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Thursday, October 4, 2012

When God wants you naked

I was in downtown Portland with my wife and a few of our friends when a few stragglers from the annual naked bicycle run made their way down the street nearby. There were two men, fully exposed as one might rightly expect, and one woman, who also pedaled her way past us. Her bare breasts and pubic hair were clearly visible. I saw her in her nakedness just as I saw the men before her. I saw her face red with exhaustion as sweat gathered above her brows—liberation not without difficulty. Her body gave away all her secrets and all those gathered took them in only to whisper about them later.

But was she wrong in that moment? Was I? Was her flagrant display of her naked body an act of lewdness and my witness of it unmitigated lust? What of the men? Shall we chastise them also for the stumbling block they undoubtedly presented to all the unsuspecting female observers?

What about those artists who gaze upon the nudity of their subject, whom, poised in stillness, are captured in that moment on canvas and presented before the scrupulous eyes of instructors, peers and other connoisseurs of art? Shall we condemn the subject for his or her display? Shall we not also condemn the artist who masquerades such nudity under the vague notion of art?

This, I believe, is the problem of nudity. When does a man’s appreciation of a woman’s beauty become lust and a women’s display of it become lewd and sinful (and vice versa)? Is it wrong for a woman or a man to be nude in public and is it wrong for others to observe it when it occurs? What if the man or woman is, well, quite ugly? And what if he or she is attractive?

For me, the issue is relatively clear. It is wrong for me, as a male human being, to look upon another human being, whether male or female, lustfully. This can happen when the subject of my lust is clothed or unclothed. The issue then is one that resides primarily in our hearts and not in any given action itself. It is certainly perfectly fine for me to look upon my wife and desire her, but it is not similarly okay for another man to do so.

But let’s try and unpack this further and you can help inform me when I may have crossed some lines. Before I get too far along, however, let me say that I do think that men and women can use their bodies as instruments to entice others to lust. I can say that some women are exceptionally good at this and are exemplars of Paul's age old warning against being stumbling blocks for others. But my concern here is whether or not the base act of nudity is itself wrong.

Nudity is not wrong per se

That is to say, nudity is not morally wrong in and of itself. All of us can think of circumstances where being naked is not morally wrong and, in some circumstances, quite appropriate. Almost all of my routine physicals were performed by women. I distinctly recall, with no shortage of embarrassment, the stoic face of the female nurse who performed an ultrasound on my nether-boys. These same sorts of circumstances happen with women too, where women are exposed to the prying eyes and instruments of health professionals.

Public bathing has been around for millennia and existed as a firm practice in ancient Rome during the time of Jesus. Jewish scholars were actually forbidden from living in an area were public baths did not exist! Today there are men’s and women’s locker rooms where patrons move around in various stages of undress. So it seems rather safe to say that, at the very least, gender-segregated nudity is fine.

Moreover, I think we can all easily construct some creative moral dilemmas wherein we are actually compelled to be witness to the nudity of either gender. For instance, if you are familiar with the biblical story of the Good Samaritan who aids the naked and bedraggled Jewish man, you know it can be reworked and still be just as compelling. What if a man well on his way to some pressing engagement sees a naked woman on the brink of death? Is he not morally compelled to help? I think so. It’s a troubling thing that fear of sin can cause us to run away from those in most need of our love.

The subjectivity of beauty complicates things

Many elementary school libraries are furnished with playboys, though you may not think so. I can recall the many Natural Geographic magazines that had naked indigenous men and women blazoned upon their pages. Most people recognize this as an aspect of cultural dissimilarity, inasmuch as certain cultures view nudity in different ways. But then WHY is it okay for us in a culture NOT LIKE THEIRS to view it in magazines like Natural Geographic? When our magazines are laden with naked women, we usually call it indecent, or worse, pornography. It is, I am convinced, a form of racism to say it is okay for us to view their men and women as naked but not ours.

This inevitably leads to the question of beauty. That is to say, is the act of looking at a naked person made less wrong if we are not attracted to them? I know that national geographic women aren't typically my cup of tea and seeing images of them does not leave me with a rotting knot of guilt in my stomach. But we cannot go around telling doctors to only help ugly people and artists to sculpt and paint only the most unpleasant of us. We certainly cannot go around making laws and rules that regulate nudity based on one’s appearance. For one, it would be an incredible case of discrimination. And for seconds, beauty is often different among individual observers, sometimes drastically. I’m reminded of the time my wife and I were driving to the Oregon coast and we passed a deforested, mountainous lot of land that was desolate, grey and sort of bleak. I found this to be incredibly beautiful—a sort of sad beauty. My wife totally and utterly disagreed. To her, it was nothing but ugly. Beauty cannot be legally or objectively regulated—it’s simply not possible.

But the larger issue is the fact that we often tacitly admit that there is nothing wrong with seeing a person naked who we are not attracted to. That is why we segregate locker rooms by gender, because, by and large, men are not attracted to other men. Of course, with the increase of gay rights and awareness and other gender related issues, this once fine line is increasingly skewed. Is a gay man sinning if he sees another man naked in the locker-room? No more than any other straight man, I would say. It would be wrong if the man allowed himself to dwell on some extremely strong sexual desire (or, as we call it, lust).

But this sort of strong sexual desire is not unique to some specific environment or set of circumstances. Thus this must equally apply to circumstances where nudity is deemed as appropriate. For instance, when a doctor sees his or her patient in the nude, this could become wrong if the doctor dwells on some strong sexual desire. This, unfortunately, is not unheard of.

Of course, it must be rightfully admitted that it is easier to lust after someone you are attracted to. And that seems to really be what is at stake. Can men and women alike learn to bridle their hearts and keep themselves from dwelling upon strong sexual desires? If the other is not actually trying to entice you to lust, I actually don't find it to be very hard at all. The naked bicycle riding woman, for instance, was not trying to entice anyone to lust, though many could. But then again, many could even if she were clothed!

The Bible and Nudity

It may be noted with some sadness that Jesus was, in reality, naked as soldiers cast lots for his garments. Jesus bore the jeers of those who mocked him as he, naked as the day he was born, was flogged and ultimately crucified in the public sphere. There are also instances where God commanded public nudity of his servants:

In Isaiah 20, it references God’s command for Isaiah to travel for three years in the nude. It also references that this was a sign of what the King of Assyria should do:

So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt.
This sort of mass public nudity seemingly includes all the exiles, both male and female, without deference to any sort of gender segregation.  In 1 Samuel 19, Saul is said to have stripped off his clothes and prophesied in the nude: 
And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
In the New Testament, we have the account of Peter fishing naked in John 21:
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
It seems that there is nothing inherently wrong with nudity. In fact, when you do a bible search for the word “naked,” you’ll see that it is most commonly in reference to the shame associated with being exposed publicly  Just remember that original Eden scene where Adam and Eve were naked and “they were not ashamed.” As a product of the fall, men and women became ashamed of their nudity and on what level has Christ allowed us to be redeemed from that shame, if at all? 

I’m not certain. But I do know that those protesters who took to the streets in the nude actually possessed a lot of courage to overcome our natural proclivity to fear the exposure of our bodies. I can also say their public display of nudity was nothing that prophets of God did not do thousands of years before them. I also know that the true source of the problem is within our own hearts. To combat human lust we build walls and barriers around what we perceive to be the problem. We could follow in the footsteps of the other religious group, who ensure that their women are clothed to the point where even exposing their lascivious eyes may be too much of a stumbling block for men! How is it that we conveniently ignore those cultures where men and women can walk around in virtually total undress with no observable differences in lust? The problem is not our bodies, it's our hearts.