I read an interesting piece on Qideas from Rachel Held Evans about the modesty conversation. She makes these three points:
- We turn modesty into objectification when we hold women responsible for the thoughts and actions of men.
- We turn modesty into objectification when we assume there are single standards that apply to all people in all cultures.
- Finally, we turn modesty into objectification when we make women ashamed of their bodies.
Point 1 is dead on. Point 2 is correct but in point 3 we are beginning to get into the complexity of the matter.
The reason point 1 is true is the same reason point 3 has issues. If the men must deal with their own problems in point 1 (which is true), you can’t simply dismiss the challenge for the women in point 3 to deal with theirs and implicitly make men or male context finally responsible. Context matters but it finally cannot govern. That is why point 1 is right.
If we can’t say (as we shouldn’t) “immodestly dressed women are responsible for male lust and/or inappropriate behavior” neither can we say “we make women ashamed of their bodies” in such a quid pro quo fashion. If men must take responsibility for what they do with their minds, so must the women. To say that we can expect the men but not the women to be responsible is to say that women are somehow less responsible or able to be in control of their minds than the men. I really don’t expect many women today to say such a thing.
What we want to talk about is the relationship between identity and context. This is no small subject in our cultural conversation.
Responsibility for an Inclusive Community
Soft context is a big deal in our culture. Scan news items that I read just this week:
- The State of Washington recently retooled their language so that women won’t have to be offended by the word “freshman”.
- Artist creates new healthy, normal Barbie
- Star Wars movies don’t have enough women in them
- Despite efforts Christian Colleges aren’t welcoming to LGBTQ
We make major efforts enforced by law to insure that work places and other public spaces are “safe” for various groups that are not in power. This isn’t a bad thing, it is a part of hospitality.
Evan’s point 3 in fact appeals to this entire effort. It bears witness to the reality that context and individual behavior within communities matters.
We Naturally See Our Selves Through Others
The reason we as a culture have undertaken this project is because as people our first self is a reflected self. We first learned to see our self though the eyes of our parents and our first communities. As we go along the self we are continues to be shaped by how others see us and how we see ourselves in comparison to others. (Note also the shame conversation.)
This process is natural but part of what we hope for in terms of maturity is that increasingly we are less reliant upon our context to define us and that in time our identity and definition comes from better places.
There is a secular vision of this today from expressive individualism that says “I define me by what I chose to be” and there is a Christian version of this that says “Christ defines me and in increasing measure I accept the new identity he gives me.”
The irony of Evan’s third point is that I think it is at heart demeaning to women. In her point 3 women are somehow the victims of their context. “We make women ashamed” is a very strong statement when it comes to identity and self. Does our cultural context do this? Absolutely. Is this where we want to stay? No. Is it something that finally can be addressed by context? No.
Relational Burn Victims
Skin is designed to afford us both protection (from germs and intrusion) and sensation. What an amazing gift!
When skin is healthy it both allows us to be safe and allows us to feel. All reflected selves at times act like relational burn victims. When someone’s skin is burned the skin is no longer able to offer protection to the body and its feeling ability through searing pain turns into a liability. You cannot hug a burn victim and if you do so they will accuse you of inflicting terrible pain upon them. All of us in this broken world share in this condition. For some this defines many of their relationships.
The movement to develop safe, inclusive spaces for people with relational-emotional skin burns is one of hospitable Christian charity. We don’t generally want contexts heaping shame on people even while it is abundantly clear that no community I know is at all interested in getting rid of shame entirely as some sort of behavioral modification tool. While we try to create spaces that are safe for women, gays and ethnic groups as a culture we are trying to shame violators of these norms (Paula Deen, Louie Giglio, R Kelly, etc.) in various ways. This is what human communities do.
Because we all have burn areas on our relational skins, some more than others, no human community will ever be safe. Anyone who is naturally constructing their self on the basis of their context will be hurt by elements in that community. Many once being hurt will find subtle and not so subtle ways of causing pain in others out of retribution.
What this means is that the modesty question, along with a great many others can never be answered given our present condition which is partially why it is so culturally variable. No matter what we do our burn spots will cause us pain and hurt people will hurt other people. All of this will continue until we become solid selves with healthy, durable, relational skin.
Modesty and Hell
Revelation 6:15-17 is one of the most interesting verses in the Bible for me. The people of the earth hide in caves and cry to the mountains to fall on them to hide them from the face of him who sits on the throne and the wrath of the lamb. It is one of the most telling passages in the Bible about our condition.
Why is it that making clothing was the first thing Adam and Eve did after their rebellion? After God’s “where are you?” question his next question was “who told you you were naked?”
Hell is the closest thing to everlasting refuge for relational burn victims.
What is happening between us, whether it has to do with our skin, our status in our pecking orders, our notions of “owning” the attention, allegiance or affection of others has everything to do with heaven and hell and as long as we are dependent upon human communities to afford us identity our skin will always be fragile.
Generosity Follows Sacrificial Love
We want communities where people help others feel safe and be safe. What this requires in our population of relational burn victims is generosity, compassion and forgiveness? It happens when our first instinct is not “what am I and my identity entitled to” but “how can I contribute in a healthy way to the healing of our wounds?” That healing always comes with a cost. This is again where receiving one’s identity is formative.
Philippians 2:1–4 (NRSV)
1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
This rolls back the age of decay and coaxes the great and small from the caves inviting them to embrace, burned skin and all.