Due to a bad phone connection and a weird transcription, I got a voice mail from someone named Mewe Usthem (Mary Austin). At first I simply laughed at the transpositioning and transposing, but the more I thought about it, this name – Mewe Usthem – could be a metaphor for the current cultural conversation and societal division. There are incredible tensions between “me” and “we,” “us” and “them.”
I observed a school board meeting last week where concerned parents all across the spectrum showed up to talk about COVID-19 Delta variant and the decision for or against masking as children return to school. About two-thirds of the people in attendance, mostly parents, showed up unmasked and spoke passionately about their personal rights to decide for their children whether they should mask or not (overwhelmingly NOT) when returning to school. A few of my favorite quotes from those opposing masking:
- “My children should have the freedom to decide for themselves what rules they will follow.”
- “Requiring my child to mask is child abuse.”
- “No one can tell me how to raise my child; if I don’t want my child to mask, no one else can say he must.”
- “My children are happy and they aren’t scared; my children don’t care that others have masks but they don’t want to be discriminated against for being normal.”
I note the “my” language and the emphasis on entitlement, personal rights to do as one pleases, and the framing of not masking as personal freedom rather than civic responsibility.
The other third of the room was mainly board members, educators and teachers, health professionals, and community leaders. They were all masked, and their comments reflected the “we” side of the conversation:
- “We are asking to care for all children as our children, not just our own children.”
- “Taking precautions that protect all children is better than not taking simple precautions that could endanger any child.”
- “We want all children to return to school, safely and with every opportunity to be together safely. This about all of us, children and teachers, and keeping all our families safe as well.”
The “we” and “all” focus was central for those masked and promoting masking. What was especially sad (to me) was the contested nature of the conversation — anti-maskers applauding any speech against masks and for personal autonomy; pro-maskers applauding any speech for preventative measures and caution. We were not seeking a mutually acceptable decision; it was pure one side wins and the other loses – no compromise, no listening, no respect for the other side. Early on, a request was made for peer-reviewed, substantiated, and non-anecdotal studies providing evidence and information upon which the decision could be based. Those asking for this material would have received it had they not risen as a block and left after they had their say. (My personal opinion is that the board should create a veracity panel of representatives from both contingents to examine all of the “studies” being presented through corporate and social media, track back source data and methodology, and rely on the best vetted information available. This way, Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and other reporting agencies would cease to bias good research, and the primary sources would emerge. Certainly there is incredible misinformation floating around, but there is also seriously solid research, analysis, prognosis, and prescription from the most credible and consistent sources if only we will take time to look for it. The evidence for the efficacy of masking is overwhelming, but it is consistently obfuscated for a variety of populist and political reasons.)
Turning every disagreement into “us” “them” debate is counterproductive and illustrates the broken nature of our current cultural climate. We are not seeking to transcend current divisions, but to deepen our divides. The effort and energy needed to create unity of purpose and practice is wasted in pointless debate. And the church is doing little to counter the negativity and foster bridge-building and collaboration. We should NOT be looking to business or government for models of diplomacy, compromise, and creativity. It might be helpful to look instead to the gospels and epistles and see what God has in mind for us…
I would like to think that Mewe Usthem is present with us, looking over our shoulders, watching our progress to work for a reality that honors all of us together. Mewe Usthem may be a metaphor for our current reality, but he/she/they should not be our future. Jesus Christ destroyed the dividing walls of hostility as an example and template for his followers throughout time. Sometimes it is as important to have models of who we DO NOT want to be as it is to have models to emulate. We do not want to be the church of Mewe Usthem, but of the Savior who unites us through the Spirit to be the incarnate body of Christ for the world.