We were smack-dab in the middle of a sweltering Southern summer. No matter how bright the sun was shining (and it was bright), you still felt like you were swimming every time you stepped outside. It was that thick, wet, suffocating heat that makes you wonder how people even breathed below the Mason-Dixon Line before air-conditioning was invented.
My high school basketball team was attending a week-long camp at a nearby Christian college, and we were making the daily trek from the dorms to the gymnasium...wearing long pants.
Yep, you heard me...long pants. Summer. Southern. Sweltering. All-guys Basketball Camp. Long pants.
|At least modesty in sports has improved over the years...|
The college that was hosting the camp had a very strict policy that men could only wear shorts in their dorm rooms and on the basketball court. Maybe they knew something about legs that we didn't, but needless to say, the rule seemed a bit oppressive.
So just how serious were they about this policy?
Well, let's just say that the emergency evacuation procedures, clearly posted in every dorm room, spelled out that in case of emergency, everyone must be dressed in proper "street attire" before exiting the building. It seemed they'd prefer us burn in a dorm fire than burn in eternal hell fire for letting a lady firefighter see our shapely calves. [slight exaggeration perhaps?]
Of course, I realize having to wear pants for one week of summer is nothing compared to some of the overbearing standards imposed on women year-round in the name of "modesty." (See this article and this "modesty heart check")
Guys have it easy. We really do. The usual line is that guys are wired to be visually stimulated, and therefore, it's the woman's job to keep her brother from stumbling. Meanwhile, guys are typically let off the hook, free to wear just about whatever they want (except at this particular college, where lower-leg nudity is still frowned upon)
Brett Harris wrote about this double-standard recently on the Rebelution blog, in an article called, "The Other Side of Modesty." His conclusion: "If girls should be modest, so should guys...If girls should consider their brothers in Christ, guys should consider their sisters in Christ." On one hand, this could be seen as refreshing. Finally! Guys are being held to the same standards as girls! If girls have to cover up at the beach, then so should guys! If girls are expected to do "modesty heart checks" before leaving home each morning, then maybe guys should consider their motives for wearing that small v-neck instead of the medium crew-neck.
Upon further reflection, though, is Harris' solution really that refreshing? Is it even a solution, or is it actually part of the problem? Instead of shaming and sexualizing only women's bodies, are we not just doing the same thing to men?
We're reducing modesty to a culturally-influenced dress code, placing the blame for lust on the one lusted after, and buying into the lie that our bodies are inherently shameful and sexual rather than beautiful and glorifying to the Creator who designed them.
Brett's article also brought something else to light in this discussion...for me, at least. Modesty is usually discussed in a very binary, black-and-white manner. Girls, consider your brothers. Brothers, consider your sisters. Ladies, guys are lust-machines, so watch what you wear. Gentlemen, show the ladies some respect and keep your britches up.
But what about brothers and sisters who are not attracted to the opposite gender...brothers and sisters who find more temptation with members of their own sex? We can't just ignore it and pretend it's a rare exception to the rule. It's real. It's relatively common. It kind of changes our conversation.
Back to basketball camp...Wednesday night was swim night, but of course, "mixed bathing" is a big no-no. (Could there be a more awkward name for something so non-awkward?) There were some other co-ed camps running at the same time as our basketball camp, so guys and girls were each assigned specific time-slots to use the swimming pool. The pool was surrounded by a very high wall, and behind the privacy of this wall, we could wear shorts AND take off our shirts! [gasp]
This extreme separation of the genders betrays an assumption that I believe is far more widespread than just this college. The thinking goes like this: when in the presence of the opposite sex, one covers up to prevent the temptation of lust. However, when in the presence of only one's own gender, such covering up is unnecessary. If the goal is to remove the temptation of lust, we're assuming that there's no such temptation in a gender-segregated environment. This, of course, is simply untrue.
For these kinds of modesty rules to make any kind of sense, we have to assume that same-sex attraction either doesn't exist or that it's an extremely rare anomaly. What was the responsibility of the other guys at the pool? They had no idea I might be attracted to them. (Heck...I was still in denial myself.) If one of them caused me to "stumble," where does the fault lie? If we're truly trying to remove the temptation of lust, then we either have to pretend that guys like me don't exist...or require guys to wear shirts in the swimming pool. And if we're taking this to the logical conclusion, we can't just limit it to the pool. What about living arrangements? Dorms? We again have to either deny that guys like me exist, isolate us in separate quarters, or require all guys to remain fully clothed at all times...even in their rooms. Do we see the absurdity of all this?
Let's leave high school now, fast-forward through college, and arrive at last year. I'm staying in the same hotel room with three of my good guy friends. These are guys that I love, trust, and respect. Guys that love Jesus. These guys are the first peers that I've decided to come out to. Our conversation that afternoon is incredibly encouraging. They listen well, they ask thoughtful questions, and they assure me of their continued love and friendship. They encourage me about the role my story can play in the Church, and their prayers for me bring tears to my eyes. They said all the right things, and they said them well.
But it wasn't just what they said that was so encouraging...their actions spoke far louder than their words. That is to say, their actions didn't change. They didn't treat me any differently. Back in the hotel room, they weren't afraid to change their clothes in the same room or even share a bed with me. They might not have even thought twice about this, but the message I received was one of trust, love, and acceptance.
Now what would the Modesty Police have thought about this? If I was a female, my friends' lack of "modesty" would have been quite inappropriate...not to mention sharing a bed! Now, of course, I'm not a female (important difference), but if our motivation in modesty is always keeping our brothers and sisters from stumbling, why were my friends' actions any different?
Because the alternative would have been isolation. It would have meant further confirmation of my otherness rather than my sameness. It would have said "You're definitely not a woman, but you're not quite a man. We're the same biologically, but you don't really belong here." But wouldn't that alternative have been the loving thing to do? Wouldn't that have protected me from temptation? If you're one of the Modesty Police, and the elimination of temptation is your top priority...is there any other option?
What did my friends' response communicate? It communicated that they saw me as one of them, still one of the guys, a brother. It communicated that they trusted me, and that they trusted Jesus. It communicated that they were committed to me...that they weren't going to let me go.
So many of our modesty rules are built around this core idea that we can eradicate temptation, and if we eradicate temptation, we can live holy lives. But we can't escape temptation. Even if you throw out your TV, cell phone, and computer...even if you never leave home, never see another person again...you can't escape temptation because you can't escape yourself!
The best way to fight the battle with lust is not shame, fear, and hiding. It's relationship. It's friendship. It's community. For heterosexual guys, it's seeing women as beautiful sisters in Christ, sisters with gifts and talents and passions and a story....not just bodies. When we focus on covering up and hiding the body, we only draw more attention to it. We quietly feed the lie that bodies are sex objects...and shameful. We say "SEX! Don't think about SEX! Stop thinking about SEX! Why are you thinking about SEX? Why can't you stop thinking about SEX? Stop thinking about SEX! You're still thinking about SEX!"
For me, as a same-sex attracted guy, I must be able to see other men as my brothers in Christ. We have far more in common than we have different. This brotherhood happens the same way it does for most guys: friendship, vulnerability, accountability, common work, and shared experiences....so basically, community. Pursuing this kind of community is not without its dangers. The rules of modesty and propriety, designed to keep the genders safely separate, also do their work of separation when applied to male friendships. My heart is an idol factory, and it will always be looking for something--or someone--to idolize.
What I'm trying to say is this: if I'm going to have friends, if I'm going to have community, I can't just run away every time I'm attracted to another guy. That's not the gospel. That's a recipe for a desperately lonely life, cut off from the life-giving Body of Christ. No, I have to separate attraction from lust...and learn to tell the difference. I must certainly guard my heart, but I can't guard it so tightly that I never let anyone inside. I must faithfully pursue holiness and purity in all areas of my life, including my sexuality, and I must believe and rest in the fact that Jesus has paid it all.
If my friends make it their priority to keep me from stumbling, they will keep me at arm's length. They won't let me into their lives; they won't let me feel like I'm one of them. They will keep their guard up. However, if my friends make it their priority to love me, they will respond like these guys did. They will welcome me in and let me know I belong....that I'm one of them. They will let me serve and love them as brothers...just like they serve and love me. And when I do stumble, they will be by my side to walk with me through it...and I too will be by their side when they stumble.
Modesty rules as a means to prevent temptation ultimately can't work...at least not with any kind of sustainability. These kinds of rules lead to pride, judgment, anxiety, and shame. They work against community because they divide and separate. They point fingers and lay blame. They send the message that people are sexual bodies to be covered rather than images of God to be loved and appreciated. Modesty is not about what's on your body, it's what's in your heart. Of course, what's in your heart will ultimately affect what's on your body, but we must stop judging people based on outward appearance.
We must stop blaming our idolatry on our idols.
Instead of trusting our dress codes, we must start trusting Jesus and His finished work for us on the Cross. In that freedom, we can appreciate and rejoice in the beauty of those around us, seeing that beauty as a testament to our Beautiful Creator.
Grace & peace,
Your Brother Behind the Mask