Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dark Jackets and Collared Shirts

I got in a bit of a tussle again last week. Some people find clothes to be very utilitarian - they put on what they've got and they don't think twice about it. I'm sort of the same way - I often forget what t-shirt I'm wearing until someone makes a pseudo-clever comment about it. There are a couple exceptions, though, which, I suppose, may make you a little suspicious about my place on the autism spectrum. I don't like shirts with collars and I can't stand wearing buttons that people can see.

Yes, I get the ridiculousness of these particularities, but they are what they are. If I'm in something like that, I'm constantly aware, self-conscious, and uncomfortable - it's the exact opposite of my otherwise utilitarian clothing nature.* I suspect its for this purpose that dress codes have always given me a real sense of dread - no, it's probably hatred - I can't honestly think of too many things that get me so angry so immediately.

Over the years, I've developed some theological and ethical principles that work against dress codes, as well. If you want to say I've developed these ideas specifically because of my personal predilections, well, there's no real evidence I can give to refute you, but I will argue this defense mechanism is incredibly well thought out.

I got in to trouble last week because the Church of the Nazarene, my "beloved" denomination, is having it's Quadrennial (a word only we know and you'll have to look up) General Assembly this week, where a whole bunch of us get together in one place so we don't feel entirely strange being the only Nazarene anyone knows. Part of this is a particularly large celebration of the Lord's Supper during Sunday morning worship. I won't be staying for the service this year, so this isn't even an issue with which I'm even remotely involved - sort of my righteous-anger bread-and-butter - but they've requested that ordained ministers helping to serve communion wear "business attire," already nebulous, but also suggested men wear a "dark jacket."

It got my hackles up because 1) well, I'm an ordained minister and I don't own a dark jacket outside of the suit I've worn maybe five times in fourteen years, 2) pastors rarely wear jackets anymore, even the ones who want to do so, because it's out of place and often makes people feel uncomfortable, 3) why the heck can't our denomination trust its pastors, people they've empowered to officiate weddings and elucidate theology in public settings, to dress themselves?

There's also the whole issue about dress codes violating a person's humanity and directly working against the gospel of Jesus Christ that the Church of the Nazarene purports to (and mostly does) represent in the world. That's why I don't like dress codes.

I could go on and on about all this, but ultimately it comes down to the very true notion that people judge each other based on appearance. It's an evolutionary human reaction - we size each other up and try to match any new person with some category of people we've previously experienced before. It used to just be "friend" or "foe," but out complex brains have created all sorts of fun news ones now, like "ungrateful hippy" or "disrespectful loser," which come up when people don't look exactly how we'd prefer.

I'm not arguing against the reality of this judgement. Our brains work how they work and while we can reorient them a little bit through intense discipline and repetition, it only goes so far. Rather, what I'm arguing is that our brains also possess the ability to separately analyze the judgement we make and consciously choose to act contrary to those instincts. It's sort of the whole basis of morality in general - and religion in particular.

We believe there's something more than instinct, even if neurology would tell us its not entirely "free" choice. There's a second layer of analytics involved that can help us react in the ways we want to react most of the time. So while you only have one chance to make a first impression, you have numerous chances to capture that instinctive impression and respond intellectually - or at least intentionally.

In short, I'm challenging the way people assume things have to work - it's very counter-cultural of me, you might even say Christ-like (note: I didn't say it; I just proposed you might want to say it). We tell kids in school not to judge on appearance, then, at least in the rest of their life, if not in the very same school, tell them they have to dress a certain way to avoid being judged on their appearance. That does not compute in my logical brain.

As a Christian, I'm called to side with the left out, marginalized, and forgotten. These are the people often on the wrong side of those snap judgments, and so I try to be numbered among them. Yes, it's convenient that I feel most comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans, but I also choose to wear those things, in a worship service - often even if I'm preaching - and otherwise, with the full knowledge that it might lead to judgment.

If someone isn't going to take the time to hear my words or evaluate my actions before deciding the kind of person I might happen to be, then I'm willing to sacrifice whatever relationship I might be missing out on with them. It sounds a bit harsh, even to me, but I don't know another way to live out this very real principle that we shouldn't act upon those snap judgments. If we're going to claim that human beings have worth and value simply because they're human beings, we should probably act as if that's true. This is one way we fail to do so - and quite often.

I get that there might be some functional component to a dress code. Lifeguards need swim suits that won't fall off during intense exertion; no one will let you climb Mount Everest without a sick goose-down snowsuit. You're not going to convince me, though, that a dark jacket is somehow functionally crucial to passing some trays of sad little plastic juicy wafer packs down an aisle of near-motionless people.

I'd argue almost none of our "dress codes" are really functional. Actions are a far better judge of how to respond to people than appearance ever will be. Again, exceptions make the world go round and some guy, encountered in a dark alley, wearing a t-shirt that says, "I plan to rob you," might just be one of them. However, we have to be real careful not to make the same assumption if the guy's clothing or skin color doesn't actually have words written on it. The same goes for anyone, anywhere, at any time.

The only thing a person's clothing should tell me about them is that "this is the kind of person who will wear those clothes in this situation," even making judgments about whether that decision was brave or fool-hearty or disrespectful is a bridge too far. You might not like the guy in a tank top and flip flops** at your daughter's wedding, but that doesn't make him a terrible person. If anything it should make us wonder why we've come up with these traditional, arbitrary, culturally-specific dress codes in the first place, when all they do (again, outside of function) is make us judgmental and ill-disposed towards one another.

Decorum is a state of mind, not of reality.

The final point, and one I want to make especially to people of the religious persuasion, is this notion I heard a lot growing up in conservative evangelicalism: "You need to look your best for God." I imagine lots of fathers and mothers have said these words, or something like them, to kids in an attempt to guilt them into putting on a tie or a dress to head to church (perhaps because a worship service can, oddly, be one of the most judgmental places on Earth a lot of the time). It's really irresponsible and dangerous, though.

God doesn't care how you look. Not at all. Even if you walk naked into an audience with the Queen of England. God does not care. This might seem an innocuous way to get kids to do things, but God isn't Santa; God it not a tool used to enforce behavior.^ The perception we have of God shapes our entire life and its largely formed early on. Don't do this to your kids. Don't set conditions by which they have to meet expectations to find approval. It's not healthy when you're the one withholding and it's not fair when you do it on God's behalf.

Yes, the whole world works this way - we typically have to earn the respect, love, and admiration of those around us - but it shouldn't be because of what we look like, but how we act and who we are. That's important and it's why dress codes make no sense.

*And the exposed button thing is real - I'm far more comfortable in a tie and I've never, ever worn a dress shirt without one - not once in my life. I've twice had to buy polo shirts specifically for work, because I gave them all away after leaving the first job that required them.

**For the record, even when attending a wedding, I don't intentionally dress to be noticed - I don't particularly like to be noticed - but I also don't see why we have to judge anyone who might do so, intentionally or otherwise.

^I'm opposed to Santa - and that God-forsaken Elf on a Shelf - for this and many other reasons.

1 comment:

Kelly Sue said...

Thank you! You have put my feelings into words. When visiting a church in Summer I intentions wear shorts and make sure my tattoo is showing to get a feel for the character of the people there. GA should be leading the way forward, not holding on to traditions that separate us.