Let’s imagine we could jump into a time machine and fast-forward to, say, Christmas 2045. Here are two scenarios we could envisage. Spot the differences!
Scenario 1 – Seven-year-old girl looking at photos from the summer of 2019 says ‘Mum, I don’t believe it! Why are all these people sitting together and not wearing masks?’
Scenario 2 – Seven-year-old girl looking at photos from the summer of 2020 says ‘Mum, I don’t get it! Why are they all wearing those funny masks and sitting so far apart?’
Which of these two scenarios do you think will be closer to reality?
For most of us, wearing a face-covering and maintaining social distancing has become second nature. We do it almost unconsciously. Is this a good thing? Perhaps it is for the time being, or certainly until various vaccines have produced substantial immunity across the population. But what then – should we just accept that covered faces and increased spaces are here for the long haul?
Christian people must face up to questions like these. We need to be prepared to think biblically and robustly. And a little careful reflection should show us that these are not trivial subjects, but questions of momentous importance.
In order to illustrate this, let me say something that may seem rather shocking. In the Bible, the closest thing we can find to people covering their faces and maintaining social distancing is found in Leviticus 13:45-46, where instructions are given to ‘leprous persons’:
The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.
To be sure, no government guidance has gone quite as far as this – not yet anyway! But we should notice two features straightaway: (1) the ‘leprous person’ was an exception, not the rule, and was separated from the rest of society; and (2) the ‘leprous person’ was unclean only for a time: ‘as long as he had the disease’.
Take the first of these. In the last eleven months or so, much human society has functioned as if everyone were, in effect, a ‘potential leper’. Covid symptoms can take time to appear, and many cases are asymptomatic, so anyone could be a silent carrier. We can therefore understand why Hands-Face-Space regulations have been applied strictly and universally.
But even allowing for this, at what point does the modern equivalent of the Old Testament priest declare that a once-leprous house has been successfully cleansed? Should there be a delay until Covid-19 has been eradicated from the face of the earth as completely as smallpox has been?
We should make no mistake: a long-term future in which faces are routinely covered, and people meticulously maintain two metres or even one metre of separation, would be utterly dehumanising and might even be the demise of free human society as we understand it.
The human face: the image of God
Wherever there have been free societies across the world, the whole human face has been shown and no part of the face has been routinely hidden from view. The whole face – eyes, nose, and mouth clearly visible – is part of the image of God in man (and in woman, too). Our faces include mouths for breathing, but also for speaking and singing, for smiling and laughing, for a thousand-and-one expressions.
One of the features of the last sixty years or so, as western society has moved away from its biblical and Christian moorings, is the gradual uncovering of parts of the human body which once would have been covered. What the Apostle Paul calls ‘our unpresentable parts’ should be ‘treated with greater modesty’ (1 Corinthians 12:23). But by no reckoning should the human mouth be regarded as ‘unpresentable’! We should not miss the irony here.
I cannot help thinking that it is highly significant that the present covering of the mouth is coinciding with a time when freedom of speech is under grave threat. The masked mouth may soon become a sinister symbol of muzzled freedom of expression – if it is not already.
And what about social distancing? The essence of our human identity is that we are relational and social beings. We cannot exist in isolation without fading and perishing. Part of the tragedy of Covid-19 – or more accurately, the response to Covid 19 – is that it encountered a deeply fragmentary society in which individualism, isolation, and narcissism were already endemic among large sections of the population. Lockdowns and other measures, joining forces with social media, have only served to accelerate these harmful trends, to drive people ever further into self-destructive introspection. A culture in which social distancing remains the norm will continue to witness appalling levels of personal isolation and emotional trauma.
Imagine, for a moment, a world without physical closeness for all except the immediate family. The end of crowds, teams, expeditions, big public occasions, parties, embraces, kisses; or at best a nervy suspicion of all such things. How will a younger generation ever learn to take risks, to ‘go out there’ and get on in the world? How will deep friendships and romances be formed? How will people get married and have children?! Imagine … and shudder.
Churches – lead the way!
I wrote earlier about ‘the modern equivalent of the Old Testament priest’. Who is that equivalent? The straightforward answer is that the church of God is to lead the way and pronounce, at the fitting time, that the house has been cleansed of its leprosy. Churches may feel that they have no voice, that they carry no clout. But unless churches lead the way, they will themselves follow the rest of society, and eventually disintegrate. If that were to happen, gospel witness would be extinguished.
But ‘we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Let’s hold this vision before our eyes!
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Grove Chapel, Camberwell, London.