“My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.”
— James 1:19-20 (CSB – Read the chapter)
I don’t usually come back to the same passage quite so soon after talking about it on a given day, but I just couldn’t think of any more relevant a word for what I am seeing happen in my little corner of the world right now than what James wrote here. A couple of weeks ago, we talked about anger and why people seem so angry all the time these days. Then, this past week, I’ve watched people be angry and stay angry and my mind went back to James’ wisdom. What are they angry about? On the surface, a bit of cloth, thread, and elastic that can’t cost more than about fifty cents. Let’s talk this morning about masks.
What really prompted this reflection was my watching our local school board meeting this past week. While those particular civic engagements have been making the national news from various parts of the country lately, the reason has mostly been the national debate raging over whether and how much critical race theory should play a role in the education of children. That particular debate hasn’t made its way to my rural county just yet.
Instead, both this meeting and the last were all about masks. Specifically, they were all about whether or not wearing them would be required. I’m not sure how much of an issue this is where you live, but around here, it’s a pretty lively debate. Ultimately, the Board voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that would once again this year make them mandatory for everyone in the buildings regardless of vaccination status. The primary reason for this is concern over the rapidly spreading Delta variant whose timing in making itself felt across the nation is about as bad as it could have been, coming in strong just as schools are starting back up all over the country. After more than a year of educational uncertainty and chaos, this was not what we needed at the beginning of the new school year.
Our Board made this decision not because they were all in favor of a mask mandate (several of them noted they are not), but because the guidance coming from the state is structured such that making masks optional could very easily, with even a small outbreak, lead to quarantining entire classes or even whole schools. With the virtual options available last year, that was simply a part of life. Those options aren’t available this year for a variety of reasons. Those reasons can certainly be debated, but the net effect is that shuttered schools mean no instruction would be taking place at all for many students and for many days. After much debate, the Board decided that the risk of another year of incomplete and interrupted education would be a far worse possible outcome for students than the frustration of wearing a mask nearly all the time. But, the mandate is contingent. When our local infection rate drops below a certain point, masks will automatically become optional.
This opinion, however, was not shared by a number of parents. Loudly. The meeting was fraught with tension and anger. A few individuals had to be ejected from the room because they let their anger lead to an approach to making their point that was not particularly constructive. After the meeting that anger continued to be expressed on social media. Small protests have taken place, some even generating broader news coverage from the nearby big city.
Here’s my question: What on earth are we supposed to do with all of this and how do we navigate this issue whose proponents and opponents hold to their respective sides with such passion?
The real trouble here is that, over the course of the last year, mask wearing has become primarily a political issue, not a matter of health and safety. Researchers from different universities and organizations have come to wildly different, and sometimes even diametrically opposing conclusions on the efficacy of wearing them. Recently we have been treated to government officials going on national television and saying both that the cloth masks most people wear are almost entirely ineffective at preventing transmission or infection, and also that vaccinated parents should wear masks at home around their unvaccinated children. Yes, at home.
This kind of wildly conflicting information coming from government sources has resulted in an enormous amount of cynicism on the issue. And unfortunately today, when incomplete, conflicting, and inaccurate information dominates in a particular debate, people usually make decisions on the matter based on their political persuasions, not sound reason and argument. Oh sure, they’ll all cite one expert or another in support of their position, but when both sides are able to cite equally reputable sources, both making research-backed arguments in favor of their point, such evidence isn’t really what’s at the bottom of their decision. Personal conviction and politics are. The result is that in many cases, whether or not a person is wearing a mask in public is a reflection of just how conservative or liberal their politics are. And in a day when politics is quickly becoming ultimate, issues like this one cause a great deal more conflict and chaos than perhaps they should.
So again, what do we do with this? We follow James’ advice. We must be quicker to listen than we are. Too often we don’t have any real interest in hearing what the other side has to say. We’ve already made up our minds that they are wrong or worse. Any further argument from them will only deepen our convictions. Hear me well: that’s not a character trait about which we should boast. If you are not willing and able to sit down and have a calm, reasonable, civil conversation with someone whose opinion on a certain subject is diametrically opposed to yours, then your grip on the matter is not nearly as strong as you think it is. It is rooted in emotion more so than reason. If our God never berates us into taking His position on anything, neither should we do it with another person.
We must also be slow to speak. The instant rage after this past week’s Board meeting was volcanic. People were firing off angry tweets and making rage-filled posts and threatening to unleash even more ugliness once school starts (and don’t miss the irony of parents who are worried about the quality of education their children will receive threatening to disrupt the education of as many students as possible because the debate didn’t go the way they wanted it to go) almost before the echo of the final gavel knock died away. In the meeting itself, participants were so eager to make their case that they were speaking over each other to do it. As a point of fact: When you are speaking over someone, you’re not listening to them.
We need to be slow to anger. Anger doesn’t solve problems. Ever. It can occasionally motivate actions that lead to a solution. This is especially the case when it is a righteous anger over a genuine injustice. Just so we are clear, though, making masks mandatory or optional does not represent a genuine injustice. Anger that is rooted in politics, pride, or even just personal preference does not tend to accomplish anything beneficial. It has a much greater tendency to result in making grown people who ought to know better leave an impression of themselves that, upon calmer reflection, they may regret. Getting angry about masks being worn or not being worn isn’t going to solve anything. It is more likely a cover for what’s really bothering you whether that is a genuine fear of the virus or a frustration with government incompetence and impotence to bring any meaningful solutions to bear.
The reason all of this is so important is the human anger does not accomplish the righteousness of God. The uncomfortable truth is that there are folks on both sides of this debate who are committed followers of Jesus. That was certainly the case at the Board meeting the other night. The anger boiling in the room, though, had brothers and sisters in Christ—folks who should be standing side by side against the efforts of the enemy to attack our culture and world—yelling at each other, pointing angry fingers back and forth, and even questioning the other’s relationship with Jesus. All because of a difference of opinion on an issue that has absolutely nothing to do with anyone’s eternal salvation.
My brothers and sisters, this should not be. If we are truly following the same Lord, then we absolutely cannot let ourselves be divided over an issue such as this one. We can have conviction, but we must have civility as well. Losing the former means giving ground where we should not, but losing the latter means we are no longer walking in the way of Jesus and there’s no life to be found on that path. We are to love one another with the same sacrificial love that He demonstrated for us all on the cross. We who serve He who died, must always be sure to stand side by side. If that means understanding why someone is more comfortable wearing a mask, we do it. If that means putting on a mask we’d rather not wear for the benefit of someone else whose feelings on the matter are different from our own, we do it. Indeed, if something as simple as a mask can divide us, then it is an open question as to whether or not it is really Christ who unites us; any of us.
The start of school this year is going to be challenging enough after more than a year of doing things in non-traditional and often terribly ineffective ways. Let us make sure that we are not contributing to the chaos by arguing over things like this. Let us instead contribute to the solution by supporting students, teachers, staff, and administrators who are all working their absolute hardest to see things go like we all want them to do—smoothly and well. If you are upset about something, don’t make an angry call to the school. That won’t make you feel better, and it won’t solve your problem. Instead, follow James’ advice. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Your anger will not accomplish the righteousness of God.