You shall not make for yourself a graven image
The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear a dispute between the Alberta government and two Hutterite colonies whose members say their religious beliefs prevent them from carrying photo-bearing drivers’ licences. Members of the small colonies near Lethbridge, Alta.[Alberta], interpret the Second Commandment of the Old Testament – “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” – as meaning it’s a sin to be photographed. For years, Alberta allowed people with religious objections to carry special drivers’ licences without photographs. In 2003, the government changed the law, making photographs mandatory. The two colonies, supported by 14 other Hutterite communities in Alberta, sued the province and won. Last May, a 2-1 decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the trial court ruling that said forcing Hutterites to submit to photographs in order to obtain drivers’ licences, violated their constitutional right to religious freedom.
National Post, 30 November 2007
The Hutterites are one of Anabaptist Christians – they got their name from their leader, Jacob Hutter (tortured and burned as heretic in 1536). Most of them now live in western part of Unites States of America and Canada. Anabaptists, also known as Rebaptizer, was one movements of the sixteenth century Reformation. Their most distinct tenet is adult Baptism, though they are known as pacifist and advocate separation of church and state. Keep in mind that not all Hutterites consider their photos as violation of first (Catholics consider “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” to belong to first commandment) Commandments of God (Exodus 20:2-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21).
If we only consider the phrase “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” by itself, it looks like they (the two Hutterite communities in Alberta) have a point. A photo is image of living thing, in this case human, even it is two dimensional – after all the verse does not say it only forbids three-dimensional images. A photo bears a person (or persons) likeness and Deuteronomy 5:8 says “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth“. But from the Bible we know that God commanded Moses to make two gold cherubim (Exodus 25:18-20) and bronze serpent (Number 21:8-9). Are they not likeness in heaven and on earth? King Solomon decorated the Temple with cherubim made from olive word overlaid with gold (1 Kings 6:23-28) and twelve likeness of oxen (1 Kings 7:25). God through His written words cannot contradict Himself. What is forbidden is worshipping them – in 2 Kings 18:4 king Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent Modes made because people had burned incense to it. Well, do Catholics light candles and pray in front of statues?
Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2132
After being healed from leprosy, Naaman told prophet Elisha: “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15) and “for henceforth your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord” (2 Kings 5:17). But he also said: “In this matter may the Lord pardon your sevant; when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter” (2 Kings 5:18). Elisha did not tell Naaman to step down from his position in order to avoid bowing to Rimmon – the prophet response was: “Go in peace” (2 Kings 5:19).
Why God permits the use of images but forbids us to worship them, according to my opinion, is because our human nature. We need something tangible and real to express or to channel our feelings. Many of us keep photos of our loved ones either in our wallet or on our office desks. Some of us express dislike to certain country or person by burning its flag or his/her effigy/photo. We are angry if someone makes fun of photos of us or of our loved ones. A man brings flowers (they must be real ones, not artificial flowers) to his wife or a girl he is dating. Coming back to Naaman, he requested Elisha to let him take two mules’ burden of earth (2 Kings 5:17). What do you think he would do with it?