Masking the image of God

My undergrad professor and advisor Arthur Holmes used to arrive early for the history of philosophy class he taught in the east wing of Edman Chapel at Wheaton College in fall 1982. He chatted amiably with us sophomores, gamely fielding the semi-idle questions we lobbed at him just because we kind of idolized him and liked to hear him think out loud.

One morning someone asked him whether he ever thought of growing a beard. Answer: No. Partly because of just how good it feels to wipe your hands across your smooth face after shaving, but more seriously because of a sense that it’s inappropriate to conceal the human face. The face represents the human person and communicates the emotion, volition, intelligence, and character of the individual human person. (That last sentence isn’t quoting him—but it’s what he meant.) He went on to say that he didn’t like boxing because of the symbolism of deliberately punching the human face.

I have been remembering what Dr. Holmes said in connection with Ohio state legislator Nino Vitale’s objection to face masks because they deface the “image of God.” The legislator may not understand what the Hebrew scriptures mean by צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים‎ (tselem Elohim) or (what is not the same thing) what theologians have generally meant by imago Dei, but I think he’s right to suggest that, under normal circumstances, to conceal or obscure a person’s face is to dehumanize that person, and so by extension to dishonor the person’s creator. That’s not a stupid thought.

(For what it’s worth, I would apply the same critique to the Muslim practice of requiring women to cover their faces. I think veiling arises from a deliberate decision to diminish and demean the humanity of women. Muslims are of course free to explain it otherwise, and I respect their explanations and their right to practice their religion as they see fit. But I disagree. I say the same about the veiling of women in some strands of Christian history.)

Back to the Ohio legislator. What’s stupid in his rant against Covidtide masking is the failure to recognize that there are circumstances under which it is wise and good to protect the face, or others exposed to the face. Does he want catchers in baseball games to go maskless? What about hockey goalies? Welders? How about surgeons? Maybe Mr. Vitale was speaking hastily but knows better. I hope so. A person incapable of thinking more clearly than that is still a human created in the image of God—but lacks the wisdom we should require in a maker of laws.

What about President Trump? I’m not aware that he has tried to articulate a theological objection to mask-wearing. If he did, it would be a Guinness-book case of straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel. I also don’t think he has literally punched anyone in the face during his presidency; I don’t know that he ever has. But figuratively, it’s just about his favorite thing to do. Most of his endless yammering reduces to two things: exalting himself, and verbally punching others in the face. His objection to mask-wearing certainly has nothing to do with honoring the image of God in every human visage.

If (as some of us pray) the Lord in his infinite mercy and love one day soon grants Donald Trump the gift of repentance, perhaps the pastor who oversees the early stages of his discipleship will invite him to undertake the discipline of wearing a gag in public during a penitential year of silence. That would truly be a masking to honor the glorious grace of the creator and redeemer of all, and to inspire wonder, awe, and self-examination in the hearts of fellow redeemed sinners like me.

Meanwhile, it would not hurt our president to wear a mask while touring a factory, and to be photographed so doing—not out of fear for his own health, but as the gesture of a leader in support of the honest efforts and advice of the medical experts in his employ, and out of respect for the vulnerable humanity of the millions of workers who are at far greater risk than he.

photo: Trump in Michigan yesterday. He did not want to be photographed wearing a mask, but a state legislator sneaked this pic.

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