Freedom, Choice and Face Coverings

Back in May I wrote an article that essentially said, politics is politics, economics is economics, and biology is biology…and biology does not care about anything but biology. One only has to review the IHME website for the whole country (or your state) to see the relentless spread of the coronavirus. Biology is biology.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) is an independent global health research center at the University of Washington. Being here in Florida, naturally, I watch the Florida data. I can tell you that their models are proving to be (sadly) quite accurate in predicting the shape of the future as functions of masks and social distancing.

I think we have all read articles/posts about protestors who, for their own reasons and rationale, take the position: you can’t tell me what to do. “We have freedom! Don’t tread on me!” Last week someone made the national news saying (as best I can remember), the role of government is not to protect my health, to protect my constitutional rights. He went on to say it was an issue of freedom.

The polarization on this issue is frankly a little baffling. The science is clear on how and why universal masking is effective at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. For some Americans, science itself is either seen an anathema or a government conspiracy to control the masses. And for many Americans, having the government tell us to do anything at all is seen as infringing on our individual freedom. And so we are actually have an argument about wearing masks as a public health measure. Biology is biology. It does not care about opinions, conspiracies, or one’s philosophical stance on the meaning of freedom.

Speaking of which, over many years I have asked people “What is freedom?” Inevitably the answers are synonymous with “choice.” We can choose to stay home, we can choose to wear a mask or not, maintain distance or not – we can choose because we are free!

About 1,000 years ago, Anselm of Canterbury, in his treatise De Libertate Arbitrii, addressed this very matter. He wrote that if your idea of freedom is simply a matter of choice, then it is a very impoverished sense of freedom. To be truly free is to be unburdened. Unburdened so that there are no obstacles, no barriers, no impediments on your journey to come before God, where you can experience the great paradox. To be truly free is to have no choice at all. To stand before the fountain fullness of divine love pouring into your being…there is no choice. One always chooses love.

What’s love got to do with it? In the New Testament Greek, the Christian ideal of love is not eros, or philos, but agape – a love that is self-sacrificing for the other and is an act of the will. It is as Jesus says in Gethsemane: “not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) It is this ultimate act of agape, that Jesus chose the redemption of the world over the preservation of his own self.

Or maybe in the language of this article, Jesus chose the safety and protection of the community over his own wants and desires: “not my will but yours be done.” He was willing to give up his life so that we would be unburdened by sin, so that we would be free.

And what about us? The stakes might just be as high for the community of our time – life and death. But the simple “ask” is to wear a mask, to maintain social distancing, to do small things. But to respond with a battle cry of “freedom” is as far, in that moment, from the life of Christ as can be, as you choose one’s self above the safety of the community. Anselm would likely shake his head at the impoverished sense of freedom and of community.

And apparently the logic that extends from the thought, “the role of government is not to protect my health, to protect my constitutional rights” is that no entity above the individual has a role in public health, the health of the community.

Of course all the above is rather scientific and lofty. Twitter user “Libby” has a satirical take on the issue, one that perfectly illustrates how anti-mask arguments sound in the context of public health upon which we depend.

Welcome to the Freedom Cafe! We trust you to make your own choices if you want to wear a face mask. And, in the same spirit of individual liberty, we allow our staff to make their own choices about the safety procedures they prefer to follow as they prepare and serve your food.

We encourage employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom, but understand that some people may be allergic to certain soaps or may simply prefer not to wash their hands. It is not our place to tell them what to do.

We understand that you may be used to chicken that has been cooked to 165 degrees. We do have to respect that some of our cooks may have seen a meme or a YouTube video saying that 100 degrees is sufficient, and we do not want to encroach on their beliefs.

Some of our cooks may prefer to use the same utensils for multiple ingredients, including ingredients some customers are allergic to. That is a cook’s right to do so.

Some servers may wish to touch your food as they serve it. There is no reason that a healthy person with clean hands can’t touch your food. We will take their word for it that they are healthy and clean.

Water temperature and detergent are highly personal choices, and we allow our dishwashing team to decide how they’d prefer to wash the silverware you will put in your mouth.

Some of you may get sick, but almost everyone survives food poisoning. We think you’ll agree that it’s a small price to pay for the sweet freedom of no one ever being told what to do – and especially not for the silly reason of keeping strangers healthy.

It seems to me, whatever one’s lens of analysis – scriptural, philosophical, biological, epidemiological, public health, or humor – the consideration is to wear the mask in the moment of time. To not wear the mask is selfish, prideful, and lacks compassion for others. If the ultimate freedom is rooted in love, it is hard for me to see how the choice not to wear a mask has any attributes of agape.

And all the while, biology is biology and does not care one wit for our opinions on the matter.

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