Justice, Simplicity and Legalism
This should be my shortest blog of my series on A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Some of the topic was already touched on in the previous chapter on Sex and Beauty. In the chapter, Rachel investigates the idea of modesty. The key ideas she goes on to discuss are that modesty is encouraged in Scripture as a check against materialism, not against sexuality, and that both Jewish and Anabaptist/Quaker traditions prefer to emphasize simplicity and not modesty in and of itself.
Rachel makes a great point when it comes to how Scripture speaks about modesty. When people – both women and men – are cautioned to be modest throughout Scripture, it is almost always because of the implications of wearing extravagant clothes. Usually this means jewellery, which to this day is still typically a sign of wealth. Jewellery’s primary purpose, unfortunately, is often to prove yourself as better off than somebody else, and most of the time, that jewellery would not exist if not for unethical business practices such as most diamond mines. Many of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers also rely on child labour in third-world countries to be able to sell cheaply. So if you really want to live by the spirit of the biblical law, investigate where your goods are coming from and choose only those who have business practices which honour the humanity of everyone involved in the process.
Of course this doesn’t negate the logic of modesty as a check against sexuality. I am not saying “therefore just walk around in your sexiest underwear and who cares if people look lustily at you.” We have enough other Scriptural warnings as well as simple logic to suggest that, man or woman, it is bad to turn yourself into a sexual object. We do want to encourage both women and men to view themselves as something more than that. This should come out of encouraging the more holistic understanding of humanity, though, not from discouraging anything that could potentially be seen as sexual because of a rule grabbed out of its biblical or historical context.An example of Amish plain dress
The other major point about how Scripture speaks about modesty is that it is always a case of simplifying the outer factors so that you can focus on the inner development. When we think of modesty to the extreme, Anabaptists (Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish) and Quakers are usually the first group we’ll think about. At least in principle, the reason why these groups emphasize modesty is not for the sake of modesty. Instead, they don’t really talk about modesty – they talk about simplicity and plainness. They don’t want to emphasize modesty at all; they want to emphasize focusing on the inner life and not how much time, money, and effort is spent on outward appearances by most of the Western world. I don’t think we all need to accept the particular dress codes that have developed in some of these communities, but I do think we all need to pay attention to this principle.
This drive for simplicity easily can become legalistic, of course, and it has many times throughout church history and today. Rachel didn’t pass judgement on the Amish community she visited in this time, but she did say that she didn’t think she could do it. Personally, I probably could, but again, I don’t think it is good in and of itself. Many of the rules which started from a good principle could still be good as they were originally designed to be, or they could be counter-productive. This really needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis in much the same way that the effectiveness of using a liturgy in worship should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
We can strive for the principles of simplicity and justice without turning legalistic. It will be hard; it always is harder to live by the spirit of the law than by the letter. But if we are true to the spirit of Christ and the Scriptures, that is our task.