"We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
"Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
"We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!"
-Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1896.
The turn of the century was around the corner. The Civil War had been over for three decades. America was a cascading land of bright lights and carnivals, of festive music and industrial might, covering a soul blackened and scarred from years of darkness. The street lamps glowed with kerosene light.
Like Moses dying on top of Mount Nebo, the Promised Land his final sight, Abraham Lincoln never got the opportunity to heal a nation he’d led through terrible war. Even this many years later, the nation was reeling. Reconstruction had been a disaster. The nation had expanded west and conquered the plains and deserts, but now Native Americans were forced into reservations. Grover Cleveland’s reign was coming to an end and William McKinley, a leader firmly in the pocket of the wealthy elite, was on the verge of election. The government was a mere puppet regime of industrial titans named Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie. Yet while the wealthiest men who ever lived dominated the land, most Americans were poorer than ever. Contradictions were everywhere.
Slavery had been over for a few generations, yet most blacks still couldn’t tell a difference. The brutal plantation labor under the scorching sun had been replaced by the mournful songs of the chain gangs. African Americans technically now had the right to vote, but Southern poll workers resorted to any trickery to ensure they never made it to the booth. Whites had exclusive water fountains while they had to drink from dirty buckets. Restaurants and public restrooms bore signs reading “Whites Only.” The Ku Klux Klan was in full power, fighting equality from entering any facet of society. In the Deep South, lynching haunted the dark woods. America turned a blind eye to the horrendous inequality of segregated schools, under the absurd motto of “separate but equal.”
The slave generation resigned to their mistreatment. “At least it’s not slavery,” they would groan. But their children and grandchildren, never knowing the pre-war horrors, were not content. They didn’t understand the unfairness directed towards them based on skin color. They refused to take it lying down. And among them was the first black poet to receive national recognition, a young man named Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Dunbar published his most famous poem, We Wear the Mask, in 1896. It was a short yet powerful statement on the condition of blacks in America. Perhaps its notoriety over the years has grown due its critical dual nature. Of course Dunbar was furious about inequality. But pay attention to his narrative; by saying “we,” he includes himself in the group of people he is addressing. On top of attacking discriminatory American society, he was also excoriating the black community itself. He was enraged at how they hid their tears and hearts torn with bloody sorrow. He acknowledged that they cried out to Christ yet smiled to the white man, as if content with their situation. He viewed their refusal to take stands for themselves as utter hypocrisy. The subject of his narrative is the plural “we,” yet his predicate is singular, “the mask.” All blacks were guilty in his eyes of wearing the same mask, disguising their unhappiness.
God hates hypocrisy. More scriptures condemn it than perhaps any other sin. Christians are indignant against homosexuality, fornication, and drug abuse. But what about hypocrisy? The Lord can convict people when they are cold and far from Him. But if they proclaim to love Him but are blinded by their own deceit, there’s little He can do to reach them. Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away (2 Timothy 3:5). They wear the mask.
Paul wrote 2 Timothy from a Roman prison, knowing that the executioner’s block awaited. He had escaped death many times during his ministry, but knew now that his time had come. His swan song contains a dire warning against hypocrites, people who look like Christians and act like Christians, but are actually wolves in sheep’s clothing. In his final days, when he needed them the most, they had forsaken him. For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world (2 Timothy 4:10).
The word “hypocrite” is actually Greek, and contrary to what we tend to think today, it doesn’t refer to someone with a contradiction in their beliefs or philosophy. It literally translates to “actor.” The hypocrites were the people who put on performances around others, not showing their true colors. The Pharisees were the worst, and Jesus saw right through. Matthew 6:5: And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. They wore the mask.
Many Christians today are wearing masks. On Sundays, we put on the church mask. We stand up and act holy and pray loudly and sing and pray for others at the altars. But as soon as Monday comes around, it’s time to put on the work mask. We may say or do hidden things that we would never want our church family to find out about. Then, when we get home, the family mask goes on. We’ll act completely different around our spouses or children than we would around our coworkers or managers. And this will precede our weekend masks, going out with friends to engage in sinful behavior that we think we’re keeping secret.
We are the world’s greatest actors, switching effortlessly between several roles a day. And God despises it.
It’s time to take the mask off. Just like Dunbar’s poem suggests, we may be many, yet the mask we wear is one, even if it comes in different shapes and colors. In the end, they are all the same thing: the mask of hypocrisy.
Matthew 7:21-23: Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Your mask may fool your church members, family, and friends. But you’re not fooling God. He can see through every mask we wear into the true hearts of man. So many are blinded by their mask; like Dunbar said, it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes. Eventually, we think the masks are actually our true faces. We believe that the church face is our real nature, while the others are pretend. The holy act we put on must be our real personality, coming out once a week. But God knows how much we really love Him. He knows how often we pray, read His Word, and seek to grow deeper with Him.
So many people will be in heaven that we never expected to see. And so many we are expecting will never appear. Only God knows the truth that would shock us all. It will all be revealed on the Day of Judgment, as all evil is exposed and all masks are ripped off, to be cast into the lake of fire forever. Luke 12:2-3: For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.