By Bob Walters
Before we ask every American who goes out in public to wear a facemask “just in case”…
A treasure of the American experience is our historically unique and individually tenacious dedication to that most striking declaratory characteristic which forms our lives, our communities, and indeed our very definition of humanity.
And that American treasure is the sanctity of our individual human identity.
That is what is different about America; it is what America introduced to the entire world when the people—not the government, not the strong-arm bullies, not kings or emperors—were bequeathed with the righteous power of self-determination and the moral imperative of government of, by, and for themselves.
It would require Americans to function cooperatively, peacefully, and honestly together as citizens. Government would exist for the common defense and the common good. It would consist of representatives of the people, and would break “ties” when competing interests required arbitration, settlement, adjudication, or restitution.
It was novel. For the first time in human history government would serve the people, not the other way around. America’s greatest strength was the freedom its citizenry enjoyed to form interest groups and both pursue individual aspiration and serve the common good. This would be our identity not just as a nation or tribe—those are common all over the world—but the identity I have, you have, each of us has as active and free agents in shaping our own lives, families, communities, and indeed, the nation.
Identity. What is that? In America I believe it is the inviolability of our belief that we—each one of us—was uniquely created by God and will be uniquely judged by God: I will, you will, we all will. America is socially weighted to that proposition that all are created equal. I believe that divine identity to be universal to global humanity, but America puts a special twist on it because of the many qualities we embrace.
The first quality is freedom. Imperfect as we may be, we are nonetheless free to be who we want to be and aspire to achieve what we want to achieve.
Then, responsibility, which freedom requires. We are responsible to and for ourselves, family, neighbors, communities, nation … and all humanity. The binding agent in responsibility, ultimately, is our responsibility to God, though some would remove God from the list. Unless we understand our Creator, we will not understand our creation or purpose. In America we truly see each other with an at least visceral and at most resolute belief that each us was uniquely created for a unique life’s purpose and will be judged for the life we lived. That informs and mandates our responsibility to each other in the here and now and to God in the hereafter. Some folks hate that truth.
Our American identity—our individual identity as Americans—I believe begins with freedom and responsibility. After that … I think we are free and perhaps even duty-bound to construct our own list; to think about what our identity means. I propose a cornucopia of virtues. Following closely after freedom and responsibility, I’d tout opportunity, aspiration, creativity, industry, motivation … and hope. Hope of the possible; hope of the good; hope of life and love and joy and accomplishment.
I believe God loves to see his kids play and loves to see us prosper. He’ll help.
And I also believe that Americans like to see each other; we live face to face. Some cultures—especially in the East but also among communists, socialists, totalitarians everywhere—attach no such significance to individual identity because their identity is either defined elsewhere (by government), culturally diminished, or non-existent. Sadly, it seems, their faces don’t matter … not even to themselves.
Most of what a common surgical facemask is going to hide is our identity. There is debatable prophylactic effectiveness for the loosely-fitted cloth masks we see on most people, and yes we might avoid some risk for some time by “locking down” our faces behind N-95 medical grade masks. But that is not who we are; nor who I want to be.
Risk is an American value, as are freedom, responsibility, opportunity and hope. We will not fully function as Americans when externally instilled fear overrides our legitimate questions about reality.
As I believe in the critical importance of American individual identity, so I am also convinced of darker forces within our nation dedicated to diminishing that foundationally and morally proper human characteristic of self. The “you-me-us-we” Americans freely and joyously expressing our individual, responsible, proper God-given identities works against the dark forces desiring our fear, submission, and the evisceration of self-worth.
Before we don masks and berate those who would both question their efficacy and note their deleterious effect on community esprit dé corps—“What!!! You Want People To DIE!!!???—let’s instead consider who we are as a nation and assess our identities as individuals created in the image of the living God. Yes, we live in a fallen world, but with the divine promise of God’s truth and brighter hope for tomorrow. Jesus said so.
Not everyone believes that, of course. I do, and I want to be prudent towards and considerate of others because it’s my American responsibility to respect their health, well-being, hopes, and aspirations. That’s what Americans do because we know it is the right thing. But we also have to know when a right thing becomes a wrong thing; when someone declares something to be a “new normal” … and it’s not normal.
Put on a mask … ?
Let’s not make a habit of this. Soon we won’t know who we are.
Walters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer in Fishers, Indiana USA, and publishes a weekly Christian short essay at CommonChristianity.blogspot.com. For more of Walters’ columns, see commonchristianity.blogspot.com. For his books, see www.lulu.com/spotlight/CommonChristianity.