Stepping out into the cool air of Pisgah National Forest, we finally gained some distance from the pandemic. I stood enjoying the breeze as my crew began to assemble, snapping on gear. As we moved towards the trailhead, suddenly a lone couple emerged. They wore masks. With my unmasked smile I tried to convey deference and stepped back to let them pass. Shuffling by, the woman held up a towel between us. She seemed to be trying to communicate something.
I understand the germ theory of disease and encourage people to wear masks in public spaces for other people’s sake. Like your mom always said, “Cover your mouth when you cough.” Wearing a mask in public is annoying and inconvenient, but it’s a simple way to love your neighbor. So I don’t think Georgia’s governor should consider it a slippery slope to Asian collectivism. On the other hand, when did wearing a mask in the wilderness become a thing? More important, how does something like mask-wearing become politicized in the first place?
Let’s unpack it in three steps.
- Our culture has turned to politics to supply ultimate meaning.
- This turn is like going from food to medication.
- Shame is a quick fix
From faith to politics
Everyone believes something. Reality is too complex to make sense of it without some narrative framework or set of assumptions to provide coherence. But when you heap ultimate meaning onto the mule of politics, then it becomes a matter of life and death to guide him towards the right side of history. Since we all make some bad calls, that’s a rather precarious path to tread.
But it explains why people glom onto the latest political fashion with such zeal. If one’s moral virtue rests upon performance moment to moment, then you can see why people are so anxious to signal compliance with the spirit of the age. Maybe the latest political bandwagon can put some distance between you and your internal murmur of self-reproach? In other words, politics has become the realm of the oldest kind of religion, that of self-justification, the fruit of which is usually self-righteousness.
From food to medication
Even the most zealous pursuit of justice through politics is not substantial enough to nourish the human spirit of eternal beings. Especially when it amounts to little more than an opinion. Politics is obviously important. It is an outward, temporal expression of inward meaning. For example, if you believe humans are created in the image and nature of God, then your position on an issue should reflect that belief. But you will not feel secure for long by regarding something temporary as an enduring foundation of meaning. That’s like extracting some part of a plant and injecting it into your arm for lunch. We make medicine that way to target a specific problem. But if you want to stay healthy, then your diet needs something more substantial.
Shame is a quick fix
When people look to politics for meaning as someone might look to medicine for food, they become political addicts. Addiction pursues more and more of something that delivers less and less. Hence the politicization of nearly everything. Even wearing a mask during a pandemic can get drawn into politics.
So let’s do the math. If politics becomes an addicting means of moral virtue—of feeling good about yourself—then shaming someone else is an easy way to self-medicate. In other words, virtue signaling has a lot more driving it than just building one’s reputation. When your salvation hinges upon your politics, then every opinion becomes a weighty matter. Even an encounter with a stranger in the wilderness might be an opportunity to chalk-up a few points. If I can feel better than you, then perhaps I can feel better. Perhaps I can get a fix.
Grace is an alternative
This whole program is exhausting. Grace, God’s unmerited favor is the alternative. Experiencing grace means recognizing and humbly receiving a gift that one does not deserve and cannot earn. That’s what Jesus is talking about when he said this:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matt. 11:28-30, The Message