by Alec Siantonas
In what we now call the Ancient Near East, beards were a sign of dignity. Beards adorned the virile and the vigorous, the warrior and father of warriors. I myself have small desire to sire warriors, but I sympathise with the viewpoint. I delight in my hair, in all its luxuriant abundance. I share in the rays of the sun, the mane (as Oriel MCR members cannot fail to have noticed) of the lion. I understand how the loss of the beard could be associated with the loss of dignity: ‘He is gone up to Bajith, and to Dibon, the high places, to weep: Moab shall howl over Nebo, and over Medeba: on all their heads shall be baldness, and every beard cut off’.
The Christians of what we still call the Middle East have walked continuously in the old ways. Beards are frequent, and mean what they meant to the apostles and the prophets. Their dignity is now under assault: it is their time to weep and howl. The ever increasing political instability inflames ancient enmities, while the black plague of the so-called Islamic State continues to spread exile, rape, and death. Throughout the faith’s ancient home, Christianity is in decline. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. I offer a symbol of suffering easily intelligible to those whose suffering is so terribly real: on my head shall be baldness, and my beard shall be cut off.
It is not only the dignity of Christians, of course, that is under assault. In Calais and elsewhere on the French coast, refugees of every kind endure squalor, forced from one camping site to another, without easy means of legal resort. Some are Christian, many are not; some have been driven there by the same forces assaulting Middle Eastern Christians, others by kindred evils elsewhere. Some assaults on human dignity, moreover, are not the (direct) result of human inhumanity. 2195 children die from diarrhoea daily. Many of those deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where the charity Living Goods helps local women to make a living by selling, inter alia, diarrhoea treatments.
I love my hair. It is splendid, it is dignified. To lose it will be a kind of humiliation. It is my privilege, however, to choose my own form of humiliation. In making that choice, I point to an important truth. It is not, after all, my hair that gives me dignity. Nor, for that matter, is it my white skin or my middle-class upbringing or my Oxford education. I have dignity because of the kind of being that I am: a human being. I have dignity because I can offer and accept mercy, sing of love and sorrow, hope for a better world. So too the Christian woman raped, the Muslim man evicted, the African child dehydrated to the point of death. They all have dignity because of their intrinsic nature, and neither cruelty nor disease nor indifference can rob them of it.
They lack my privilege, however. Humiliation has been forced upon them. Instead of pointing to truth, this humiliation binds them to a lie: that they lack dignity. This lie I resist. I will witness, in my own small and silly way, to the truth that they have dignity because of what they are, irrespective of what befalls them. Together, however, we can do more than this. We can loose them from the lie. We can redress their humiliation. By supporting my three chosen charities, we can help to make evident again that the glory of God is a living human being.
This article was originally published on Alec’s Blog I Gave My Cheeks to those who Pulled Out the Beard. More information on how to support Alec’ Charity Beard Shaving, taking place on 20th May, are available here.