Skip to content

Some Reflections on the Recent Mask Mandate in Cedar Rapids

September 4, 2020
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash.

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike in parts of Iowa, the mayor of Cedar Rapids recently instated a mask mandate for the city. Until further notice, facemasks will be mandatory throughout Cedar Rapids in public places whenever social distance cannot be maintained.  

As you might guess, this is proving to be a controversial move. Not only is this issue part of an ongoing power struggle between local mayors and the state governors, mask-wearing has become almost thoroughly politicized in our country, with opposing views being largely representative of partisan allegiances. If you’re for Candidate A you’ll take this position; if you’re for Candidate B, you’ll take that one.

At a more nuanced level, some question the effectiveness of masks, fueled in part by inconsistent messages from medical personnel and public health departments over the last several months. Some feel that mandating masks is an attack on our civil liberties, fueled in part by clear examples of government overreach in recent months. Or worse, a diabolical plot to lull us to sleep and secretly usher in a socialist or communist government, driven in large part by conspiracy theories.

At the same time, some see mandating masks as an urgent health concern that requires swift government action, compelled by the lingering grip of COVID in the U.S. Others simply feel it is the right thing to do to stem the pandemic, motivated by genuine concern for those with higher risk levels. Still others treat it as a defining test of one’s virtue and credibility, encouraged by mask-shaming trends and emboldened by cancel culture.

And local churches are not exempt from this clash of passionately held views. With the question so closely tied to the political polarization in our country, it’s not uncommon for it to spill over into relational conflict and foster division and factions. It’s no stretch of the imagination to anticipate that churches will lose people on both sides of issues like this in protest over the same response.

So what are we doing at Stonebridge, and what does it look like to navigate this issue with both the truth and grace of the gospel?

Allow me to share candidly for a moment.

First, here’s something I don’t love about pastoral ministry: knowing that some people are going to be unhappy no matter what we do with the city’s mandate. The old sentiment, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” rings true in its theological sense here: we will receive condemnation regardless of how we land. Not just criticism, but condemnation. Accusations of spiritual and moral failure that make us at odds with God.

I share that not to try and shut down criticism or discourage feedback; that’s always welcome. But condemnation is something different. And about that I’ll simply say this: there’s already an Accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10). That position is taken, and he doesn’t need any help heaping condemnation on God’s people, especially when it has nothing to do with our faithfulness to Christ.

Second, and on a more positive note, I think our recent look at 1 Corinthians 13 is applicable here: love as the pivot foot of the church. Regardless of where we land personally on this issue, is our interaction with one another marked by patience, kindness, contentment, humility, respect, selflessness, gentleness, forgiveness, truthfulness, tolerance, faith, hope, and enduring commitment (1 Cor. 13:4-7)? If our primary bond is Jesus, and not politics or positions on mask-mandates, then the answer should be a grateful yes. If it’s not, then why not? Is it because we love our position and its implications more than we love our brothers and sisters in Christ?

Third, that brings us to some reflections on the actual position we’re taking as a church right now: operating in compliance with the city-wide mandate. Here I’ll pivot to question-and-answer style, with the answers reflecting my own personal opinions or convictions. (Buckle up!)

Does the mayor really have the authority to make this mandate? He seems to think so, and made his case in relative detail in the full proclamation. The governor doesn’t think so, and so the issue will likely wind up in court. But even if there’s a legitimate debate to be had, for now I’m not convinced it’s our debate. Others may certainly disagree, but I personally don’t see this as a hill worth dying on right now. Our relational and public capital is better spent working with our civic leaders to serve our community after a derecho than working against them on what (in my opinion) amounts to a minor inconvenience for a season. 

Aren’t those in authority just trying to control us? I don’t think so. No doubt some nefarious personalities find their way into politics, bent on their private agenda to take over the world. And no question that power can go to people’s heads. But I’m pretty convinced that most civic leaders are genuinely trying to serve people, even if I don’t always agree with the way they’re trying to do it. And while there are varying opinions as to the true scope and severity of the pandemic, generally speaking, I believe the primary motive is wellbeing, not control.

Isn’t this an infringement on our civil liberties? Ultimately, the legal experts will have to sort that out. And again, there’s plenty of room for disagreement. But personally, no, I don’t believe this is an infringement on personal civil liberties. If it were unconnected to the current state of the pandemic in Cedar Rapids, or applied inconsistently across industries, then I might view it differently. But generally speaking, mandating certain practices in promotion of public health is not in and of itself an infringement (e.g., seatbelts). Moreover, for most of us, the impact is relatively minor: a temporary inconvenience for the sake of protecting the health and wellbeing of others. And where the impact is more significant, exceptions abound.

What about an infringement on our religious liberty? If churches or religious organizations were being singled out (as some states have done with certain COVID policies), then that would raise alarms. As it is, both our state and local leaders in Iowa have gone out of their way to avoid directly compelling religious organizations. Even the mandate itself includes an exemption for those whose sincerely held religious beliefs prevent them from wearing a mask. In that light, Romans 13 remains strongly applicable to our situation: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1). If the governing authorities over us are not compelling us to sin against God, then we are called to obey them (whether or not we agree with them or trust them; see also Rom. 13:1-6; Tit. 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; contrast with Acts 4:18-20; Dan. 3; 6). And within our particular government, we’re also invited to express our disagreement, challenge systems, and work toward change.

What about some of the conspiracy theories floating around on the internet? Shouldn’t we be worried? Allow me to be candid once more: the way that so many Christians blindly peddle conspiracy theories via social media today is not only embarrassing, it’s usually breaking the ninth commandment (“You shall not bear false witness”), and it’s ultimately detrimental to our witness. If we’re bearing witness to demonstrably false information with such passion, why should they believe us when we bear witness to Christ? Of course conspiracies can be real, but most of the ones related to COVID are false, many of them born in the troll farms of foreign enemies, and God warns us not to be duped (Isa. 8:11-15). And while I’m at it: No, Bill Gates is not the antichrist, and no, the vaccine is not the mark of the beast. Let’s spend more time in the Word and less on YouTube.

Aren’t you worried about the slippery slope—masks today, something else tomorrow? The slippery slope is often real, and we do well to pay attention to it. If public policies become unreasonably disconnected to facts and reality, then there’s a more robust conversation to be had. Personally, I don’t think we’re there yet.

Why didn’t we require masks sooner? The short answer: because up until this point they have not be required by local health officials. Since reopening in June, we have sought to follow the guidance of public health officials in terms of social distancing, room capacity, cleaning, and with that, strongly encouraging masks during our services (at least coming and going and any interaction with people outside your immediate family). We even began requiring masks during the 10:45 service in July, in order to provide an environment for those in the congregation who were at higher risk or had less comfort going out in public. Our goal all along has been to promote health and safety while acknowledging and respecting diversity of opinion. And that remains our goal, even as we operate in compliance with the city mandate. Our practice might be changing, but hopefully our respect and honor toward one another doesn’t.

What if I don’t want to come to Stonebridge events because of the mask mandate? We recognize that this is a possibility, and again, want to emphasize patience and charity. We don’t believe this is an issue worth dividing over. But while we don’t ask everyone to agree, we do ask that everyone who comes complies (with the notable exceptions spelled out in the mandate). If that’s not something you feel you can do, let’s talk. We love you; we’ll figure something out. Beyond this, I would simply ask that we not let our allegiance to a particular position sideline our commitment to one another in Christ.

In all of this, what really stands before us is an opportunity to rally around the gospel. A chance to emphasize the bond of our commitment to one another in Christ. And a chance to display the character of Christ to the world, not only with regard to masks, but especially in how we treat each other. As Jesus said in John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jane Bottomley permalink
    September 6, 2020 10:11 am

    Thank you for displaying love, common sense and reason to the “mask” issue. It takes some of the crazy out of this issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: