What Would Jesus Wear? (WWJW?)

What Would Jesus Wear? (WWJW?) July 2, 2012
Jesus as urban emergent hipster.

I hesitate to admit that I’ve put some thought into this question.  This is not due to vanity — although, as you’ll see, I’m certainly not free of that unattractive quality — but due to my interest in mortifying the desires of the flesh and imitating Christ.  Though my wife and friends might be surprised to hear it, I’ve actually given a lot of thought to what I ought to wear.

I first gave it serious reflection when, as a young teenager, I watched the movie Gandhi (starring Ben Kingsley in the title role) and became a big fan.  Ultimately I spent many hours reading the memoirs and writings of Mohandas Gandhi and Mother Teresa, both of whom wore a plain Indian sari.  By wearing plain and crude saris, they identified with the poor of their (adopted or native) homeland.  It was a more political act for Gandhi than it was for Mother Teresa.  By choosing the sari he was rejecting western clothing standards at a critical juncture in India’s struggle for independence from the British empire.  For Mother Teresa, the sari was more spiritual.  If she would share in the lives of the poorest of the poor, she should share in their circumstances and make herself at home in the trappings of their common lot.  The sari is also practical, and by wearing the same thing daily one eludes the temptations of fashion and the distractions of daily sartorial decision-making.

The idea was deeply appealing to me.  Even as late as my college years, I had visions (though, like most of my visions, I never mentioned these to anyone) of abandoning the consumeristic, materialistic concerns of fashion and donning something more like a sari or like a robe that Jesus might have worn in his time and place.  I had, in fact, very little respect for people who dressed too fashionably.  Why should they care so much about something so ephemeral, so superficial?  Why should they try so hard to attract the eyes of others?  Did it matter so much to be noticed?

Invariably, I came back to the same answer: while the sari would not attract attention in the slums of India, or while a tunic/robe would blend in perfectly for Jesus’ apostles in first-century Palestine, they would be like blaring neon “LOOK AT ME” signs there at an American university.  While I would not be attracting attention for the purpose of showing how hip and worldly I am, I would be attracting attention for the purpose of showing how different and otherworldly I am.  I considered leaving my hair unkempt, or shaving it monk-like, or growing dread-locks, but it occurred to me that I would be like those teenagers who muss their hair just so, who wrinkle their clothes just like this, who buy jeans ripped just like that, and who adopt the unshaven and slovenly and disinterested look — who, in other words, go to extraordinary lengths to attract everyone’s attention in order to communicate, in flat self-contradiction, how little they care what other people think.  I want you to look and think very hard about how little I care what you think of me. Except my variation would be, I want you to look and think very hard about how holy I am because I have rejected western clothing standards.  If I had worn a sari around the Stanford campus, my pretentious anti-fashion would be attracting far more attention than any outfit in GQ could possibly be, all for the sake of flattering my spiritual pride.

Now, before I go much further, don’t get me wrong.  Fashion, rare though this is (in my opinion), can be an important and eloquent form of self-expression.  While I fear that our sartorial decisions are most often swayed by what we think other people want or expect us to wear, by the determination to fit in with our desired social circle, or by simple vanity, there are those who do it well.  They do not dress according to who they think others want them to be but according to who they are and aspire to be, and that can be a fine thing.  So I do not mean to reject fashion entirely.  Most of my friends dress more for comfort and professional presentability, but some ride the clothing cutting edge and do it well.  There are also some ways in which we can, with our clothing and with other outside-the-body markers, provide visual reminders for others and for ourselves of the ways in which we want to live our lives.  A tattoo, a bracelet, or a tattered shirt can serve as a reminder that we are God’s and we should live in ways that reflect his truth.

So, how do you determine what to wear?  What are the values, the priorities, the rules of thumb that guide your choice of clothing on different occasions? Jesus tells us not to worry over our clothing, by which he means not to worry whether we will have clothing, trusting that God will provide, but he provides little guidance at all regarding what to wear.  Elsewhere in the scriptures, we are encouraged to dress humbly and modestly, not tempting others to sin, and to dress in ways that are sensitive to the local culture and will not harm our witness.  What biblical guidance have you found especially helpful?

When I travel, I dress in ways that show respect for my employee and the people with whom I’m meeting.  When I go to church, I try to dress in a way that expresses a kind of familial respect for God.  In the rest of my life, however, I try, essentially, to blend in.  Not because I want to conform, but because I want my clothing to be almost completely non-noteworthy.  I aim to be neither pretentious over-dressed nor pretentiously under-dressed, neither attracting attention for my cutting-edge fashion nor attracting attention for my rejection of western clothing standards.  I want to mortify my desire to be noticed for being stylish and hip — and I want to mortify my desire to be noticed for being holy or counter-cultural.

So I ask myself, What is the equivalent of a sari in contemporary American culture?  If Jesus wore a tunic or robe back in first-century Palestine, what would be the equivalent in twenty-first century America?

My answer: jeans and a t-shirt.  That’s what I wear.  How about you?

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  • greg huguley

    Timothy, how in the world can you write this post without referring to Ed Young Jr.? I was waiting for it all the way till the end 😉

  • ken H

    Much of my clothing comes from the second-hand store. The exceptions are under-clothes and clothes at deep discount. So I say, second-hand might be the modern sari, but you can get really nice clothing in many sizes there too.

  • Kristen

    Do you think it makes a difference if you’re adopting distinctive dress on your own or as part of a community?

    So, for instance, in the early 1950s, Mother Teresa was quite inconspicuous in her sari in India.

    But now there’s an international congregation. The Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx will be wearing the same thing, and by virtue of that be immediately identifiable as people who are consecrated to serving the poorest of the poor out of the love of Jesus. It means something different in the Bronx than it did in Calcutta, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. There seems to be value on both sides.

  • Tommy O’Keefe

    On an average day I wear a pair of jeans and a button up shirt.

    Quick aside: do you think the question “What would Jesus wear” also has important ethical answers? Would Jesus wear clothes made in sweatshops? Would he consume goods that were cheap because they use slave labor or the equivalent in their production?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I do think, Tommy, that Christians should make a reasonable effort to determine the provenance of the goods they enjoy, and should not send their dollars toward those who perpetrate unjust or inhumane practices, either against animals or against people.

    • Ira Dernotsei

      “Would Jesus wear clothes made in sweatshops? ”

      Not would He, but did he? Yes, according to living standards, the clothes Jesus wore were likely produced by folks living in much more destitute squalor than those working in today’s garment industries around the globe. But let’s not stop there, would Jesus boycott goods which brought an income to towns and villages that would otherwise starve? Not likely. Was Jesus an economist? Probably not, though he understood economic principals and the laws of equity. I think it’s summed up best when the Jewish leaders begged the question of whether He would pay tribute to the Romans and he simply answered, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesars and unto G_d that which is G_d’s.” In short, I don’t think He cared!

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        Well, I didn’t want to get into this, but yes, there is a difference between slave labor and garment facilities that pay very low wages relative to American salaries but good wages relative to the local economies. When it is slave labor — and sometimes it *is* slave labor, even here in the United States, as anyone who has studied modern slavery knows — then of course it’s wrong and I think Christians should not support it. For the most part, as long as people are free *not* to work at the factory, the fact that they choose to work at the factory indicates that it is better than their other options. Still, there are also labor practices that can be terribly exploitative, really taking advantage of the fact that the locals have no options, and thus drawing them into an employment situation that is better than starvation but still inhumane. I do think Jesus would have cared about those things, but good and reasonable people can differ on boundary cases.

  • Jesse

    Hello Timothy,
    Thanks for what you do here. I enjoy your writings immensely. Not to be a nitpicker, but saris are worn only by women in India. Gandhi-ji’s attire is properly referred to as a “dhoti.” And indeed both are made from a single piece of cloth. Sorry, but as a resident here for the past 6 years, I felt compelled to make a comment. Keep up the good work, Brother.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, Jesse! I had wondered about that, but it’s been a long time since I read Gandhi’s autobiography. Thanks!

    • Dogbert

      ^^^Obviously a man all puffed up with his knowledge of Indian culture.^^^
      Repent of your pride, Jesse! (JUST KIDDING!)

  • Gail Steelhammer-Cohen

    Yup jeans and T-shirt or blouse – pretty much my uniform

  • Bob Pegram

    I saw a movie of an interview with somebody who was sent to found the New York extension of Mother Teresa’s ministry. The woman who was interviewed said they purposely pulled all of the perfectly good carpet and anything else “modern” that increased comfort in order to live “humbly.” If they had kept anything that made life easier until it wore out, THEN tore it out, that would make sense, but they went out of their way to deny common comforts just so they could supposedly be more godly. It actually cost more money and wasted people’s time to do that. In other words, they have a VERY warped view of what is godly – a view that somebody who thought they could earn salvation would have. Mother Teresa also said she would make a Hindu a better, Hindu, a Moslem a better Moslem, etc. So much for evangelism and Jesus being the only way to the Father. I sometimes wonder if Mother Teresa went to the presence of God or not.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      There’s a documentary from the Petrie sisters, narrated by Richard Attenborough, that shows the founding of the Missionaries of Charity order. I’m more sympathetic to what they did. There is a kind of spiritual discipline in living as simply as possible, as free as possible from material possessions and creature comforts. It’s a hard way to go, but it’s a part of their monastic vow, and they believe it better enables them to enter into the circumstances of the poorest of the poor and to focus on their mission of serving others. Seen as a spiritual discipline, I totally get it.

  • Taylor

    I used to wear jeans and a t-shirt, but then I had to mortify my desire for human approval at a fashion-sense so lacking in pretense (in either direction). So now I just go naked.