Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Bikini Debate

If you haven’t already seen this video that’s been circulating on Facebook, take a look. It’ll be an interesting ten minutes of your life.

To recap, Jessica Rey, creator of a vintage swimwear line, talked about modesty and how women wearing bikinis cause men to view them as objects. This generated a surprising amount of discussion and debate—check out the comments on this blog for a sampling. Here are the two basic responses from Christians I’ve seen in various places on the Internet.

One: This is so great! Christian girls have no business running around wearing skimpy bikinis. Don’t they know how it affects men?

Two: This is outrageous! Christian girls should wear whatever swimwear they want—they’re not responsible for the reaction of others. Men need to learn how to control themselves.

And those are mild ways of phrasing the debate. I’ve also read a few comments that questioned the salvation of parents who let their teenage daughters wear bikinis and some that pointed to Rey’s attitude as one that leads to a culture where rape is common because people see the woman as the one to blame.

One of the Rey Swimwear suits
I want to say something totally different. See, I think that this discussion on swimwear is actually bringing up the central issue of Christian ethics, one the apostle Paul wrote about more than any other. (Seriously. I bet you didn’t even know Paul talked about swimwear 2000 years ago.)

When you strip down the bikini debate, both sides are really looking for someone to blame. There is a central fact: women in skimpy swimwear often cause men to lust. So whose fault is it? The anti-bikini people emphasize the responsibility women have to keep men from stumbling by the way they dress. The pro-bikini people are outraged that men aren’t being held responsible for their own lust.

But guess what? Christianity has never been about shame and blame. It’s about grace and love. So why aren’t we talking about those things? Because when you start talking about loving others, it’s no longer about whose fault it is. It’s about something else.

Let me explain. When swimming, I wear a tank top and board shorts that come almost to my knees, meaning that a significant portion of my body is covered up. Why? It is not because I feel ashamed that my body is a source of temptation. It is not because I feel pressured by Christian culture. It is not because I feel classier wearing a suit with more material.

It’s because I love my brothers.

Seriously. That’s it. Sometimes, when returning a too-short skirt, I have actually muttered under my breath, “I hope [name of guy friend] appreciates this.” Because I’m doing it for him, not because I’d feel self-conscious wearing it, and not because I’m afraid of what people think. I want to make it as easy as possible for the guys I know to relate to me as a sister in Christ and not as a sexual object.

Is refusing to lust their responsibility? Of course! But guess how much control I have over that? Exactly zero percent. Whereas I do have control over what I wear.

Say I wore a bikini and said to my male friends, “Hey, guys, you are responsible for where your mind goes right now, and it is your moral duty to treat me with respect regardless of how little clothing I’m wearing.” That is true, and they should do that. But doesn’t that sound a little…selfish?

And there’s the problem. I’m selfish. I want to wear the things I think make me look good (and since that’s highly influenced by culture, a lot of those things aren’t modest). I want attention. I want to be comfortable. I want to feel beautiful.

But the basic message of Christian ethics is that there is something more important than what I want or need: what you want or need. Putting others before myself sometimes means be willing to do what I can to keep someone else from sinning…even if that sin would be their fault and not mine.

This is hard, which might be why we don’t talk about it, even though it comes up all the time in the Bible. In debates about gender roles in marriage, we spend so much time picking apart Paul’s “household codes” that we miss the foundational truth that he starts with in Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

When it comes to debates in the church, Paul outright says that the people in the church who are afraid it’s sinful to eat meat offered to idols are wrong. It’s totally morally acceptable. But guess what he tells the church to do in Romans 14-15? Stop eating meat offered to idols. He goes on, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.

The people who are right and stronger in their faith give in to the weaker ones. And why? It’s in the next verse: “For even Christ did not please himself.”

We love because Christ loved us.

Jesus, Paul, John, and pretty much every New Testament writer all say the same thing: the most important mark of Christianity is love. A radical, others-focused love that means that I sacrifice what I want for you, even if you do not deserve it at all.

The Christian church, sadly, is not known for this. We are known for our divisions, for our church splits and bickering and divorce rate. But that can change.

We can talk all day about who is to blame for bikini-driven lust. But I don’t think that’ll do much good. I’d suggest this instead: If you’re a man, please ask, “What can I do to honor my sisters?” whether they’re dressed appropriately or not. If you’re a woman, please ask, “What can I do to honor my brothers?” even if that means a sacrifice on your part.

Love does not result in legalism or a rape culture or arbitrary hem length standards or oppressive chauvinism. It can’t. That’s not what love does. Love honors, unifies, and brings glory to God. For a Christian, the answer to the bikini debate (and maybe everything else) is love.

1 comment:

  1. "Paul sides with the weak but agrees with the strong" was the takeaway line from Romans 14 when we studied it. The tendency of the strong is to despise the weak (i.e. "filthy minded undisciplined sinners can't control their lusts") and the tendency of the weak is to judge the strong (i.e. "selfishness is not a fruit of the spirit; that person is not a Christian"). Both of these are rejected by Romans 14:3.

    It's true that the "strong" should waive their right to liberty out of love but I don't think it's the place of the weak to demand it. I appreciate the fact that you are doing just this.