It seems there’s some kind of lively debate going on about yoga pants and modesty among American Evangelicals. It’s not a subject that I’ve really been invested in. On one hand, I’m more inclined to see yoga pants as slovenly than as sexy. On the other, it has become impossible for American Christians to even broach the subject of modesty without some women getting hysterical about being fitted for burkas (as though there is no middle ground between skin-tight pants and a linen sack with an eye slit.) As a matter of practicality, one simply cannot discuss such a subject entirely in the abstract without ever touching on actual tangible items of clothing, which means it cannot be done without offending people who are self-righteously convinced that they could not possibly be dressing immodestly. If the subject is worth talking about (and I believe all virtues—modesty included—are) then the discussion is going to be impassioned. There’s no way out of it.
But whenever anybody has an impassioned discussion, there’s always somebody else who deems the passions of others misplaced when they do not match her own. Thus, Ashley Dickens took it upon herself to make a list of Ten Things We Should Get Angry About Before Yoga Pants. She then lists ten ongoing worldwide atrocities that she thinks “should fill up the Christian blogosphere before we consider talking about yoga pants.”
Now, one could take issue with this for a number of reasons, but what always gets me is Christians who play the Pharisee card without understanding what it means. Dickens does this, claiming an undue focus on rules and regulations by those peeved by tight pants–one that dishonors those who truly suffer. But the error of the Pharisees was not taking the Law too seriously—it was not taking it seriously enough. They displaced God’s laws with their own traditions, and in so doing, missed the most important point of those laws—revealing our own sinfulness and pointing us towards Christ.
Well, Dickens offers up some new laws when it comes to talking about yoga pants that amount to: don’t do it until you’re done addressing all the death and destruction in the world. Are they good ones? Rather than teaching as doctrines the commandments of men, I think it does us good to look at some of the things Christ actually taught that apply to these proposed rules.
“He who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much.”
There is no use calling for Christians to ignore the little things so that they can focus on the big ones, for no one is qualified to tackle the big ones if they don’t even handle the little. To be sure, yoga pants are a little thing while subjects like abortion and starvation are not. But neglecting our more mundane and close-to-home responsibilities so that we can be big global heroes is in no way heroic. And make no mistake: exhorting women to be modest is something God has done Himself and entrusted to the Church as a responsibility.
Dickens tells us to save our outrage for bigger issues, as though outrage is a limited resource and America is suffering from an outrage shortage (frankly, I see little evidence of this.) Furthermore, our outrage is always a little thing whether it is about leggings or about ISIS. To be fair, many Christians go further and devote tangible resources to the relief of great suffering—they give out of their wealth to those who have none. This is wonderful! But are we really saying here that we spend so much time writing checks and doing volunteer work that we don’t have time to teach our daughters not to dress provocatively or to consider what that means in practical terms? Now, if someone is a relief worker who actually goes to these places and does the Lord’s work in helping the suffering, then I’m certainly not going to call them on accidentally letting modesty slip their minds. But let’s get real—this is not who most American Christians are. We do not actually have to choose between one and the other.
One of the atrocities on Dickens’ list is abortion. It is rightly regarded as such, but serves as an ideal example of why being faithful in little is so important. The only reason yoga pants are an issue at all is because actually teaching the virtues of modesty and chastity has become scandalous to Americans. But the only reason abortion occurs on the scale it does in America is because we have not been taught the virtues of modesty and chastity. In other words, it is only because we neglected the smaller things that this particular horror has emerged from the abyss.
Now, there are legal and ideological battles to be fought in this war, and good on those of you who fight them—your work is very important. But again, that’s really not most of us. We all have smaller opportunities to contribute, but many of us waste them because we want to pretend we’re slaying dragons. Raising awareness about the plague is pointless if we don’t do our job of keeping the sewers in working order; likewise, getting angry about abortion (aren’t we already there?) does little good when we drive up the demand for abortion by cultivating an unchaste and immodest culture. We should be politically active on the subject and fight the ideological war, but you know… parents will prevent more actual abortions by teaching their children (especially their daughters) to be chaste and to guard that chastity with modesty than they ever will by voting Republican or blogging about the subject.
“The poor you will always have with you.”
This world is broken beyond our ability and God’s intention to repair. Just as the Christian passes through death on his way to eternal life, so the restoration of God’s creation requires its destruction first. Despite what some Christians have made up concerning the Millennium, the Bible never teaches that we will transform the earth into a place of peace by our faithfulness (even when we add “oh, and by God’s power too” as an afterthought.) According to Peter, this creation is slated for fire. There will always be death, starvation, and mayhem until the Last Day. When the disciples asked Jesus for signs of the End, he starts off by telling them not to be deceived and lists some things that aren’t signs. Among them, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various place.” War, famine, and pestilence will be here on one day and there on the next, but they will always be somewhere.
This is precisely why Christ taught us that the poor will always be with us (after his disciples rebuked a woman for not having her priorities straight, curiously enough.) This, of course, means that we will always have to care for them. But you don’t feed the hungry for the sake of winning a war on hunger—you do so because they are hungry. If we table Christ’s other commands until the poor and downtrodden are all taken care of, then we table them until he returns. Christ never instructed us to do any such thing. Once we start dropping Christ’s teachings to make more room for acts of mercy, we cease to be the Church and become a charity instead. When it comes to being merciful to those afflicted by the great evils of the world compared with promoting the virtue of modesty, “this you should have done without neglecting the other.” If some feel compelled to speak out about minor matters like yoga pants, then the hand has no business telling the eye “I have no need of you.”
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
And here we reach the biggest issue with Dickens’ post.
The Pharisees’ problem was deeper than not getting the law right—it was thinking that following the law made them pure before God. But the entire point of the Law and the Prophets is Jesus: the Incarnation by which manhood was assumed and made perfect by God; the Atonement by which our sins against the Law are forgiven and we are reconciled to God. Though Dickens calls the people yakking about yoga pants Pharisees, she falls into the same error of the historical Pharisees.
When she talks of “the redemptive work Jesus has charged us with,” she never refers to the proclamation of the Gospel—the forgiveness of sins for the whole world. She only speaks of generic works of earthly service to those in great need. Such works of mercy are wonderful, but make no mistake: while God’s love for us is the Gospel, our love for each other is the Law. These are the commands we are supposed to carry out but at which we fail miserably. To forget about modesty for the sake of acts of mercy is not the redemptive work of Christ; it merely trades one “list of do’s and don’ts” for a different “list of do’s and don’ts”—a trade Christ never authorized us to make.
If we think our identity as Christians is founded in our mercy rather than our modesty, then we are as wrong as those who find it in our modesty rather than in our mercy. Even the best of our good works do not define us (thanks be to God, because the best of my works certainly aren’t anything to write home about.) Our identity as Christians is found in the forgiveness of sins won by Christ and distributed to us by Word and Sacrament. Not in our yoga pants, not in our priorities, not in our moral outrage, not in our blog posts, and not even in our charity.