peace that passes understanding

I am, and have been for some time, incredibly content.

Holy crap, you guys!*

For so much of my life contentment, happiness, joy, peace – whatever – were anomalies, rare moments of lightness in the midst of a heavy atmosphere of depression and doubt. My bedrock emotion during that time was anxiety; there was always something that would cause my heart to seize up whenever it crossed my mind.

I was anxious that someone would find out I was gay. I was anxious that my friends woud leave me. I was anxious that, even if they didn’t leave me, they would secretly resent me. I was anxious that God would abandon me, that he might not really love me, or that his love would always have a bitter aftertaste. I was anxious about the future, wondering if all the little problems of the past that were nibbling at me in the present would consume me before I made it to shore, which is to say I was anxious that my convictions wouldn’t hold, that my faith would dissolve around the edges, and that the overwhelming desire just to be held and loved would flay my bleeding resolve.

Which is why this is so crazy! 

Every day, literally every day, I experience frequent moments of exhilarating joy, fiery instants of wonder in which the beauty of life and the excitement of following God are practically luminous. I’m not lonely. I’m not aching. I’m not anxious. I’m alive in the most abundant of ways.

I mean, gosh, I am doing everything in my meager power to restrict my use of exclamation points and question marks but it is very much not easy right now so I am compensating with italics for emphasis.

All this to say, a lot has changed over the year and I am in awe of it all.

But I need to be careful. I don’t want to make the same mistakes as before. When I was in the midst of my whatever-it-was sadness, I thought it would last forever. The anxiety felt so total, so enduring, that I couldn’t imagine life any other way. I was always going to be painfully different, always going to be afraid everyone would leave me, always going to follow God with a sinful flinch just beneath my obedient skin.

It could be so easy to feel the same about my current contentment: to think that I will always be filled with such excitement, always compelled by such passion, always so sure of God’s goodness and overwhelming beauty.

But I won’t. I know I won’t.

Some day, tomorrow or years from now, something will fracture, and the acid haze will return. I don’t doubt it.

I’m not feeling all great and stuff simply because I’ve done something super-right and God is rewarding me with steroidal warm-fuzzies. I don’t think the absence of pain is the direct result of faithfulness to God just as I don’t think the presence of pain is the direct result of unfaithfulness. Such useless theology has done too much damage. The whole witness of scripture speaks to the reality that sometimes the most faithful people sweat blood and sometimes the most debauched possess seemingly untouchable felicity.

But I do think our experiences of pain, the absence of pain, and all the variations in-between, are blessed opportunities to proclaim the goodness and nearness of God.

So instead of constantly wondering, “What am I doing differently that is making my life this fantastic and how can I keep doing whatever it is so that my life remains this fantastic?” I am trying to ask myself daily, “Am I following God with all my heart, soul, and strength and loving those around me as Christ would?”

The former question betrays a hope that is dependent on the balance of volatile chemicals in my brain, while the latter declares a hope that is dependent on the faithfulness of God.

Because let’s face it, there will likely come a time when my dopamine levels randomly drop again. There will come a time when following God will require me to sacrifice “happiness” of one form or another, when serving others will demand more of me than I would like to give, and I’m a little worried that I’ll become so addicted to this easy joy that when that moment comes I’ll just stand there, clutching my pet comfort and refusing to move forward with the confidence of one who knows that my Savior has already gone before me and will be with me through it all. And not just with me, but using me in ways greater than my own capacity or understanding.

I learned in depression that my God promises neither normalcy nor stability, but love and redemption, and that is too valuable a lesson to lose sight of just because I’ve finally caught a glimpse of that mythic species of peace that I sought through all those aching years.

And I’ve found that in both times of crippling doubt and times of quickening assurance this peace has remained, as I guess it always will, beyond my understanding. But I think now, for the first time in my short life, I believe that to be a very, very good thing.

Jordan

* But for serious, holy crap, you guys!

end of the line

I’m sure that any regular readers out there will not find it a surprise that officially, I am no longer going to be contributing to the blog. This has really been going on for quite some time now as Jordan has pretty much been the only one posting the last five months. I’ve been very impressed by his consistency and reliability, not to mention how he finds something new and meaningful to write about.

I’m leaving for three major reasons:

-Writing exhausts me; it doesn’t energize me. When I started writing the blog, I had a lot of emotions pent up inside that I wanted to release through the text. Once those emotions got released, I lost the energy and drive necessary to keep writing.

-My life is busy with graduate school, and my focus is simply on other passions. My gayness actually plays a very minimal role in my life right now.

-I ran out of things to say.

Even though I’m not writing anymore, I am always willing to meet in person with any Wheaton student or anyone else wanting to talk with someone about this stuff. Verbal processing doesn’t exhaust me. If you’re in the Chicago area, I am too. I’ll check the email from time to time, but Jordan still checks it consistently so if you let him know, he will let me know.

When I started this blog back in May, I never thought how God would use it to impact and reach so many people, way beyond the scope of Wheaton College which was my original intended audience. I thank Him for the grace He has shown in my life to allow me to say something of worth on this topic and that He would choose to use me as a vessel to maybe bring healing or hope to someone else. Ultimately, I hope my words made a positive difference in someone’s life and that this difference will cause them to positively impact someone else.

I also want to thank Jordan for his willingness and enthusiasm to jump right into the blog. It was overwhelming when it first took off, and I am forever grateful that God brought him on board (it really was a God thing).

Well, to prevent this from becoming cliche and more cheesy, I’m going to end it here. Maybe in a few years when my story is public to everyone, I will have a personal blog with my full identity revealed. But that isn’t at least for a few years. Until then, God bless everyone, and truly know that no matter what life circumstance you are facing, God loves you, and He has redeemed you. All you have to do is accept that love. And I pray that others would show it to you so that you can show it to others too.

Love

Tony

…just like everybody else

I shifted my legs around to restore pin-prick circulation as the conversation stretched into its second hour. Coming-out was rarely a quick ordeal during those early stages of growth and he was only confidante number eleven, I believe. Equal parts disarming sincerity and riotous impulsivity, he had been a dear friend from the first month of college. And then, two years after he first learned my name, he learned my deepest secret.

As the conversation began to lull, he decided to change the topic a bit. Looking me in the eye he asked, in his typical directness, “So, are you attracted to me?”

Uh. I diverted my gaze and threw out my honest answer with a less-than-natural laugh, “Ha, no, you’re safe, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Worry about? Dude, I don’t care if you’re attracted to me. It’s not like it’d be a bad thing. I’m attracted to, like, lots of my close friends who are girls. I just wanted to know.”

Leave it to this guy to turn such an ill-advised question into one of the most profound offerings of grace I’ve ever experienced.

You see, at that point in my life I lived in terror of being attracted to anybody, especially friends. I mean, this is a common anxiety of coming out, right? That not only will those closest to you distance themselves from fear that you might fall for them, but also that, well, you might fall for them.

But more than that, I was still in the midst of a painful war with my body. While the rest of my hormonal peers were frolicking in their dopamine-addled pairing endeavors,* I was beginning to despair of ever feeling at peace because attraction, that bewildering spacial distortion that would sweep over me when I saw him, whoever he was, made me feel abusive and criminal.

It was, I think, the inevitable result of being told, and believing, that an uncontrollable, biological response is a willful act of sin. Like most underexposed evangelicals, I equated homosexual attractions with lust; they were one and the same – abhorrent failures of holiness to be avoided at all cost.

I remember ranting to my accountability partner (poor soul greatly to be pitied) time after time about my crush(es), “I have no right to even look at him, much less tell you his name! It’s disgusting. I just feel like such a monster.”

And to think this was during the “stable” phase of my college career. Good times.

But this is why that friend’s comment lingered so forcefully in my mind. By saying that it wouldn’t bother him if I was attracted to him because, duh, attraction happens to everybody and is totally not a big deal, he offered a distinct manifestation of grace that I had refused myself; the grace of being normal.

The grace of a common experience. The grace of not being a monster. The grace of being human, just like everybody else.

In the two years since we sat together in that light-filled prayer chapel, tears in our eyes, rejoicing in the goodness of it all, I’ve found profound healing as I daily live into my humanity – a lifetime of aching otherness slowly finding its place in the humbly unfolding narrative of becoming whole.

And lust? I’ve finally begun to understand what it really is. By binding that willful vice up with the inescapable neurological occurrence of attraction, I not only turned my body into an enemy of holiness but I also crippled my ability to effectively fight lust.

I used to conceive of it as little more than excessively strong attractions, something beyond my control, something that was ultimately about me and my “purity.”** Wrong. Lust is about ignoring the dignity and inviolable humanity of another and turning them into an object for my own personal pleasure. Lust isn’t so terrible just because it makes it harder for me not to type Google searches of questionable character, though that’s a part of it; it’s so terrible because it makes it harder for me to treat every person as the absurdly beloved-by-God people that they are, because it turns them into a “thing” and turns me into a hypocrite.

But what is more, I’m no longer hopeless in this struggle. Back when I thought it was lustful to even notice another guy, the overwhelming impossibility of “purity” haunted me. I think I knew then, even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time, that to be free from lust as I defined it – as others had defined it for me – would require me to eviscerate a part of my humanity, to deaden myself to the very real desirability of others. But now, rather than fear I will lose my humanity in the good fight against lust, I am thrilled to see it come more vibrantly into focus and fullness as I reclaim the true purposes of the struggle and realize what is actually at stake:

that I might see each person, whether or not they possess that indefinable breath-sapping spark, as beautiful, worthy of love, full of dignity, and to be served with joy.

I’ll be the first to say that I’m a weak and rather pathetic “purity warrior,” but at least now I know that I’m not a lost cause, that I’m not some exceptionally broken screw-up with an entirely different set of rules. At least now I know, and at least sometimes believe, that my body is good and that there are much worse things I could do than realize someone has incredible eyes and great hair.

Jordan

* … or something like that. I might have been a little bitter at the time.

** I don’t really like how we use the word “purity” to almost exclusively reference sexuality, especially as it has historically contributed to the social marginalization of women. Biblically speaking, someone who is greedy or who gossips is just as fraught with impurity as is someone who has committed sexual sin.

zero-sum

I can’t tolerate racism. Ideologically and systemically people are still subjected to injustice simply due to the color of their skin. As someone who inherited the privileges of being a racial majority in the States (let’s just say sunlight isn’t very friendly to me), it could be so easy for me to ignore the suffering of others, so simple for me to cling to the persistent lies that “we solved racism a while ago” or that “it’s not that big of a deal” or that “the real problem is the reverse racism of affirmative action and the liberal media.” I believed all of those, once. I’ve had to repent many times of my blindness and carelessness, of my stereotypes and ignorance that contributed (and, as I’m sure I’m not perfect, still contribute) to the pain of many men and women and children, including brothers and sisters in the Church.

Because of all that, I try to call out racism whenever I see it (whether in the form of overt prejudice, unexamined assumptions, or systemic imbalance) and encourage my friends to do the same, hoping that the Church, as well as our society, will become free from the scourge of such injustice. In short: I want to absolutely crush it without compromise. I may be constitutionally required (to a degree) to allow certain organizations to hold to their gross ideologies, but I want to make sure they are at least reduced to an impotent and laughable sham.

So, I get it.

While I personally hesitate to completely equate the African-American civil rights movement with the current push for LGBTQ rights (though there are definitely similarities!), I totally understand why many frame the conversation in those terms. And I understand why, for them, there can be no compromise. I may think there is no commonality between the segregationists’ acidic trash-of-an-ideology of MLK’s time and traditional Church teaching on sexuality expressed in love and grace, but of course I wouldn’t!

Many conservative Christians exclaimed in horror when Chick-fil-A’s first amendment rights seem to be under attack, but, honestly, I wasn’t upset. If it turns out the founders of Burger King financially supported the White Supremacist party, I would seriously hope every Christian (well, everybody) would absolutely boycott them. (I actually try to avoid fast-food joints anyway, due to concerns of food quality, chemicals, and animal abuse, but for the sake of illustration…)

My concern during the whole Chick-fil-A thing (gosh I hate to bring it up again) was simply that we appeared to be on the defensive end of another zero-sum cultural land grab, which creates an atmosphere largely toxic to nuanced and peaceful dialogue. But would you want to create an atmosphere that allows White Supremacists to “nuance” their evil ideology? No, absolutely not.

So, again, I get it.

In fact, every time I think about writing a post about how I hope the zero-sum mentality doesn’t take hold of the discussion on sexuality, especially within the Church, I can never think of a convincing reason why the “affirming”* position shouldn’t want things to go that way!** It just makes a lot of sense to me.

Not everyone believes American society is headed toward complete marginalization of the Church because of this,*** but some certainly are, and are sounding the alarm to take up the banner of Christ and go to war.

I get that, too.

This post is directed primarily at them. I am not trying to assume any particular course of future history, but if things do turn (more) against the traditional Church teaching, and the conservative Church in general, it’s not the end of the world. Unless you’ve never been exposed to, you know, anything about the historical and global Church, the idea of being a  marginalized minority should be neither scandalous nor an existential threat (though it is, I admit, highly undesirable).

Being that the Church’s existence and behavior is never, in any theologically determinative way, bound by human kingdoms (please don’t misunderstand me), it is unsurprising that, historically, persecution has come less from random prejudice and more from Christians’ occasional inability to be a good citizen as defined by the State (e.g. early Christian refusal of all military service and civic religion, which painted them as anarchist deviants unconcerned by the common good). Honestly, the fact that we’ve had such power and privilege in Western civilization probably**** means we’ve made a few serious compromises along the way.

Without advocating some sort of passive collapse or retreat from the public sphere, I do think those within conservative evangelicalism would be wrong to allow the vocabulary of “zero-sum” or “cultural land grabbing” to shade our understanding of how we must interact with those who disagree with us. Such overly-eschatological dominionist terminology has no place within a people who worship a God who died scorned and outside the city walls.

We must instead busy ourselves with becoming a community relentless in fighting injustice, proclaiming love, modeling forgiveness, speaking truth, and treating everyone with the human dignity they deserve and are often denied. Sometimes our work won’t be recognized as such. Sometimes it will be seen as societal poison or as a primitive disgrace. Sometimes our terms will be defined differently. But, with a few exceptions (see Andrew Marin’s recent rejection by the UN), I don’t think the Church has practically manifested a clear ethic of love and support for LGBTQ people that would make us totally innocent of cultural backlash.

I’m writing this because I smell fear and anger within certain evangelical circles, and I don’t think there is reason for the former nor use for the latter. I’m worried such emotions will cause leaders and laypeople to proliferate language of holy war and persecution,***** allowing the creeping film of anxiety to rob them of the clarity of Christ’s witness of neighbor-love, which never depended on the possibility of reciprocation or guarantee of respect.

I don’t want to see my community batten down the hatches and take up arms in response to recent events. Such a hardening of our hearts is antithetical to our calling and will only serve to further isolate us and harm others. And, should we reject the loving practice of meekness, whatever ground the Church may gain in this “culture war” of attrition must only be recognized as a bitter wilderness compared to the abundant inheritance of Matthew 5:5 that we will have forsaken.

Jordan

P.S. My use of the word “Church” throughout this post doesn’t do justice to the fact that I obviously think there are many within it who disagree vehemently with my sexual ethic and would see any “persecution” as totally unnecessary and a result of clinging to a misreading of the Bible and a rejection of the true calling of the Gospel. Language is often inadequate, I apologize.

* I’ll take “Terminology I Dislike” for 800, Alex.

** Though sometimes I marvel at the gracelessness of some LGBTQ advocates, and hope for something better.

*** So many evangelicals assume they are being attacked only because people hate the Church. Sometimes that may be true, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous and self-serving to say that “affirming” (gah!) advocates are motivated by hatred rather than by their love of LGBTQ people and their desire for their flourishing.

**** definitely

***** And now for a Karl Barth moment: If you think you are being “persecuted” for “Gospel truth” but are, in fact, simply being rebuked for hypocrisy and homophobia – you had it coming! Examine yourself! Repent!

 

dear pastor

Dear Pastor,

Do you remember when I showed up to the Saturday service alone, as I always did, and you called me up to to sit next to you and your wife in the front row, during worship, pushing a few chairs aside and making enough of a scene that I had to comply? Thank you.

And do you remember the following Saturday (or maybe the one after that), when all the lights were dimmed and we were about to celebrate communion and whoever was speaking gave the usual call for families to go up and partake of the bread and cup together, how your wife came over and asked if I wanted to share in the ritual with you two? And do you remember how I had to decline because I was allergic to the bread but didn’t really care because I was overwhlemed with gratitude anyway? And how, while your wife was asking me, you were asking an older, single woman the same question, and how, I didn’t tell you this, I started to cry from joy because perhaps in fifty years I would be that woman and your simple act of generosity struck me like a bolt of lightning? And how that was such a beautiful gift because, for the ten minutes prior to communion, I had been watching what I thought must have been the church’s happiest family and was achingly aware that the seats next to me were empty? Do you remember that? Thank you.

And do you remember how, when the pastoral staff responded less-than-favorably to my testimony, you began to conclude most of your emails with “I’m for you”? And how you kept inspiring me, kept affirming me, kept speaking wisdom to me, kept being there for me even as I started to lose confidence that I would ever be welcome in the church again, and reminded me that this wasn’t “us” vs. “them” but just “us,” the church, striving in a fallen world to preach the gospel amidst disagreement? And how you never stopped asking me hard questions, either, because you desired to know truth and to encourage me to live in that truth? Thank you.

And there was that other time, and I still find this hilarious, a day or so after you and I met with your son and his ex-roommate who was gay to talk about how the church could more profoundly minister to people like us, and you told me, “You know, sometimes I’m impulsive, and last night I was thinking that if the church won’t let you guys serve because of your orientation, we should just start a gay church!” Do you remember that? I hope I always will. Thank you.

And I haven’t forgotten how much research you’ve done, how much time you’ve spent in prayer, how many hours you’ve put into helping my dad process through the revelation that his son is attracted to men, and how, because of that, my relationship with him is better than it ever has been.

And you fought for me! When it seemed like the drafting of the church’s position statement on homosexuality wouldn’t be too friendly to me, you worked hard to defend my right to membership and inclusion and community. Do you remember how pleasantly surprised I was when I read that first draft? Thank you.

Do you remember, I’m sure you do, how you sent me another email just last week, which casually mentioned how you pray for me often? That amazes me, even still. Thank you.

And do you remember (as I hope this brief note has reminded you) just how grateful and blessed I am to know you, to learn under you, to serve alongside you, and to call you my friend? Please don’t ever forget.

Thank you for being the arms of Christ to me in a difficult and formative time, for relentlessly pointing me back to the very great love of God, and for taking my discipleship so seriously that you would be willing to spend far beyond the requisite number of hours talking with this dorky kid who was, and still is, trying to figure out what on earth it means to serve the church with faithful devotion.

I love you, and hope you are well.

Sincerely,

Jordan

to know you belong

On December 23 I received a $10 Starbucks gift card. It was handed to me nonchalantly by one of the long-term missionary staff here at the orphanage as I was leaving the house to play some soccer. “It’s just a Christmas present from Rachel and I,” he said, “so… Merry Christmas!”

He was right, of course, it was just a Christmas present. But with it he and his wife had unknowingly given me something greater: they had surprised me with community.

My love of chatting over espresso is no secret – within the first week I had asked/begged/drugged/jedi-mind-tricked this guy into driving me to the nearby Starbucks – but I was blown away by the simple fact that he and his wife would have even thought, “Hey, let’s get Jordan something for Christmas even though he’s only been here for two weeks and we barely know him and he hasn’t really done anything except mess up easy spanish phrases and we have no obligation to get any of the volunteers anything because we’ve been here for almost a decade and have seen thousands of them come and go and he’s no different.” I mean, seriously!

Then, later, they invited me to an impromptu worship session of music and prayer. Five of us sat in a circle, enjoying the acoustic simplicity, the apple-cinnamon scented candles, and each other’s company. We left knowing it wouldn’t be long before we met again.

These are just two examples of a larger phenomenon. As I’ve thought about it, as I’ve marveled at a month devoid of anxiety and loneliness in a context in which I should almost certainly feel both, three things seemed to stand out as essential to the joy of my experiences here:

1) The first and perhaps most obvious observation is that it has taken the efforts of many people for me to feel that I am being included in the community. Yes, one young couple in particular is responsible for a majority of the warm-fuzzy feelings, but almost everyone here has said or done something that has made me know I am welcome. From offering to drive me places to telling me that I had permission to knock on their door at any hour of the night if I needed something, people have gone out of their way to demonstrate an easy self-giving that has been definitive of most of my relationships. Nothing like this is required behavior.

I totally didn’t see it coming, at least not to such an alarmingly generous degree.

But it’s not a unilateral accomplishment. I, too, have had to make an effort to include myself. Even on days when I’m feeling sick or tired (which have been frequent) I have tried to be involved. This is especially important, I think, in the early stages of entering a new context. Granted, if I’m utterly exhausted or dangerously ill, I’m not going to go play soccer or spoons or anything that doesn’t involve sleeping or vomiting as its main activity, but by this point people know that if I turn down an invitation it isn’t because I don’t want to be with them.

2) I’ve needed to grow up. A lot. I have generally suffered from a deep hypocrisy that usually compels me, in my feverish desire to be included, to distance myself from the people I don’t see helping me in my quest for social mobility. Even if I can tell that someone is lonely, if I think they are “weird” or “awkward” it becomes difficult to ever want to include them. They threaten my social stability, and when you are as desperate as I can sometimes be such people easily become burdens and competition rather than brothers and sisters. Such behavior is, honestly, one of the ugliest things about myself.

But I’ve realized it’s impossible to feel fully included in a community, fully rooted in the life-giving grace of belonging, if I am not willing to go out of my way to become the kind of person I so passionately hope everyone else will be to me. It’s simple, biblical logic. My own inhospitality, my haunting hypocrisy, corroded my ability to find peace. I was always worried other people resented my presence, my idiosyncracies and social failures, my struggles, because I knew myself all too well; I knew that if everyone else were like me, all my fears would be realized.

There are, in fact, people here who my sinful selfishness would want me to avoid. I am not. In fact, I spend more time with one of them than anyone else. And you know what? We have fun. I increasingly enjoy his company, and he has taught me some things that, well, I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. I am still in many ways an inhospitable person, but by the grace of God and the patience of others I hope to daily put such toxic hypocrisy to death.

3) I am confident that, should it somehow be discovered that I’m gay, there are numerous people who would stand by my side and advocate on my behalf. Latin America is not always the friendliest place to be attracted to the same-sex, and I’ve encountered some astonishingly aggressive homophobia among the teenagers I work with. But even so, I’ve had numerous conversations about homosexuality with some staff members and other volunteers and I’ve been amazed at the kindness and passion that has been displayed, even without anyone knowing I’m gay. These are safe people. I am safe.

Sure, it would be nice to have an hour where I didn’t need to creatively explain why I wasn’t dating one of the numerous single women in the orphanage, but I’ve matured enough to the point where it doesn’t really bother me all that much. And sure, sometimes it’s frustrating to work with an older woman who has a strange and magical ability to materialize whenever romance comes up in conversations, with a twinkle in her eye and a list of eligible women in her hand, but arguing with her (in spanish) has become more of a cheerful game than anything else.

I’ve learned that one community doesn’t have to fulfill all of my needs in order for it to be profoundly good.

I’ve learned that shifting my focus from “How can this community meet my needs” to “How can I meet the needs of this community” allows for surprising manifestations of care and love to flow more freely from myself and those I live with as we seek to encourage and strengthen each other.

***

These are not comprehensive observations, but rather just some small points that have been rattling around my dopamine-flooded skull for the past few weeks.

It isn’t a perfect community by any stretch of the imagination; there are some very serious problems that need to be addressed, some very real failures that vitiate the witness of this place. But my, our, passion for this place and these kids is greater than those troubles, and I consider it a privilege to be both aware of and fighting against those things which threaten the growth of this community. It means I really am a part of this place, that my life is in some serious way bound up with the future of the orphanage. It fills me with a fiery sense of purpose that is usually reserved for when I’m engaged in social peacemaking, studying theology, or eating pizza, and I am in awe of it all.

For what little reflection I’ve done on the subject, the blessed occurrence of community remains, like so much of what makes the world beautiful, a mystery.

And that $10 Starbucks giftcard? It bought a couple of mochas for some of the other volunteers before we saw The Hobbit. It just seemed like the only right thing to do.

Jordan

a modest(y) proposal

(This is in response to an article by the lovely Emily Maynard, titled Is a Woman Responsible For a Man’s Lust? It’s a great piece that deserves to be read. She was incredibly bold to write what she did, and I admire the sincerity and truth behind much of what she says. Check it out. Even if you don’t read what I write in response, you should read what she has to say.)

***

I’m pretty sure nobody knows what the word “modesty” means anymore, especially within the context of the evangelical church. And when I say “nobody” I include myself. Over the years my understanding of the word has always seemed terribly shallow and distressingly tangential, as if its charged and controversial outer layer denies all attempts to comprehend its blessed center.

But we sure think it’s important to talk about it! Well, at least for women. It seems that modesty has become, primarily, the rope with which the evangelical church hopes to pull each junior high girl from the deep-v abyss into the light of unassuming crew-necks and inner adornment.

This is important, the common rhetoric goes, because to reveal “flesh” or dress to enhance the feminine figure is just asking the male masses, dominated as they are by uncontrollable sexual urges, to lust. It’s inevitable because men are “visual” creatures (as opposed to the tactile and verbal females), and can’t help themselves. By dressing immodestly, women are causing their vulnerable brothers to stumble, striking a critical blow to their pursuit of purity. This has been the standard discourse on modesty for some time.

But things might be changing. Courageous women are coming forward and opening up about the harm they have suffered on the receiving end of this kind of rhetoric. In the linked article above, and in the subsequent comments, we hear numerous stories from women whose relationship with their bodies, with men, other women, and even God, have been vitiated and filled with poisonous, painful lies.

Implicit in the rhetoric of “modesty” is the idea that women are responsible for male lust. In a nutshell: (straight) men lust because women dress immodestly. There’s more, obviously, but that is the consistent emphasis. I know I thought along similar lines growing up, and it’s taken the testimonies of brave friends and strangers to open my eyes to the horrible consequences of “modesty” as we know it. (Again, read the article for greater detail.)

For the sake of space and time, I simply want to ask some questions and throw around some ideas that may help us move forward as a loving community dedicated to mutual responsibility. I don’t claim to have answers – I’m new to this discussion – so bear with me.

  1. Modesty is not just a female virtue, and lust is not just a male vice. So often the relational dynamic is framed as “Men struggle with lust, and women struggle with a desire to be lusted after.” This goes hand in hand with the lie that porn is just a male problem, and contributes to the sinful stereotype that women are naturally designed as “responders” rather than “actors.” What is more, I, as a male, never had a message on modesty addressed to me. Bluntly, that is ridiculous. How can we reclaim modesty as a non-gendered virtue that is integral in the life of the church?
  2. The sin of lusting is not merely the presence of “dirty thoughts,” but exists, primarily, in the act of stripping someone of their inherent dignity and worth before God. Emily Maynard’s article addresses this point beautifully. It’s impossible for a woman to be responsible for male lust defined in this way. The question needs to be asked, however, When does “natural, non-sinful desire” end and “lust” begin?
  3. Modesty as an ecclesial virtue (akin to humility and an awareness of one’s value before Christ) is not a cultural construct. Modesty as an apodictic shopping list for women is a cultural construct, and means vastly different things all around the world. Topless women in rural Africa are not being immodest; Victorian-era women showing ankle are. Women’s hair in 1st century Palestine was considered sexual; now, we are totally fine with whipping it back and forth in public.
  4. I worry that the truth of #3 too often leads critics of “modesty” to say standards are arbitrary and therefore theologically irrelevant. I don’t think this is the case. Paul’s understanding of modest dress in his letter to the Corinthians and elsewhere is certainly culturally bound (head coverings, anyone?), and yet transgressing those cultural constructions was still a sinful transgression. Are current standards the problem, or is it found primarily in the rhetorical failings of those who speak about them? Are we past the point of being able to deal with the two separately?
  5. Paul’s culturally bound instructions, however, do not primarily frame modesty in terms of sexuality and lust, but in terms of power and excess and a failure to live into one’s status as a new creation. Though we cannot ignore the present reality that modesty intersects significantly with sexuality, we need to reclaim it’s broader purpose of challenging the selfish use of wealth, the refusal to consider the good of the community more important than your own desires, and the maintenance of unchristian power dynamics (e.g. to wear the ignomious “braided hair” Paul references would require the tedious labor of a servant).
  6. Emily Maynard says, “…nothing you do or do not do can influence lust in someone else.” This is, I think, incorrect. Temptation is influence. You can’t force someone else to lust, but you can sure make it harder not to! Women have been the locus of blame for so long, that I understand (in a limited way) the desire to be totally blameless. But autonomy has never been the modus operandi of the church, or of Christian morality.
  7.  She continues, “…you’re only responsible for taking your own heart to Jesus.” In the sense that we are not responsible for the salvation of others, and that women must be freed from the crippling guilt of male lust, this is true. But, as I said above, the Church is built upon mutual responsibility to the other. The solution to the problem of “modesty” will not come from emphasizing individualism, autonomy, or freedom from responsibility, but from reclaiming a just mutuality that requires men to bear the weight of their own sin and to acknowledge their role in the suffering of women and to strive alongside them to eradicate the stigma and shame. This won’t be resolved by “men doing something” or “women doing something” but by the Church doing something. What this looks like, I’m not sure yet. But it certainly wouldn’t be a mistake to begin by giving women a safe space to tell their stories and be heard, as they always should have been.
  8. Romans 15 (“Do not cause another to stumble…”) has been used incessantly to charge women to be modest. But it also mentions that if we unduly cause others in the church pain, we are accountable for it. It’s about time we realize that the old rhetoric is causing many women and girls incredible pain, and that this pain has been largely ignored or demonized by those in positions of cultural and ecclesial power. Whatever male “need” there is for women to dress certain ways may have to take a backseat to the female need to know their bodies are good, beautiful, loved, and their own.
  9. Women need to be listened to, more and more. Their voices have been historically muted in the Church, and we must do everything in our power to acknowledge the worthiness and truth of what they have to say, especially in regard to (though certainly not limited to) their own bodies. If I hear another sermon with someone “mansplaining” to a woman about her body, I may go crazy.
  10. The radical love and mutual submission taught by Christ must be the posture we assume as we move forward. To continue on as we have been would require us to blind ourselves to the demands of the Gospel.

There is so much more to this, and I have this nagging, dreadful feeling that, even still, I’m perpetuating some of the same terrible binaries, stereotypes, and inconsistencies so prevalent in this discussion. I had hoped to write more constructively about what modesty actually is, how it must also be articulated as an essential virtue for men, and how American culture generally devalues and abuses women’s bodies, but living in an orphanage with a crazy schedule and a lack of resources has made that a bit more of a task than I could manage right now.

Please, let’s talk about this. Any ideas? Thoughts? Rants? Stories? It’s about time we create a space to have this discussion in love.

Jordan