If you haven’t read the first four assumptions, start here. The feedback from this series has been much more than I expected. The comments have further illuminated the issues and have forged some paths ahead.
The last two (wrong) assumptions take a more theological approach. I’ll be examining a couple passages of Scripture used to justify the shaming-culture of modesty. The passages prop up these assumptions:
5. Christians must do all they can to keep others from lust.
6. If we do not keep others from sin, we are guilty of sin too.
First, Christians must do all they can to keep others from lust.
Spiritually abusive cultures are co-dependent cultures. Nobody is okay unless everybody is okay. If you disagree with an issue, you are shunned. People will feel uncomfortable around you, cut off friendship with you, passive-aggressively pray for you (a tactic to judge you by saying God is on my side.). Co-dendency is taking responsibility for others that are not yours to take. A co-dependent person is responsible for you, rendering you less responsible for yourself. Co-dependency says I cannot be okay if others are not okay with me. Co-dependncey breeds weakness. If you’ve read of Mrs. Fidget in C. S. Lewis’ “The Four Loves,” you know what codependency looks like.
The Modesty Lifeguards believe we must be modest for the sake of our brothers (the sake of other “sisters” is not in view). Assuming the weakness and lack of responsibility in men, women take it upon themselves to be filter for men, to bolster up men’s virtue. This actually doesn’t build virtue. Virtue is grown. It is not simply a one-time behavior that you had no choice not to do.. You cannot grow without being tested and tempted.
The only times we hear declarations of preventing our “brothers” from stumbling is over alcohol and sex. This reveals the father of these ideas hearkening back to the Fundamentalism of the early 20th century. When was the last time you heard the “stumbling” language given to envy? Have you been told not to own a car because it may lead a homeless man, weak in his contentment, to envy? Ever skipped by the house of a paraplegic, showing off the movement in your legs? We may not know a paraplegic is watching us, which we think may let us off the hook. But that is inconsistent with the Lifeguard “rules” which says to live as though everyone is always watching and judging; don’t give them anything to gossip about (this is WRIT LARGE in spiritually abusive cultures).
The Modesty Lifeguards tell women, “You don’t know who may be “stumbling” over your body, so play it safe.” I would add, for the sake of a little consistency, no car and no skipping through your neighborhood. This also means no dressing too modestly because that may tempt some to view you with contempt for appearing as a self-righteous, arrogance, jugmental prude. And we don’t want to tempt anyone to think that… we must take great responsibility to be absolutely perfect… all things to all people… or we fail. And God frowns a big fat hairy frown.
There is absolutely no end to the amount of temptation options available to the “weak.” When the “strong” cater to it, it weakens the strong. That’s usually why these shame-based cultures are filled with weak people. The focus has turned away from God and his purposes in our lives and turned toward what others think about us. “The fear of man brings a snare,” says the wise one, “but he that trusts in the LORD is kept safe” (too much fearing and not enough trusting among the Lifeguards these days). In spiritually abusive cultures that verse is used to show that you should not seek the approval of the “worldly” people. But from my many years in fundamentalism, fear of what “Christian” people think about us is exactly what drove the shame. Fear drives the Modesty Lifeguards.
Two passage of Scripture are used to justify this co-dependent lifestyle: 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14. The first’s context is about meat sacrificed to idols, a practiced forbidden to Jews and Gentile proselytes (Acts 15). The second to a variety of Jewish dietary and Sabbath laws. Both contexts are a long way from alcohol and summer beach attire. In context, Paul was speaking to a specific situation: idolatry itself, not about daily “social sins.” By violating the Jewish laws, Christians were literally putting themselves, by their behavior, outside of the faith of the Jewish people they were trying to reach. My own view is that “brother” in Romans are Jewish “brothers” who believe in the God of Israel but do not believe Jesus was the Messiah. “Brother” in the Corinthian passage can refer to both Jews and believing Gentiles. If Gentiles are to convince Jews that they worship the same God, then Gentile Christians must be sensitive to God’s people who revealed the God of Israel in the first place. If they are going to convince Gentiles that their God is not a pagan god (especially those following Acts 15), they would do well to consider not doing things that appeared pagan. These were “weak” people who were confused, lacking knowledge, and simply brand new to this Messiah.
Paul’s principle: do those things that draw us near to God. Meat doesn’t, Paul says, draw us nearer to or further from God. I’m not sure how far we can draw this principle into today’s “social sins.” However, if we do, we must consider what is pushing people away from God today in the church: Shame. Much of today’s shame-based policing of modesty is receiving push back from people who want to believe in God but find the shame and approach and confusion from Modesty Lifeguards to be alien to the God of Israel.
To make them “stumble” is not to make them uncomfortable (a common confusion in these discussions), it is literally to make them deny Jesus.
We may be courteous, develop manners, and cultivate sensitivity and mutual respect for others. All those are good. But to try to keep others from social sins is simply impossible. Nor is it our job. Each person is ultimately responsible for himself.
Based on the critera of the Modesty Lifeguards, your very presence is a problem. That you are a sexual being is a problem. If only God had created a third sex that was sexless, then we wouldn’t be walking temptations. Then God could follow the ultimate wishes of the Modesty Lifeguards. This discomfort with our very bodies translates into deep shame over being human. For not only does a person become paranoid by sexual thoughts, they learn to disdain the person in the mirror.
I haven’t heard anyone speaking about how Modesty Lifeguards have created a “stumbling block” for those who struggle with shame and self-hate, but it is in the undercurrent of the pushback. Yet the “stumbling block” language has to go. Not only is it out of context and misapplied, but it attacks innocent people. It makes the victim into the perpetrator. This is the same language in the rape literature. The blame is placed on the victim.
This leads us to our last assumption.
If we do not keep others from sin, we are guilty of their sins too.
Modesty Lifeguards believe that whenever a woman finds a man lusting after her, then both are to blame . That’s what’s been repeated around the web this week. Morelikemamma.com is encouraging this view. In her post, she writes that you cannot be a lady without the “rules” of the Modesty Lifeguard. She turns her argument primarily on finding a verse that sounds like women are not just guilty of being a “stumbling block” but guilty of adultery too. Immodesty = Adultery! Everything turns on a strict interpretation of a single preposition.
Reflecting on Jesus words about lust and adultery, Chelsea writes:
I didn’t use to really think anything of this verse, as it seems to only address guys. But do you notice that it says he has committed adultery with her? Would you commit adultery with that grandpa you pass on the street, or the teenage boy who bags your groceries? I didn’t think so. So why do we as women think it is ok for us to dress in a way that invites them go there with us in their minds?
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
- The audience in the verse is not just “guys.” It is “anyone.”
- The preposition “with” does not mean mutual culpability only. If Colonel Mustard committed the murder in the study with the candlestick, we don’t hang the candlestick alongside the Colonel at the gallows. If I were speeding with my son in the car, the officer would not be writing three tickets: one for me, one for my three-year-old, and one for the open road for being so tempting. The one in the driver’s seat is the one with the citation, even if my son was happy to watch the grass go by fast and even if the open road were tempting me unawares to push the gas pedal. (“But officer, I blame the smooth and beautiful road… Punish the road, not me! I couldn’t help it! I’m a weaker brother!”)
- If a woman is culpable when a man lusts at her (and vice versa), let’s play out this logic. An Amish woman dressed intentionally in a clean, pressed, lady-like traditional Amish garb walks to town to meet her beau. Along the way a man passes her. He lusts. She just committed adultery according to morelikemamma.com. In ancient Jewish law, she should be stoned.
Let’s suppose a woman is raped. A man clearly lusted. According to the new logic of Matthew 5, she is guilty of being raped. Women who have been sexually assaulted have struggled enough with shame when they were guilty of doing no wrong. Must we heap it up again? Have we grown so twisted in our view of sex and blame-shifting that we must blame women for being raped? It is not uncommon to hear women blamed who have been raped, “Well, you shouldn’t have been wearing that!” or “You shouldn’t have been there!” A friend of mine had items stolen from his car not long ago. He discovered he accidentally left his door unlocked. What did he hear from people? “You should have locked your doors!” Yet the last I checked stealing had nothing to do with barriers in front of your goods… it had to do with stolen goods!
Maybe morelikemamma.com is speaking of “inviting” the lust. Our Amish girl must not ever dress intentionally nice for her beau. Others might think she’s dressed too nicely and inviting anyone and everyone. But “invitations” can come from every angle: body language, eyes, voice, suggestiveness, propositions, a literal invitation, etc. That is what it means to “invite.” If you are seeking others to lust after you, if you are throwing yourself sexually at others, you are responsible and committing your own disrespect for the body and soul God gave you. But, let’s not treat our women as the adulterous women of Proverbs 7 simply because some men abuse women.
Morelikemamma.com does, to her credit, make this a “heart issue” by the end. Which means, in practice, that it’s only your motive and not your dress (other Modesty Lifeguards will not be pleased by this). Maybe the Amish girl is let off the hook. But that may mean the gal in the itsy-bitsy yellow-polkadot bikini is too.
If you’d like to consider a more positive approach toward a theology of dress, check out my wife’s blog over at RubySlippers.
How have these assumptions, as a man or a woman, shaped your view of God and of yourself and others?
Read all six of the Wrong Assumptions: