The Leviticus:8 Project
and you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the LORD who sanctify you am holy. Leviticus 21:8
I once met a man whose doctor had told him he could never eat anything sweet. I never bothered to check the diagnosis or confirm the treatment, but I can tell you he was diligent in following the advice. He was a sourpuss, in every sense of the word. Mind you, he was not mean or confrontational. But he didn’t laugh, and his resting expression resembled a person who had just sucked a lemon. The kids these days have a name for the phenomenon – RBF. Look it up.
I still wonder if he came by that sourpuss naturally or if the behavior imposed on him by his physician found its way into his personality. We sometimes attribute characteristics to people by the uniform they wear or the fashion choices they make. We have seen every President of the United States (except maybe Ronald Reagan) turn gray over the course of their terms, presumably from the stress of the office. And these days, a red golf cap with white letters immediately identifies someone as your political ally or opponent. Can your personality and persona be shaped by externals?
At least in this particular verse from the Bible, the answer seems to be yes. It refers to the priests, the direct descendants of Aaron. After about the third or fourth generation, even following all of the restrictions on marriage, those offspring would likely be as diverse in personality as any collection of third or fourth cousins – and how much the more so centuries later. Yet the presumption is that because they are engaged in acts of sanctified ritual, the people performing those acts should be perceived as holy themselves.
Do you think that every priest welcomes the expectation and designation of holiness? I am guessing not. It is a burden to live a life in the public eye; it is more of a burden to live that public life with expectations defined by others; it is more of a burden still if your private life does not always comport with the standard imposed upon you.
As I began to formulate this column, I thought I might take yet another swipe at the current occupant of the Oval Office. The presidency comes with certain norms and expectations, and he has defied them all. But it turns out that another example presented itself suddenly and shockingly between the first paragraph and the fifth, and that is Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia.
A picture of a person in blackface standing next to a person in the costume of the Ku Klux Klan was on the yearbook page with his name and photos from his senior year of medical school – he was 25 and it was 1984. It is irrelevant if he was in the picture, and equally irrelevant if he was aware that the picture was on his page. What might have been an embarrassment to him in his pediatric neurology practice takes on a different tone when he is charged with the sanctified tasks of governing the Commonwealth.
The external circumstances of his life – serving as governor of a state fraught with a history of contentious race relations, its capital the previous capital of the Confederacy, its jewel of a university town famous for race riots in recent memory – require him to be holy. As a citizen he could excuse being tone-deaf to the costume party or minstrel show (even in 1984), and maybe even to putting shoe polish on his face to dance like Michael Jackson. But he never spoke up then, and he only spoke up now because he got caught. Blackface was incidental to the man who championed removing statues of Confederate generals from the streets of Richmond.
As it happens, I know Gov. Northam. I know him to be a gentle man and a gentleman with genuine concern for people – residents of rural Virginia, Virginians who do not earn enough or learn enough, even my own grandchildren. But though he was not born into his title, as the priests were, it is not enough to express his personal regret that as an adult (in 1984) he had not yet come to understand the requirements of holiness that come with high office – or even basic human decency.
Ralph Northam was undoubtedly influenced by the externals of his time. He grew up in a Virginia that allowed him to absorb a genteel neglect of the dignity of others – today we call that privilege. The high ethical standards expected of public servants and presumed of physicians, however, did not seem to permeate his values and exorcise the legacy he was charged to overcome.
I like to think that if my acquaintance with the sourpuss would have, once in a while, had a cookie or a Frango mint, it would have awakened him to the pleasure of a smile. I like to think that a few true friends of color in 1984 might have awakened Dr. Northam to his racial insensitivity.
But I know that people who perform holy functions will be treated as holy and carry the expectations of holiness in the minds of the people they serve. And if they cannot live up to that expectation, then they are neither priests nor civic leaders.