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A request to those with hidden faces

18 October 2013

When I see your face, you help me to encounter God, says Peter Graystone

AT A low point in his life, Jacob fled from his family because he knew that his brother Esau would seek revenge for being cheated. He sought refuge with a relative on the far side of a desert. There he prospered, married, and became a father.

But, through all those years, he was restless for home, and, after the birth of a son to his first love, Rachel, he resolved to return and face the consequences of what he had done.

With herds, servants, and family, Jacob made the long journey that would end in a showdown. He sent messengers ahead to ascertain his brother's mood, and was alarmed to learn that Esau had gathered an army around him. He dispatched lavish gifts, made his family as safe as possible, and spent the night alone.

In the dark hours, according to the most mysterious narrative in the Bible, he confronted a stranger, and they fought. The men seemed equally matched. The account encourages us to imagine the stranger wrestling Jacob's head until he had no choice but to look him directly in the face.

At that meeting of eyes came a moment of intense undertstanding. Jacob believed that he had encountered the divine. His new insight into the human condition was so significant that he named the place the Face of God (in Hebrew, Peniel). But the event scarred him, and he never walked with ease again.

The next day, Jacob faced the meeting with Esau which he could delay no longer. The storyteller ratchets up the tension, preparing the reader to expect carnage. Jacob limped toward his brother, bowing lower with each step. He felt the terror of Esau charging toward him, and hairy arms crashing down on him with their sickeningly familiar smell. But then he realised that the hands were not strangling him, but embracing him.

Esau raised Jacob to his feet, and they wept together for the wasted years. And as they looked at each other, Esau said something intensely significant for all who pursue peace: "At this moment of reconciliation, I realise that when I see your face I am seeing the face of God."

Countless centuries later, this is what I want to say to Muslim women who wear the full-face veil - the niqab. I walk past you on the streets of Croydon, and habit has led me to avert my eyes, because I sense that is what you would prefer.

I welcome you in my town. I do not believe your behaviour is irrational or inappropriate. I do not hate you. I am not scared of you. I respect your desire to be modest, to be liberated from society's obsession with physical appearance, and to take your scriptures seriously.

I want you to be able to choose how you dress, and would oppose any attempt to have your chosen attire banned. I want you to take joy in worshipping the God of Abraham, because that is the God whom I worship.

Nevertheless, I make this polite request. I know that you revere Jacob, because I have read the references to him in a translation of the Qur'an. I have learnt something very significant about the human face from the story of Jacob.

Please will you consider finding the courage to remove your veil? Because, when I see your face, you will teach me something profound and beautiful about the God whose heart is set on reconciliation.

Peter Graystone develops pioneer mission projects for the Church Army.

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