The Divine Mandate of Freedom

God sets us free not just to serve, but to be joyful — even during a public health crisis.

Leviticus 13:45-46 “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.”

My message today takes a cue from recent events that might be considered political or medical. It’s not my intent to deliver a political message, nor will I be offering any medical advice. I’m neither a politician, nor a medical practitioner. I’m a pastor. Instead, I hope that we can examine recent events and understand our role in them as Christians and Baptists, with the help of the Bible and a little bit of history. This isn’t so much about what we should do as it is about how we may consider what to do. This will help each of us make our own decisions with an informed conscience. For us, there should be no division between spiritual life and secular life – and the witness of the Christian church and the Baptist tradition has always been that our spiritual life forms our secular life, and pervades it, and never the other way around.  

We are forbidden by our religion to accept any influence or authority over our spiritual lives aside from the Holy Trinity. 

Two weeks ago, the Down-Island Boards of Health called for an emergency meeting to discuss mask mandates. I attended in hopes of advocating for live music and our houses of worship. In fact, the meeting was merely to discuss the language of the mandate, which had already been written in time for the meeting, and the decision to move forward was made by the members of the board, since the general public did not have a vote in this case. 

Our community reps on the Board did charitably make a note that, while the local mandate says, “Houses of Worship are covered” by this mandate, the Supreme Court has stood by churches who challenge such mandates, whether pertaining to masking, distancing, capacity limits, or vaccination, since they are an infringement of their God-given right and duty to assemble in prayer and worship as recognized by the Constitution of the United States. 

In fact, not just the Constitution of the U.S. recognizes this right, but our own state Constitution here in MA. Article II reads: “It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or obstruct others in their religious worship.” 

Isn’t that amazing? Our state Constitution doesn’t just recognize the right of people to worship, but also the duty to worship – and publicly at that. This is something to bear in mind, as we consider what is being asked of us here on Martha’s Vineyard as citizens of Massachusetts, since we are also citizens of heaven, and our Lord is the King above all Kings. 

Article CVI, the amended first part of the MA Constitution, reads: All people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin. 

You’ll note the similar language to the US Constitution, and that both claim we have the right not just to life, liberty, and their defense – but also the right to their enjoyment, and to seeking and obtaining safety and happiness — in the US Constitution, the pursuit of happiness.  

That’s an overlooked declaration and a lost truth in our times right now. Last year we were told what was essential to us or not – our happiness did not matter. A friend of mine argued that, going to concerts, eating at restaurants, enjoying community gatherings, even riding on airplanes — that’s not a right, it’s a privilege. However, the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God beg to differ, and so do our Constitutions which recognize the pursuit of happiness as a God-given right. 

Let’s  not forget that the civil rights movement was fought so that black men and women and children could not just enjoy the bare minimum of civil rights, but also the fundamental right to be happy — to buy ice cream, to see movies, to see concerts, to share community space with whomever they wanted, to sit wherever they wanted on the bus, unmolested, unsegregated.  

The Bible demonstrates that our happiness is a right in Christ, and it is fundamental to life. Jesus, who is Lord over all, said, “I have come that they may have life, and life abundantly…I have told you everything so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” 

*** 

The MA Constitution also notes that Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin. Creed is what we want to think about. What is a creed? A belief. It’s not really got a legal definition. Neither does religion. What counts as a religion or creed? 

Let’s put this in perspective. I was with some folks last week who were sharing their concerns about mask and vaccine mandates, especially in the school system. It became clear that the majority of the people in this setting were anti-vaccine. For the record, I do not share that sentiment. But I respect theirs, and for them, it is a strongly held belief, so strong that it currently drives them against the grain in our current public health crisis.  

Well – strongly held beliefs, philosophies, and moral convictions have equivalence with religion and creed in the Supreme Court decisions of 1965, United States v. Seeger, and 1970’s Welsh v. United States. Both of these were cases where conscientious objector status was given to folks who didn’t necessarily have a creed or religion in the traditional institutional sense, yet their strongly held belief drove them against the grain. 

So there is precedent for even areligious Americans being exempt from mandatory practices in this way. And yet there is the pervading claim that there are no religious exemptions for mandatory masking or mandatory vaccination, neither for truly religious folk nor folks with strongly held beliefs. It would be up to a judge, not me, to decide if this is legally the case or not, in light of these moral considerations. Nonetheless, it raises the question of what role religion plays in this, or more specifically – what religious people should think and therefore do about this.  

And that’s what we’re going to think about today. 

*** 

So let’s get into the Bible, the book of our religion. Head coverings and face coverings are serious matters in the Bible. You see St. Paul talking about how women should have their heads covered because of the angels; you see how Moses veiled his face to shield the people from the blinding glory of God shining on his face; these are all what we would consider spiritual concerns. 

But face coverings had more than just spiritual reasons. They had public health reasons, too. Check out Leviticus 13:45-46 — “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.” 

Lepers were required by law to cover their faces, just like we are now. This is an ancient law, but it was even appealed to somewhat recently. In the 30’s in Germany, and in Poland, there appeared cautionary signs around the cities that Jews carried typhus. “Jews are vermin – Jews are lice – they carry typhus” was the slogan. This was not merely Nazi propaganda, but a public health campaign. It was used to curry support to quarantine Jews into ghettos. Their own Levitical laws were used against them by some Nazi messaging to justify this quarantine – that by their own purity laws, they ought to be quarantining themselves. 

Many people looking back now think that this type of persecution was a purely racist thing, as if Germans believed Jews were genetically predisposed toward carrying disease. That was considered a more “progressive” belief held by the most avant-garde Nazi eugenicist “true believers” – but the general public simply believed that the Jews’ ritual purity laws were the cause of this supposed public health risk. Laws about bathing and handwashing. In short, they blamed the Jewish religion for the so-called Jewish public health menace. 

“Never again.” That’s what we say when we promise to ourselves and eachother that we will never let anything like the Holocaust happen again — or even the discriminatory and hateful behavior that led up to it. Too few people nowadays are educated about how terrible the persecution was in the 10 years leading up to the genocide of 6 million Jews – and too many people overlook that persecution, as if it was acceptable simply because it wasn’t yet a genocide. Or, conversely, they say it was only bad because it led to genocide – in either case, it was never acceptable, neither for Jews, nor even for their fellow Germans, both of them subjected to the evils of the Nazi regime in their own way – one forced to be victims, the others forced to be complicit in oppression. In both cases, segregated from one another, the bonds of community trust forcibly severed. 

We should be sober-minded when we reflect on how public health was used to justify the persecution of the Jews, and how they were considered disease-carriers on account of their religious practices. Unfortunately, this phenomenon did not end when the Nazi regime fell. 

As recently as 2019, Buzzfeed stirred up anti-Semitic sentiment with the headline, “How A Group For Jewish Moms Spread Anti-Vax Propaganda Before New York’s Measles Outbreak,” making a caricature of Jewish mothers and defaming the Jewish religion. In 2020, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, targeted the Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg Brooklyn in a series of violent police confrontations when they attempted to hold funerals and holidays. 

It is worth noting that Mayor De Blasio, real name Warren Wilhelm, spent time in Nicaragua and was a huge supporter of the Sandanistas, who were denounced by the ADL as anti-semitic, since one of their core philosophical tenets is that Jews control world finance and political affairs. The Nazis shared this belief, propagated by their political forefather, Karl Marx, who famously asked “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.” See how it is the religion that is blamed.  

Similarly, when folks like Buzzfeed and Bill de Blasio charge Jews with carrying disease, they don’t come out and say it’s because they think Jews are genetically, racially, inferior, but that their creed or religion poses a public health risk. How might that apply to today? Is it possible that peoples’ religion or strongly held beliefs might also be considered a public health risk by some?  

I recall reading the comments in MV Times, and Islanders’ Talk, blaming Brazilian Christians for Covid outbreaks throughout the past year. I’m seeing Americans blaming unvaccinated folks, talking about segregating them, denying them service and participation in the community, even though the black population is statistically the most unvaccinated part of the American population. Wouldn’t that mean a de facto racial segregation? Yet for the folks making accusations of public health menace, it’s not about race, it’s about creed. Does this sound at all comparable to anything we’ve just been discussing? 

*** 

Now. None of these facts change the fact that Covid, that Typhus, are serious diseases. Leprosy is serious. This is why the Jews took to wearing face coverings – masks! These are meant to help – in God’s very Law!  

It wasn’t just for lepers, either – healthy folks would wear face coverings to protect themselves against leprosy and everything else. Back then, there was no testing. No one knew if they were carrying disease or not. You either felt healthy or you didn’t — either way, you could never be sure. Hence the practice – the mandate — of face-covering extended to all, since every Jew was subject to the religious authorities who interpreted and expanded Torah purity laws — these mandates are the “traditions of men” that Jesus talked about. 

Lepers bore the brunt of these mandates. They were required not just to wear masks, but to separate themselves from society. They were not allowed to enter markets, or even to worship in the synagogues. Everywhere they went, they were denied entry. 

This is why it caused such problems when Jesus began spending time with them.  

Jesus didn’t just heal lepers. Matthew 26 and Mark 14 both record that Jesus and his disciples dined with them in their homes. This was just one of several reasons that Jesus and his disciples were charged with being unclean – and yet they themselves held no one to be unclean.  

The Gospels record that those lepers whom Jesus healed didn’t cry out “Unclean, unclean!” and stay away, as they were mandated to do in the Law. Instead, they reached out to Jesus, and cried out, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” They wanted to re-enter the beloved community, they wanted de-segregation – for them, it wasn’t about masks or no masks, or arguing about science and public health — it was about the profound desire to live, to be free, to be happy, and to be included.  

 While everyone else turned them away, Jesus didn’t turn them away. He didn’t chastise them for breaking the rules. He didn’t say, “Hey, cover your face, and stay away — that’s the rule!” Instead, he drew near, and touched them to heal them.  

He didn’t perform any purifying rituals to cleanse himself afterward, either. It’s worth noting that the leper broke all the rules here, but Jesus didn’t break any. See the role grace and mercy played in this example, that broke through the boundaries and allowed this miracle to happen. 

*** 

The Bible does not hold us to such high demands as Jesus, to heal lepers etc, though he does say, “Follow me,” and he does say, “Be ye perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect.” 

Nonetheless, St. Paul instructs the churches to worship God according to their individual conscience. They need not be compelled to certain religious practices. “Let no one judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a holiday, a New Moon, or the Sabbath.”  

Yet he also cautions them against basing ones’ practices around what is expected of them by the world, saying, “If you have died with Christ to the spiritual forces of the world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its regulations: ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’?” — note the invocation of purity law here — “These will all perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” 

The Spirit who inspired this passage must also inspire and guide our worship. And our worship is 24/7. We cannot compartmentalize our “religion” or “creed” to the house of worship alone, since the Christian life is summed up by these words: “Rejoice at all times. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in every circumstance, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. “ (1 Thess. 5:16-18).  

Pray without ceasing, “with unveiled face beholding the glory of God” if you will.  But even more than that — rejoice at all times.  

Not just our life, not just our liberty, but even our joy is more than just privilege, it’s a right – and more than that, in the church, it is God’s will for us. 

We ought not to be quick to condemn one another for choices pertaining to health and purity, assuming one’s choices are sincere, since Christ came to release us from purity laws and restore to all people freedom of conscience in all matters, including personal and public health. Mask or no mask, vaccine or no vaccine, etc. He wants us to be pure — but it starts with our conscience, with our heart

I would like to submit also that here in the USA, this freedom of conscience is not just protected for the religious, but also for people who may not be members of an established church or religion. This freedom also belongs, for example, to those who go out to enjoy live music. By and large, every sincere music fan I’ve ever spoken to feels that the purpose of musical gatherings is to spread love. That should be taken into consideration by anyone seeking to interfere with such gatherings, seeing as our Bible states clearly, God is love – therefore by several definitions, gatherings like this are spiritual, if not even religious – as there are also many who say, “music is my religion”, or that “love is my religion”, etc. One’s religion is where he finds peace, love, and freedom — the church’s religion is Christ. 

At any rate, our Constitutions acknowledge that all these freedoms are blessings, even from God himself, as the MA Constitution states explicitly. These freedoms are what the Bible calls “the glorious freedom of the children of God”, the freedom that comes with the knowledge of truth from Christ.  

Since these freedoms are instituted by the Lord Himself, they are to be tampered with at one’s own risk. All matters of conscience ought to be dealt with in perfect liberty, with no compulsion —  not simply for Christians since the Bible requires this, but even for citizens of Massachusetts and the United States; since our very Constitutions recognize that this, and no other, is the Divine Mandate which God has established for us in Natural Law, and revealed to the Church in the Passion and Resurrection of His Son. Amen. 

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