Clothe the Naked: Acknowledging the Need for Human Dignity

Connecting the Dots: A Register Series on the Corporal Works of Mercy

Detail of Works of Mercy by Pierre Montallier (1680)
Detail of Works of Mercy by Pierre Montallier (1680) (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nake is an archaic English word meaning “to strip clothes off.” To be “naked,” therefore, is to 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.

While a couple of groups attempted it in warmer Mediterranean climates in early Christendom, it is not until after the Reformation, the rise of the Enlightenment and, especially, the rise of technologies that allowed Northern Europeans to maintain a bit of comfort in chill weather that Northerners really started to see the rise of so-called “Adamite” movements (later frankly renamed nudist movements), which propose that our natural state is to walk around buck naked on the theory 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 normality. 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. Pity — or scorn — was heaped on those found to be naked, not breezy “Flower Child” approval.

Those who have not been sophisticated out of this basic insight retain it. It’s why there are men’s and women’s bathrooms and stalls, even, in them. It’s why people revolt against TSA scanners stripping you naked electronically. It’s why the Nazis, in addition to murdering their victims, savored the extra cruelty of forcing them to strip naked.

It’s why the Son of God was stripped naked by the agents of Satan as he hung upon the cross. To nake someone, to strip them publicly, is universally understood as taking away their human dignity. Clothes, in some mystical sense, quite literally make the man.

It is because clothes have so very much to do with our human dignity 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: Our encounters with the naked beggar are fairly rare. The people I meet in the soup kitchen line at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle are not naked. Nor are the homeless folk 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 anyone 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 because they cannot afford clothes, and the clothes they have are the only shield they have from cold, heat — and shame.

Each one of these is Jesus Christ. Clothe them, and you have clothed the Son of the Living God, who will not forget it on That Day.

But other considerations enter in, too. On the one hand, clothes symbolize our external lives — the junk that doesn’t matter at the end of the day. So Jesus tells us that the body is more than clothes (Luke 12:23). But, on the other hand, clothes also express what is in the heart.

In the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, the sinner is thrown out because he 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 merely clothes. They mean. They express. Clothes are also extensions of ourselves, and they can even be sacramental. In the Old Testament, there is, for instance, enormous attention paid to 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.”

This is easy to misapply, as European missionaries did in reasoning, “We are from Christian Europe, while these Africans are savages.” The results were some of the silliest acts of colonialism: Africans forced to abandon their own customary clothing and wear 19th-century frock coats and top hats in Equatorial Africa. Much can be made of such folly, and the enemies of the Church’s missionary enterprise have not hesitated to do so.

But these same enemies of evangelization think nothing of imposing one particular piece of clothing called the condom on the entire developing world. Indeed, the First World labors with might and main to fill the developing world with Madonna T-shirts, Nike shoes and the rest of the output of a post-Christian consumer culture that is every bit as colonial as Victorian England. It’s just that the colonizers are now corporations instead of nation states.

The tendency of Euro-American culture to impose itself on the world is as vibrant now as a century ago, but what that culture now regards as the highest good is no longer God and country, but consumerist, hedonist, democratic capitalism.

And what is more, the First World has largely succeeded in these efforts. For all the maundering heard in PC circles about the horrors of the Church allegedly eradicating native cultures, one seldom sees Chinese diplomats speaking before the U.N. in 17th-century Chinese garb, untouched by Western fashion trends.

Visit New Zealand, and the Maori you meet may be cheerfully dressed in jeans and a Lady Gaga 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 casino on the American 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 (Genesis 37-47).

All this is to say that while we are commanded to clothe the naked, the Church largely leaves it up to us and our very loosey-goosey sense of what is appropriate when it comes to how we are to do that. The Church seeks “inculturation”: affirming what is good, natural and human in local customs of dress, but calling us away from immodesty and depravity in dress, as in other matters.

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 7-year-olds immodestly and sending them out in public to perform the highly sexualized Single Ladies.

Technically, the children who performed that dance were “clothed.” Indeed, they had more clothes on than a tribesman on the Kalihari. But, in the grammar of fashion, as it is spoken in the West, what was clearly on display was “Show me a culture that despises virginity, and I’ll show you a culture that despises childhood innocence.”

Such a display aims not to clothe the naked, but to come as close as possible to naking the clothed for the delectation of perverts. We needn’t be shocked that such a culture produces vast quantities of child pornography.

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 page can be adequately understood only as black marks on white paper.

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 in Auschwitz, and you are not doing a work of charity, but adding insult to injury. Give a cake and not a Saltine cracker to the birthday child, and you say, “I love you.”

As a general rule, the command to clothe the naked is concerned primarily not with the need for human warmth, but with 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 clothing has a grammar by which virtue or vice is spoken.

Our task as Catholics is to clothe the naked in accord with that grammar 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 and 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).

Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.

Previous parts in the series on the corporal works of mercy:


Feed the Hungry

Give Drink to the Thirsty