Some people around us claim they have a right to refuse to wear a mask during the Covid pandemic. For some it is an appeal to a vague penumbra of rights arising from our Constitutional tradition. For others, it is “God-given,” which may amount to the same claim. Spoken in the face of overwhelming health needs, such claims bespeak the poverty of an ethic based solely on rights, yet we have been so besotted with them in our liberal tradition that we are hard pressed to lay out an alternative ethical argument, other than to mutter about the common good.
But is there another way of thinking about “rights” that might offer a broader basis for our ethical imaginations? Much has been made of our status as beings made “in the image of God.” In our recent discourse, people often see our possession of fundamental human rights as grounded in our being created in the image of God and therefore endowed with divine powers of autonomy, self-authorization, and self-expression. To my knowledge this concept only appears at two points in the Hebrew texts—Genesis 1:26-27 and, by allusion, Psalm 8:5-6. When it recurs in the New Testament it refers to the way that Christ is the image of God. All those who then enter into Christ through baptism gain this quality of the imago dei. This has always seemed to me to be a shaky religious basis for our exhaustive and near total commitment to a civil ethic of human rights. Moreover, in transferring the attributes of a certain conception of an all-powerful, immutable God to each person, it simply intensifies the individualistic ethic of our own economic order.
There is another, much wider theme in biblical thought and religious tradition that may offer a way forward to a more adequate ethic. It is that we are covenant partners with the divine source of all of life, not only in Abraham or in Christ, but in creation itself. But here, our “rights” are not flowing from some divine core in our being but from our participation in a web of relationships with all of creation. Life as a covenant partner of God is also life as covenant partners in marriage and family, community and polity, plants and animals, land, water and air. This is the basis of the “responsibility” ethic that I discovered through the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, James Gustafson, James Luther Adams, Juergen Moltmann, and others nourished in this covenantal tradition. Even though our Constitution as a whole, especially its preamble, grew out of the soil of this covenant tradition, its first ten amendments have tended to swallow up the web of covenantal responsibilities in which they have their proper meaning. It’s time to get back to this web of covenantal partnership in order to recover from our exhausted dependence on doctrines of rights with which to construct our world.
So, the next time you hear of “the right not to wear a mask” think instead of our covenantal responsibilities as participants in a wider mysterious web of creation. In short: Wear a mask, it’s part of your covenant with all others around you.
End of sermon.