet we cannot help but measure our own choices against those of others. None of us has been through anything quite like this pandemic, so we seek out analogies that provide us with guidance and sanity.

The analogy that comes to mind most readily for me: motorcycle helmets. My spouse Dan hails from northern Minnesota. The few months out of the year a person can spend time outside are beautiful, and residents make up for the long, harsh winters by grabbing every opportunity to be out in nature. One activity appreciated by many, but which eludes me, is riding motorcycles.

Cranial Conundrum

Dan has two high school friends who married each other and like to spend summer weekends out on their Harley-Davidson. That sounded great to me, until I learned that neither of them wears a helmet. We are godparents to their daughter, which caused me to feel entitled to an opinion and raising the matter with them. The conversation did not go well. Their argument for riding without helmets was that doing so makes them feel physically free, and the bodily sensations translate into a sense of civic freedom. Riding without helmets is illegal, but these friends take pleasure in demonstrating to anyone who sees them that their craniums are theirs alone.

As a matter of social contract, we should be able to trust that a person who leaves the house has at least some basic sense of responsibility to first do no harm.

My argument, which landed like the proverbial lead balloon, was that their craniums in fact have an impact on many people around them. Were they to get into an accident with serious medical consequences, they would burden the hospital, and probably the state, once their insurance ran out. Somebody else would have to do their jobs, raise their child, and even take care of them. And what about the other party in a possible collision, and that party’s health and well-being? In other words, I argued that their freedom could become someone else’s burden.

Face coverings are today’s motorcycle helmets. Scientists are still learning about the novel coronavirus that has utterly changed the way people live around the globe. One thing they have figured out, after a couple of false starts, is that masks help prevent its spread. The virus that causes Covid-19 travels first-class in the water droplets that come out of our noses and mouths when we breathe, with extra oomph when we talk or cough. Some of the droplets are so tiny that they weigh virtually nothing, floating in the air for hours, waiting to be breathed in. Masks thwart the novel coronavirus from coming out of us and can even keep it from coming into us.

A Fraying Social Contract

With this scientific explanation backing us up, we do not ask people around us to wear masks primarily to protect themselves, but to protect others from them. As a matter of social contract, we should be able to trust that a person who leaves their house to interact with civil society has at least some basic sense of responsibility to first do no harm. Masks do not seem like a lot to ask, and yet debate rages.

I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, or UCC, which some consider to be the loosest of Christian traditions. True, we make much room for questioning and doubt, and we rely not on a single theology or patron theologian but a constellation of Christian guiding lights. What makes the UCC seem unusually flexible is its commitment to local governance at the congregational level. Congregations are, in many important ways, free. But one must take a closer look to understand the parameters that hem in that freedom on every side, making its freedom less diffuse and thus more powerful.

Real Freedom in Christ

First, covenantal bonds hold congregations together. Ministers covenant with each other and their congregations. Congregations covenant internally among members and externally with the denomination in regional and national settings. Covenant, mutually agreed upon and blessed by God, holds the UCC’s local autonomy in check. Its bonds are not weaker than legal obligations, but stronger. In covenant, we find a different kind of freedom than pure autonomy has to offer. Covenant releases us from looming insecurity that our community will fall apart when times are tough and we need it most.

The second check on the UCC’s congregational independence is its sense of “freedom to,” versus “freedom from.” Congregations in the UCC are free to follow Christ, not to do whatever they feel like. If two congregations have different interpretations of what Christ is calling them to do, they have license to move in different directions, no questions asked. This is not freedom for the sake of taste or ease, but rather it is freedom of thought and interpretation.

Petulant Times

When I compare the freedom of covenanting with other Christ followers, to the freedom of refusing to follow societal safety protocols, I find the differences are stark. Those who say through their choices, “I don’t care what scientists say about masks,” seem like petulant children. Those saying, “I find the sensation of wind in my hair more important than the pain or inconvenience my demise or vegetative state might cause,” sound sociopathic.

We choose covenant, and we choose to follow Christ, and in so doing we tie ourselves down in one sense but set ourselves free in more meaningful ways. I find hope in these specific forms of freedom, for I see glimmers of possibility that we – our neighborhoods, congregations, towns, cities, nation – will emerge from pandemic times with a deeper sense of how much we need each other.

Sarah Drummond ’93 B.A. is founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at YDS, associate dean at YDS for congregational ministry, and adjunct professor of ministerial leadership.