Of Christian-College Dress Codes and the Sermon on the Mount

I’ve never been fully fluent in the sociological terminology that usually accompanies these sorts of discussions, and I studiously avoid Internet neologisms that sometimes arise out of the same (though I’m not above lampooning them), but while teaching the Sermon on the Mount in conjunction with Plato’s Republic last year (yes, I do this every fall semester, and no, that’s not weird), I couldn’t help but note the strange ways that my own Christian college’s dress code runs counter to one of the most-easily-dismissed passages in the Sermon on the Mount as Matthew relates it.

My hunch is that, when most of us encounter the chopping-off-hands bit of the Sermon, we’ve got some sort of hermeneutic tool at the ready to dispatch it.  Whether it’s the reading that holds amputation-and-self-disfigurement as a hyperbole indicating the impossibility of fulfilling the law or whether it’s an allegorical reading that regards “hands” and “eyes” as workers and overseers who must be purged from the Church “body” lest they lead the whole body into the “flames” of schism and such, or whether it’s another configuration that I’m not remembering as I write this, just about everyone with whom I speak has some device for reading that passage.  And that’s a good thing: since there have been so few hook-and-eye-patch congregations in Christian history, I’m inclined to think that there’s a wisdom rather than an apostasy behind our hermeneutical practices.

The Grammar of Gouging Eyeballs

But such hermeueutical practices, I’m inclined to think, sometimes blind us to some of the basic, subject-and-predicate matters that lie in the text itself.  Here’s the verse in four English translations, used respectively by broad swaths of Evangelicals; by conservative Protestants; by liberal Protestants; and by Roman Catholics.  One grammatical feature occurs to me in each:

New International Version

Matthew 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

English Standard Version

Matthew 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

New Revised Standard Version

27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

New Jerusalem Bible

Matthew 5:27. ‘You have heard how it was said, You shall not commit adultery.
28. But I say this to you, if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29. If your right eye should be your downfall, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body thrown into hell.
30. And if your right hand should be your downfall, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body go to hell.

I’ve provided four translations, usually associated with rather different folks within the Christians of the twenty-first century, not merely to be tedious (though there’s a joy in that as well) but to note that the grammatical feature is not particular to “liberal” or “fundamentalist” Bibles; it’s something that translators of all persuasions reproduce.  To wit, as Jesus frames it, in Matthew 5:29, the eye, not the body of one’s neighbor, causes one to sin.

The grammar is easy enough to see; the infinitive follows the causal verb.  But the way that my own college (and, my hunch is, others) justify dress-code policy, the Sermon on the Mount gets turned on its head.  If lust occurs, the way that student-life folks tend to tell us, the defect is not in the eye of the one looking but in the body of the one looked-at.  (Yes, feminist theorists, I’m feigning a bit of illiteracy with regards to gaze-discourse so that I can attempt these thoughts with a different vocabulary.  No, I don’t think it’s always good or necessary to re-invent the wheel.  Bear with me.)  Thus, although the relationship between the looked-at and the looker persists, we locate the defect in that defective relationship precisely opposite where Jesus did.

That’s where Plato came in for me: as those who have read and taught the Republic know, the aim of education in Plato’s famous cave-allegory is not to provide sight to an eye incapable of sight; such healing is the stuff of Aesculapius or perhaps Jesus.  Rather, those of us without divine healing-gifts practice the art of education in order to broaden the scope of the mind’s vision and to re-orient that intellectual sight, teaching students to be mindful of relationships between particular entities and the grand forms in which those entities participate rather than merely in the existence and location of the particulars.  (That’s how I teach the cave-allegory, anyway.)

I’m not saying that Jesus had read his Plato (that seems at least improbable, even if not entirely impossible), but I will say that the image of the eye’s scope and orientation might just get us asking different questions about eyes, hands, and sins; and the Sermon on the Mount might just have something to say about the way we think about how college women dress when the weather gets uncomfortably hot in Georgia.  (In Georgia, we call those months April through October.)  Perhaps, instead of thinking that the eye has a fixed nature and that the world should adjust to it, we might take the saying in another allegorical/spiritual direction, taking the eye-removal and the hand-removal as allegorical transformations of the soul.  Perhaps part of the spiritual discipline of a Christian might include the ability to see a world in which human beings, body and all, aren’t to be possessed, in the imagination or otherwise, but celebrated.

How Shall We Then Dress?

Now as far as concrete policy goes, I’m afraid I don’t have a great deal of certainty to offer.  I’m inclined, as someone with a generally conservative bent, to say that the particular complexity of each school should be the starting point, not the postscript, for conversations about school rules, but I do think that this sort of mindset-shift might at least shift the terms of the conversation.

At the very least, in light of the call to transform the eye of the soul, the squirrelly grammar of “not leading men into temptation” becomes so unintelligible that dress codes as we know it don’t make sense any more.  But then again, we might say that Romans 14 has something to add, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with certain modes of dress but that we avoid them nonetheless for the sake of those who are weak-minded.  (Not natural, mind you–the hope would remain that the weak-minded gain some strength at some point.)  In that scenario, we would not chide women not to be objects–of temptation or otherwise–but to take the position of the person who is at liberty to do or to exist in a certain way but, for the sake of those less powerful, doesn’t.

Or we might say that, in the interest of living peaceably (a la 1 Peter), we submit, even in contradiction to the ontological change that occurs when we become that royal priesthood, to the expectations of the world surrounding us (after all, we all know better than to assume that the entire world is likewise convinced ), provided that they do not violate the conscience, in the interest of winning some by virtue of our good works.  Once again, such a position would insist that those eyes which treat bodies as objects rather than God-beloved desiring and desired persons, and not the body treated as the object, are the roots of those sorts of evil.  But the policy move would not be automatic.

Then again, it might be that the moment arrives when a community devoted to learning says that neither the books we read nor the clothes we wear are for the sake of perpetuating the weak-mindedness of some but precisely to challenge ideas that locate the blame wrongly (if my reading of Matthew 5 is correct) with the looked-at rather than the looker.  It could be that teaching Greek tragedy and listening the Wagnerian opera and going to classes with attractive classmates should simply be parts of what it means to become a responsible Christian human being.

I’ll admit here that I don’t know.  But I do insist that the contest does not happen between the “biblical” supporters of certain sexually-anxious dress codes and the “secular” opponents of the same.  As with other questions of this sort, my own inquiry is going to deal with which way of being Biblical ultimately leads to a responsible, faithful life of discipleship.  That question, I think, lies open still.

1 thought on “Of Christian-College Dress Codes and the Sermon on the Mount

  1. Thanks for this post, Professor Gilmore.  Your commentary was a launching pad for a conversation with my oldest son who is starting his freshman year of high school today (a public high school).  We talked not only about Matthew 5, but also Matthew 7.  He and I both put the log of lust firmly in our own eye and acknowledge that the spec of fashion choices in our (female) neighbor’s eye is not only out of our control, but not or chief concern. He and I will pray together for God’s grace that as both of us pursue our current vocations – whether at the high school or at the office – we will resist the temptation to objectify women, lust after them, and then share blame with them for our sin by how they dress.  And when we fail, we will – by that same grace from God – confess our sin with remorse and repent with hope that day by day we can be men who love our neighbor as ourselves.

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