Monday, November 28, 2011

Passport Photos

Sometimes the best way to read and study a bible passage is simply to allow it to take your mind wherever it wants to go. I’m not sure this is a good example of that, but, when I read this morning’s Old Testament lesson (Amos 2:9-16), I thought about passport pictures.

The prophet writes God’s word to his people, “And I raised up some of your children to be prophets and some of your youths to be nazirites. Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel? says the LORD. But you made the nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘You shall not prophesy.’” God reminds Israel that he had given them spiritual leaders only to have their leadership rejected. But, in this case, not only were they ignored (what we usually do to a prophet), their precise gift was rejected by the people.

Nazirites are those who adopted a strict lifestyle of holiness (think John the Baptist), whose public stance on things like alcoholic beverages and radical haircuts was a witness to others about God’s will for the world. By forcing the nazirites to drink wine, God’s people were thumbing their nose at what it meant to be holy. Prophets, of course, are easier for us to understand. They are those who have been sent to deliver a message from God. But turning a deaf ear to a prophet is different from commanding that a prophet cannot speak. Israel didn’t even want to give God’s chosen messengers the opportunity to exercise their ministry.

I accept the fact that I cannot know what it is like to be forced to remove a religious veil worn for divinely commanded modesty before having my passport photo taken, but I wonder whether there’s a similarity with this passage. State Department guidelines allow for hats or headscarves to be worn even if they obscure the hairline as long as they are worn daily for religious purposes, but the face-covering veil cannot be worn. And that makes sense. We still rely on visual face recognition to identify individuals passing through immigration checkpoints. But what does it feel like to be forced to give up something that defines your religious identity (your relationship with God) in order to meet government obligations?

I realize that this comparison only goes so far. Its real purpose is to invite further reflection. In what other ways are we inhibiting God’s people from showing us his will? What other cultural, political, or institutional practices are preventing prophets or nazirites or other religious people from speaking God’s word or demonstrating his will? A better question: in what ways have I refused to allow a prophetic witness to speak to me because I’ve dismissed it before it even reaches me? Honestly, there are lots. Prophets don’t usually come with name badges that identify them as such. Nazirites are usually weirdos with whom we don’t like to spend time. What might I be missing?

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