Who is that masked man…or woman?

To mask or not to mask, that is not my question. Rather my question is, what impact is wearing masks having on the way we relate to each other in society today?

If you are like me, you’ve gone out to a store and had any number of uncomfortable encounters with other mask wearers. You come around the corner at the grocery store and suddenly you encounter another masked man or woman. Both of your eyes go wide as you try to read what they are going to do. Masks make every awkward encounter all the more awkward. They also inhibit communication with each other, and some of us weren’t that great at communicating to begin with.

But there is something else they do, they make everyone we encounter a little bit more of the “other”. What is the other? It is the notorious “they”. The people who are different than us that are behind it all. The people we don’t know and aren’t sure if we can trust. This is problematic on many levels, but seems even more so when we look at the deep divisions that seem to be getting ever greater in society today. It digs into an observable psychological phenomenom called the Fundamental Atribution Error.

Who is behind the mask?

What this means in practice is that when it comes to myself, I usually give “me” the benefit of the doubt. After all, I’m a good guy who has pure motives and I wouldn’t do anything really bad. The error in Fundamental Attribution Error usually comes when we assign motives to others. We don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. We assume the worst motives because they couldn’t possibly have a good reason for their current, dumb behavior. When I cut someone off in traffic, I’m completely justified because my circumstances dictate it is necessary. When you do it? You are just a selfish jerk!

This was already an issue in many of our interactions long before we started wearing masks, but it seems like putting an additional barrier, especially one that prevents us from seeing someone’s (perhaps smiling) face, has made this even worse. By this time, we’ve probably heard our share of stories of people behaving badly over the mask issue. It seems like this is common on both sides. When we view others as the enemy and assume the worst, this is where we end up.

If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, perhaps it is difficult to find a reason not to assume the worst of others, whether they are in what appears to be Antifa black or MAGA red, but we must be willing to see the person behind the mask. These people are your neighbors and they might not be your friends, but they are people and assuming the worst lowers our expectations and damages the ability for us to function together in community.

If you are a believer, every person is a beautiful creation of God almighty and we are called to treat them with love and respect, even when we have a good reason to disagree with them. For believers, we might call the Fundamental Attribution Error by another name, sin. Paul talks about this in Romans 8:

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will.

Romans 8:5-7 (NLT)

Thinking the worst of people behind the mask, does not lead to life and peace, but instead leads to a place of death that is not ruled by the Holy Spirit. A follower of Christ is meant to have peace in Him. A peace that is able to navigate a sinful world. In Paul’s time, the government could be much more openly hostile to believers than we have seen today. The Church today is for the most part facing minor inconvenience, not major persecution.

In society, masks, for most people, are a minor inconvenience as well. In some places currently, they are required. In other places, they are recommended. Wherever you go, at least for awhile, you will probably encounter some people wearing a mask. In some cultures, people have always wore masks in crowded environments. Chances are, there are some people today that will never feel comfortable being in a crowd again without a mask. I want to challenge you to not let masks be one more thing that divides us. Whether you believe they should be mandatory, or believe they are completely unnecessary, see beyond the masked (or unmasked) face and realize there is nothing to gain by casting the person you are looking at to the side as the enemy.

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