Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Death & The Veil

I’d gotten out of the habit of regular quiet times over the last several years—a remarkably irregular schedule and secular obsessions are partly to blame, but basically it was my lack of self-discipline.  But there’s an app for this!  I downloaded a Bible app onto my iPhone a while back, and set it up so it regularly harasses me with auto-nags about catching up on reading plans I never really started. It has a “verse of the day” feature, though, and I’ve been reading the whole chapters around them in an effort to get back into the Bible.
Encouragingly, several VOTDs lately have been from Isaiah, including today’s, which is about God swallowing up death for all time.  The verse preceding it makes a metaphorical connection which I had heard before, but which suddenly snapped into place in my brain as it hadn’t previously:  death is “the covering which is over all peoples…the veil which is stretched out over all nations” (Is. 25:7, NASB).  The Jerusalem temple veil, the appallingly heavy and thick sound-smothering rug between the holy place and the holiest, where the Covenant Ark was kept, represented death, death which was symbolically torn apart at Jesus’ death, spiritually disappeared at his resurrection.

This also got me to thinking about veils and the concept of social death, how the two have been interwoven throughout cultures and history.  One well-written compendium of some of the more horrifying researches on this topic is The Buried Soul: How HumansInvented Death, by Timothy Taylor.  As I recall, in an early chapter, Taylor examines the account by famed Islamic traveler Ibn Battuta, who encountered a barbaric Black Sea mourning ritual wherein a young woman supposedly volunteered to be abused by dead chieftain’s adherents and then was killed to accompany his body on a burning ship. Taylor argues convincingly that this was all an elaborate social ruse to take advantage of this girl’s hope to elevate her family’s standing and achieve eternal bliss, and that she was ultimately told the truth of the hopelessness of her and their condition just prior to her death, dying not just miserably but in misery.  Thus, she was not just killed physically, but socially.  After reading Taylor, you can’t help think, “How can people be so petty, and cruel?”  But this goes on all the time today: both the literal and metaphorical veiling, and the social murder. 

It’s no coincidence that women in many countries are forced to wear what look like shrouds, turned into subdued and anonymous black and blue-covered figures—sweating, burdened ghosts in bright and sun-filled lands.  Which is not to say that publicly-dead women in these contexts are entirely powerless: humanity refuses to be squelched, and within the confines of a proscribed lifestyle the wily and wise learn to exert considerable influence.  But that stubborn undercurrent of vivacity does not excuse the broader corporate issue of these individuals being denied the fullness of life overall.  True, we in more permissive societies can subject ourselves to almost as extensive degradation by excessive exposure.  Wherever we are, we all are veiled with death, stuck in its sticky web like flies.  If humans were perpetually youthful and perfect, whole in body and soul, the concealing layers that come with sags, bags and wrinkles wouldn’t be necessary, and moreover we would forego the psychological cloaking that all of us practice be we naked or clothed.

[On the subject, I would be interested to know whether there is credible evidence to suggest that people in sexually repressed contexts actually have more problems with pornography addiction and sexual crimes than those in moderate contexts.  From my own observation, Columbia, South Carolina, the heart of conservative Baptist churchdom, appeared to me to have more “nudey joints” per capita than any place I’d been before.] 

On the other hand, I remember watching a talk show interview of a famous British comedian a year or so ago, who commented that he’d gone to a strip club (in some European capital where such things were almost mainstream), and the show hadn’t been that good because the girl had bruises all over.  This was a passing phrase—it apparently hadn’t registered with him that human sexual trafficking of women and children from Eastern to Western Europe is a huge problem, that the young woman whose sensual performance had so disappointed him was bruised probably because she had resisted her on-stage “work”.  Clearly, social permissiveness can veil exploitation just as effectively as repression—people don’t notice signs of problems when they are totally concealed and they also don’t notice when there are too many similar signs—noises in a sea of other noises are simply tuned out, just as no sound in quiet raises no alarm.  It’s the loud noise against a background of peace that attracts attention.

Head coverings themselves are neutral objects—they can be symbols of humility or familial relationships, practical measures to preserve cleanliness and conceal bad hair days—but they can be misused.  Like T.S. Eliot said, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”  The extreme, being required to hide the face (the eyes being the point of attention for which we humans all naturally search in photographs, paintings and other pictures of people), is undeniably associated with being an “unperson” (or even a “superperson”) within particular social contexts.  Historically, superiors hid their faces from inferiors, women from men, but all of this was and is to segregate people artificially, denying common humanity to either group, or both.  Wrong motives, be they personal or corporate, lead to injustice: people unjustly covered, others unjustly exposed. 

This all shows that Christ’s death is not just “fire insurance”, but that the implications of the Good Friday veil-tearing must percolate into everyday life—that “we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the LORD” reflect his character socially, as well as spiritually.   The eternal effects of the great veil have been lifted; we must work to remove the little veils, marks of artificially-imposed social inequality, that flutter seductively throughout our world, North and South, East and West, while at the same time we clothe the poor, naked and helpless, to whose condition we so often cover our own eyes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nicely put and thought-provoking.