Looper Column: Masks in America: Conceal, Reveal, Remodel – Way of life – Aurora Advertiser – Aurora, MO
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
It would not be surprising to learn that the different words for “mask” have been used more widely around the world in the past year than in all of recorded history combined. That’s impressive considering how long masks have been around. In 2018, archaeologists discovered a 9,000-year-old Neolithic stone mask in the Middle East. It could be argued that Adam and Eve were the first to mask themselves (if not in face masks) when they put fig leaf coverings on and tried to hide from the Lord.
The ancient Egyptians wore masks in religious rituals. They also put masks on the faces of the dead to protect them on their way to the afterlife. In the Far East, masks were worn for both religious ceremonies and theater productions. Classical actors routinely played in masks, which explains why the ancient Greek word for actor was “hypocrite”, meaning “the one under the mask”.
Masks can serve as identity markers. The mask identified the stage artist as an actor, the shaman as a healer, and the boss as an authority. In West Africa, certain masks identified those who wore them as intermediaries through which petitions could be passed on to the dead.
Mostly, however, masks are worn to hide one’s own identity. In ancient religious ceremonies, masks sometimes hid the wearer from malevolent spirits. Historically, judges in many cultures have put on masks to protect themselves from reprisals from both friends and enemies of the accused. Today, companies are working to create “masks” that hide people’s identities from facial recognition software.
The white, conical hood of the KKK served both purposes. It identified both its wearer and its identity. Whenever someone saw the white hood, he knew what the wearer stood for and which group he was associated with. At the same time, it hid his personal identity from authorities who could hold him accountable.
There is a third reason people wore masks, especially in primitive rituals: to transform their identity. When ceremonial pueblo dancers wore masks, they believed they had been taken over by the spirit whose identity they had assumed. In other cultures, masks were viewed as a means by which their wearer could become one with the character they represented.
In Max Beerbohm’s 1896 story “The Happy Hypocrite”, a determined aristocrat falls in love with a virtuous young woman. She declines his proposal and tells him that she can only marry a man with the face of a saint. The aristocrat then buys a remarkable mask that gives it a sacred look. He marries the girl and immediately begins to change his behavior, return illicit profits, donate to charity and adopt a simple lifestyle.
However, he is soon confronted with a woman who knows his true identity and insists that he remove his mask. A scuffle breaks out and the mask is torn off in the Fracas. To his surprise, his face looks like the mask.
It seems to me that the face masks people around the world are now wearing serve each of these purposes: identifying people, hiding people, and transforming people.
The ubiquitous masks of today are certainly supposed to hide us (or others) from COVID-19, but they also identify us. In the United States, face masks – or the lack thereof – quickly became identity markers. Conservatives who wear masks are mistakenly considered liberals, and liberals who do not wear masks are considered conservatives. People are identified by their masks or, if necessary, incorrectly identified.
Today’s masks have also had a transformative effect, both on those who wear them and those who don’t. By wearing a mask or refusing to wear it, many people have joined a cause. Whenever people do this – be it political, social, or religious – they adjust their thoughts, attitudes, and actions to support the cause.
This transformation effect of masks could well be used. Christians may want to wear masks that read “Followers of Christ” or include a Bible verse such as John 3:16. We could all wear masks that simply say “Americans”. If we adjusted our thoughts, attitudes and actions to these identities, the transformation would be positive and the world would be a better place
Shayne Looper is a pastor at Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog “The Way Home” is on shaynelooper.com.