The Works of Mercy: Clothe the Naked

Nake” is an extinct English word meaning to strip clothes off. To be “naked” is therefore be in a state of “having had your clothes stripped off”.

Why does this bit of pedantry matter? Because it speaks volumes about what our ancestors regarded as the “natural state of man”. It is not until after the Reformation, the rise of the Enlightenment, and, especially, the rise of technologies that allow Northern Europeans to maintain a bit of comfiness in chill weather that we start to see the rise of so-called “Adamite” movements (later frankly renamed Nudist movements) which attempt to propose to enthusiasts that our natural state is to walk around without clothes and that clothes are an unnatural encumbrance on our glorious childlike freedom.

For our ancestors of not many generations back, such a proposal was not just silly in a practical sense, it was also just about 180 degrees backwards from the normal conception. Fallen man was, so to speak, born clothed. Something unnatural had to be done—he had to undergo some process of naking, for him to end up naked. It was seen, not as a return to simplicity and beauty, but as a shameful state and pity—or scorn—was heaped on those found to be in it, not breezy Haight-Ashbury approval.

Those who have not been sophisticated out of this basic insight retain it for the most part. It’s why there are men’s and women’s bathrooms and stalls even in these so we do not have to expose ourselves to strangers. It’s why comic sketches, movies and stories of the bawdy variety love the figure of a man caught in public without his pants or a woman without her clothes. It’s why the Nazis, in addition to murdering their victims, loved the extra cruelty of forcing them to strip naked. It’s why the Son of God was stripped naked by the agents of the devil as he hung upon the cross. To nake someone, to make them naked publically, is universally understood as taking away something of their human dignity. Clothes, in some mystical sense, quite literally make the man.

It is customary at this point to start pointing to the enormous diversity of culturally relative issues that crowd in upon this assertion. A Kalihari Bushman and, say, Martha Washington have altogether different ideas of what being dressed means. Moses’ notions of what constitutes shameful dress differ markedly from, say, my wife in her jeans padding around the garden (Deuteronomy 22:5 The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.) And so forth.

Great fun can be had with all these cultural differences and Puritans and Libertines have a wonderful time dogmatizing about and ignoring completely the complex interplay of aesthetics, common sense, and morality as they jockey to either raise a fashion to a granite truth of Sinai, or else eradicate the very possibility that modesty is a virtue. Puritans are dead certain they know what good and evil clothing is and which movements of a button or hemline mark the flight from Righteousness to Sin. Libertines are quite certain that any thought concerning the symbolic function of clothing is Puritanism. For Libertines, all this is of a piece with the sort of easy relativism that majors in minors to attempts to say that “People have disputed whether you can have one wife or several, therefore we can safely say that human morality does not exist and you can have any woman you like” or “People quibble about what sort of war constitutes just war, so we can safely say that it’s okay to kill whoever you like, just so long as you win.”

In fact, however, the very first major thing to note about human views on clothing is that, while many may argue about what clothes are proper, everybody normally wears some kind of clothes. That’s why nudists live in colonies and do not (yet) work in your office. It may only be a loincloth or a string of beads, but the thing that marks homo sapiens off from the rest of the animal kingdom is that he feels the deep psychological need to not be naked, even when there is no possible physical need for clothing in order to stay warm (as, for instance, at the Equator).

This is, of course, what gives the lie to the notion that the account in Genesis is somehow the cause of a Religion of Shame About the Body and all the rest of the recent rubbish blaming Judaism and Christianity for failing to celebrate unnatural polymorphous perversity and unfettered sexual license. The fact is, Genesis is accounting for a phenomenon that is as old as humanity and just as common among the Hottentots, the ancient Druids and the Japanese as it is among Jews and Christians: the fact that humans feel the deep psychological need to be clothed and the intense need to avoid public naking, except in very specifically prescribed cultural and social ritual situations. A Roman might be at ease in the baths without a stitch on. But it doesn’t follow that he strolled home that way. Archimedes may have leapt from the tub and run screaming “Eureka!” through the streets buck naked, but the reason we know the story today is because this was just as unconventional to Greeks and Romans as streakers at a ball game are to us today.

It is because clothes have so very much to do with our dignity as human beings that Jesus urges us to clothe the naked. But this confronts us with a problem. As with every counsel of Jesus, the command to clothe the naked has both a practical and spiritual dimension because grace builds on nature. And there’s the rub: My encounters with the naked beggar are fairly rare, as are yours. The guys I meet in the soup kitchen line at my beloved Blessed Sacrament parish in Seattle are not naked. Nor are the homeless guys you meet in your town. Once again, we discover we live in a society where the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid is pretty well covered. The purely animal need for insulating cloth in which to enwrap the human organism is pretty well covered in the First World. Clothing banks swell to bursting with free clothing of every size. Rare indeed is the opportunity for us in the First World to live out Jesus’ command, “If any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40).

However, if we cast our view further abroad, we discover that this is not the case universally. At this hour, many millions of Lazaruses around the world sit naked or nearly naked for a simple reason: they cannot afford clothes and the clothes they have—ragged, infested with maggots and insects and covered with their own blood, pus, and vomit—are the only shield they have from cold, heat—and shame. Each one of these persons is Jesus Christ. Clothe him and you have clothed the Son of the Living God and he will not forget it on That Day. That’s the basic insistence of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

But other considerations enter in as well. On the one hand, clothes are symbolic of our external lives, of the junk that, at the ends of the day, doesn’t matter. So, for instance, Jesus tells us that the body is more than clothes (Luke 12:23). But, on the other hand, clothes are also associated in the biblical mind with the outward expression of what is stored up in the heart. Jesus describes those ejected from the Great Marriage Feast as being thrown out because they neglected to wear the Wedding Garment (Matthew 22:1-14). In Scripture, you do not show up for a feast in rags, nor for a fast in rich apparel but in sackcloth and ashes. In short, clothes are never just clothes. They mean. They express. Clothes are also extensions of ourselves and they can even be sacramental. In the Old Testament, there is enormous attention paid to clothing—particularly the clothing of the High Priest—because clothing speaks. For similar reasons, Paul tells us:

Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:12-14)

And so the Church tells the newly baptized, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity.”

Because of all this, it was not very hard for Christian missionaries to conflate their own culture’s current notions about clothing with revelation. Reasoning, “We are from Christian Europe while these are savages” many missionaries assumed that evangelization meant “adoption of Western dress.” The results were sometimes some of the silliest and worst features of colonialism: Africans forced to abandon their own customary clothing because European missionaries decided the savages needed to wear a 19th century frock coat and top hat in the middle of Equatorial Africa. Much can be made of such folly and the enemies of the Church’s missionary enterprise have done so. But, of course, these enemies of Christian evangelization think nothing whatever of insisting on the entire Third World having imposed upon it one particular piece of clothing called the condom. Indeed, the First World labors with might and main at this hour to fill the Third World with Madonna t-shirts, Nike shoes, and the rest of the output of post-Christian consumer culture. What has changed is not the tendency of Euro-American culture to impose itself on the world, but what that culture now regards as the highest good. It used to be God. Now it is consumerist hedonist democratic capitalism.

And what is more, the First World has largely succeeded in these efforts. For all the maundering hears in PC circles about the horrors of Christian evangelization eradicating Native cultures, one seldom sees Chinese diplomats speaking before the UN in 17th Century Chinese garb, untouched by Western fashion trends. Visit New Zealand and the Maori guys you meet there will be cheerfully dressed in jeans and t shirt, not pining for pre-colonial Maori fashion. You don’t bump into Japanese women with bound feet (thank God) and the guys who run the gigantic gaudy casino on the Indian reservation a few miles north of me have tastes that run more toward Gucci and less toward the sartorial choices of Chief Sealth. In a global economy, it turns out that people prefer what’s cheap, comfortable and trendy over the solemn preservation of their own indigenous culture. It may be a loss, but it’s a loss as old as Joseph’s cheerful readiness to abandon his own Semitic fashion choices for the clothes, perfumes and makeup of the Egyptian elite.

All this is to say that while we are commanded to clothe the naked, the Church has largely left it up to us and our very loosey goosey sense of what is appropriate in how we are to do that. Missionaries in the Church’s history (like Matteo Ricci) have adopted the approach of wearing whatever it is the locals are wearing. Others have thought it necessary to define “naked”, not as “lacking clothes” but as “lacking modest clothes”. In our sexually deranged post-Christian culture, it is easy to dismiss such people as cultural imperialists, while forgetting that some of this thinking is directed, not at “savages” but, quite justifiably, at our own culture. One can for instance, question the wisdom of clothing seven year olds as slatterns and sending them out in public to perform “Single Ladies”. Technically, they were clothed. Indeed, they had more clothes on than a Kalihari Bushman. But, in the grammar of fashion as it is spoken in the West, what was being said was “Show me a culture that despises virginity and I’ll show you a culture that despises childhood innocence.” Such an act is calculated, not to cloth the naked, but to come as close as possible to naking the clothed for the delectation of perverts. It should not shock us that such a culture produces consumers of child porn to such a huge extent.

All this is to say that clothing, like all things human, is not something you can reduce to mere materialism, any more than the words on this screen can be adequately understood only as electrons. Clothes have a language and grammar that speak in highly particular cultural contexts. What is essential is to understand that language and grammar as we clothe the naked, just as we must understand it as we feed the hungry. Nobody wears mere clothes just as nobody eats mere food. Offer bacon to a starving Jew after World War II and you are not doing a work of charity but adding insult to injury. Give a burqa to your feminist daughter-in-law as a wedding present and you are saying something. As a general rule, the command to cloth the naked is concerned, primarily, not with the need for human warmth as the need for human dignity. Both the Puritan and the Libertine tend to forget this. The Puritan forgets by putting some arbitrary rule above the person’s healthy sense of modesty in relation to his culture. The Libertine forgets it by denying that a culture (usually his own) has any language by which virtue or vice is spoken through clothes. Our task as Catholics is to clothe naked in accord with the language of clothing he or she speaks and to acknowledge their human dignity thereby. It is to remember that clothes were made for man, not man for clothes and that, above all, we are to

put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:9-14)

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


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