Cultural Relativism and Modesty

Woman dressed for the Goroka sing-sing 2004I find comfort in the moral absolutes in the Holy Bible. I really do. I like to know what is right and what is wrong. The Ten Commandments are pretty clear to me. So is the Law of Love proclaimed by Jesus Christ. If you search the Scriptures (as I did) on modesty and clothing standards, it is pretty sketchy in terms of when it is good to expose what parts of skin and when it is not, or what styles of clothes are best. It does say a lot about avoiding lewdness, behaving modestly, and clothing oneself with good deeds. The Bible associates nakedness with shame in several passages, usually when that nakedness is caused by extreme poverty or deliberate humilitation. (I’ll not list them here. You can search the Scriptures yourself.)

I believe that if modesty were about square centimeters of skin exposure, looseness or tightness of clothes, or style of clothes, the Bible would have said so. After all, since God wants us to behave modestly, He would be fair enough to show us how, right? I believe the Judge of all the earth is fair as well as loving, just, and merciful. (Again, read the Holy Bible yourself for the evidence that supports my claim. Or, dispute my claim. Just read it.) Therefore, I believe that modesty (being the opposite of lewdness) has much more to do with attitude, sensitivity to the effects of your actions in others, and context than it has to do with legalistic measures of hemlines or skin exposure. What is perfectly acceptable in one culture and situation may be offensive in another situation. I may boldly walk in the nude between locker and shower in a public locker room, wear only a swim suit at a beach, and wear a nice suit or tuxedo at a wedding. In each of these cases, I would be totally out of place dressed as if I were at one of the other places.

The complexity of understanding what modesty is and is not grows when crossing cultural barriers. Take, for example, a woman dressed in traditional attire for a cultural celebration in Papua New Guinea. Chances are better than even that the clothing and decoration will not cover her breasts. Having lived in that hot place, I understand that. Now, when sorting through photos to share with the world at our most recent photo gallery (as well as our old Papua New Guinea photo gallery), I had a dilemma. I had many good and culturally insightful photos to share that were in no way offensive in their own context, but which could possibly be considered inappropriate by some of the people in other cultural contexts who would see those photos. (This works both ways, by the way. There are some things commonly seen in the USA and Australia that would be considered totally inappropriate in many of the Papua New Guinean cultures, including some things commonly seen at church.) Of course, I realize that I can’t please everyone (especially certain Muslim extremists), but I can at least be sensitive to Christian members of cultures I’m familiar with.
So, what is a Christian web editor to do? Engage in culturally-sensitive image selection, creative cropping, or in some cases, resolution reduction; and hope that my Christian brothers and sisters practice the grace of God as well as appreciating the grace God gives us. 🙂

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