Three points on Modesty
By way of introduction, I should point out that “modesty culture” is something I have mainly learned about online, I have never been personally subjected to its full force. I’m sure there are good reasons for this, my age, for one (it seems to have become more virulent in recent years) but chiefly the differences between Australian and American culture. Our dress codes are a lot more casual all across the board, and fundamentalism has a much weaker voice. But, as I have followed the conversations on this subject with interest and not a little amazement, it seems to me that there are some things I haven’t seen expressed which ought to be included in the conversation. Below, in no particular order are three points I think should be mentioned ..
1. Lust is something more than physiology
I am not sure how to phrase this, because I don’t know who my readers will be, and I don’t want to cause unnecessary offence, but nor do I want to beat around the bush and be coyly obscure. Every adult knows that men have an automatic, involuntary physical reaction to female attractiveness, but I want to suggest that a purely physical response is not what the Bible means by lust, any more than salivating at the smell of delicious food is the sin of gluttony. Lust is an attitude of mind, not just a physical response. So you notice the distracting beauty of a woman, so what? Have you sinned? Well, it depends on what you do about it. Do you live with the inconveniences of the body (there’s a reason St Francis called it “Brother Ass”) thank God that He made women beautiful and get on with what you’re doing, or do you think that her desirability somehow gives you the right to objectify her inside your head and reduce her to a lust object in your imagination? That, after all, is what pornography does. And pornography as the interior drama of lust, which reduces women made in their Creator’s image to nothing more than the means of personal gratification, was not invented in the 20th century. It is as old as the human heart and has at its root the same contempt for others which lies at the heart of murder. Remember, Jesus was in every way tempted as we are, yet was without sin. So yes, He must have been aware of the desirability of women, yet because He loved them He never objectified them and did not sin against them. Women were safe with Jesus not because He was a eunuch, but because He was Love.
2. What did Jesus say?
Matt 5 makes it very plain who Jesus held responsible for the lustful heart, 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[e] 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Yet very rarely do we hear those side by side verses expounded together. It is not the woman’s responsibility to preserve a man from lust, it is his own; and if he has to curtail some part of his freedom and power, analogous to chopping off part of his own body, in order to stop treating women as lust objects, then that is the price he must pay. It is always the ones with more power and strength who have the responsibility to lay down part of their privilege so that others may be free. A man needs to examine his own heart before he starts blaming women for his desires. He needs to grow up and take responsibility for himself.
3. Our clothing talks, but do we know what it’s saying?
Does this mean then that women can wear whatever they like without regard for “modesty”?
Yes. And no.
I say this because we are asking the wrong question.
In 1Corinthians 10 Paul says, 23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”
You have the freedom to wear whatever you like, and you are not responsible for men’s responses, but there is also a place for being wise, not in terms of being enslaved by someone else’s weakness, but in terms of being certain that your clothes are saying what you want them to say.
Our clothing sends social messages. If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t care what we wear, but every time we choose what to wear beyond the minimal requirements of climate and utility, we are saying something, telegraphing a message about ourselves to the world. “I mean business.” “I’m classy.” “I’m very feminine.” “I don’t want to be noticed.” “I take care of myself.” “I’m arty and non-conformist.” “I’ve still got what it takes.” And so on, for the messages we send with our clothes are as varied as the all the different personalities which women have, and the many different roles we play. But these messages are also socially encoded, so they are read differently in different times and places. And this is where we can get messed up – we think our clothes are saying a particular thing, whilst the people around us are reading them differently.
And this is the point where we need to take responsibility in order, not because we have to to be asexual or unattractive, but to make sure that the social messages we send by the way we dress are saying the things we want them to say, and not misrepresenting us.