Modest is Hottest
No, this isn't about your outfit. Maybe.
“Modest is hottest” is a phrase gets thrown around, mostly referencing women’s clothing, and is entirely useless because it's (1) a lie, and (2) a continuation of sexualizing women. But that's entirely aside from my point today.
Living in Mozambique, I think about modesty often. Most of my neighbors are either Muslims and/or they wear traditional African dress, which means that my knees haven’t seen the light of day since I’ve been here (though I am pushing a “Free the Knees” campaign with my teammates that would permit me to wear a tunic that ends slightly above my leggings-covered knees). And though my typical dress here covers me pretty thoroughly, I have a hard time being modest.
modest (adj): unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s own abilities or achievements; an amount relatively moderate, limited, or small
It doesn’t really matter what I wear in my town. Unless I wear a locally made burqa that covers every inch of me, I’m going to be immodest. Most of the clothes I wear have been brought over from Target – one outfit probably cost more than what my neighbors earn in a month, if that. And even when I wear local clothes, I can’t hide the glaringly obvious fact that I am a Westerner, and in the eyes of my neighbors, that means I have money. And in my case at least, they’re not wrong.
What I wear is not immodest in the sense that it is inappropriate for my context, but in the sense that it is a symbol of my high economic status. A symbol that I cannot seem to hide.
And it’s not just my clothes. It’s my whole life.
People often comment on how much I have sacrificed materially in moving to Mozambique. I think they have over-estimated my sacrifice. I’m currently sitting inside my two-bedroom house where I have electricity, running water, and multiple guards who also do pretty much anything I need them to do, from washing clothes to running errands in addition to keeping me safe. I can afford to go to the grocery store in our provincial capital and buy cereal and cheese and meat and fruits shipped in from South Africa. In town I can buy all sorts of vegetables in bulk, things my friends could never afford to buy. I come home to my laptop and smartphone and watch movies and read books and take master’s level classes on the Internet. That is what my “great sacrifice” looks like here.
I know incarnation will look different for different people. Some people “go native” and do everything like the people in their host culture. In my heart this is something I romanticize or wish I could do, but I know it’s not a healthy option for me. Firstly because being an American is part of my identity that I can’t remove no matter how hard I try, and secondly because being a Mozambican is an identity that I can never hope to attain no matter how hard I try. Elected poverty is still by election, and that will forever separate me from people who truly live in material poverty.
So, most people living interculturally, particularly when going from the West to the Global South, need to make choices that will give them longevity. And this will look different for different people in different circumstances. I am not here to judge how it should or should not look for different people in different stages of life and in different contexts. Some people need air conditioners in a room of their house, or a Western toilet, or M&Ms. So, I’m at a point where I’m making a lot of those choices about how I’m going to live, and that’s hard.
As a single person doing short-term work, I have a lot of flexibility and ability to do many things I may not be able to do in other circumstances. The decisions I make aren’t really affecting other people (as would be true for a family) and they aren’t permanent life changes. I’ve recently decided to move into another neighborhood and live in a house that is more typical for this area in the yard of some of my Mozambican neighbors. But still my house will be more expensive than my neighbors’, still my house will be larger than my neighbors’ (for far fewer people), still I will have electricity, still I will have access to water right outside my door.
And I’ve been thinking about the things that I need to get to go inside the house as well. As I’ve been packing I’ve realized that I have almost doubled the amount of things that I first brought. My minimalist dream has not quite come true. Even living in a place like Montepuez has not rid me of the consumerism that has taken root in me. Not only do I have enormous amounts of things, but I still need to buy so many more things to make my house livable.
As the hot season is kicking off, I was wondering if I should buy a fan. In my heart, I don’t want to. Most of my neighbors don’t have fans. But the other day I walked into my house after a trip to the market and could only think about how hot I felt. I looked at the fan and thought about how badly I wanted to turn it on and how I had just said the day before that I didn’t want to buy a new fan. The next few months are only going to get hotter. The phrase rang in my ears, “Modest is hottest.” And this time it was actually true.
Having solidarity with my host culture is really important to me. Removing as many of the barriers that stand between us as I can is important to me. Loving my neighbors by living like them is important to me.
But following a God who emptied Godself of everything is scary to someone who has bags full of stuff.
Living modestly is so hard when you don’t have to. It is a journey I am on, a journey in opening my eyes to the reality that my neighbors face in their daily lives, the reality that I don’t need even a small fraction as much as I have, and the reality that consumerism is very much an idol in my life that needs to be torn down. And I feel God tearing it down slowly.
This experience in testing the waters of modesty has led me to ask some other questions as well. I should not only be confronted with the task of living more modestly, but I must also ask how I am to be as a wealthy person, how I can use my immodest gains for the good of my neighbors and the glory of God.
Since I’ve been here the verses in the Bible about rich people stand out a lot more. I used to think they were about other people. But they’re definitely about me.
Throughout the Old Testament we see the rich condemned for how they treat the poor. I think first of the prophet Amos and his critique of the rich. He calls out, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…,” and to Israel he warns of the Lord’s irrevocable punishment “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals…and turn aside the way of the afflicted…”
And as a final blow, “Therefore, because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.”
I live in a place where it is easy to become complacent about the way of the afflicted, in a place where the needy are literally always at the gate. It’s easy to feast on my fine food and forget about the hungry within shouting-distance. It’s easy to withhold a pair of sandals. It's easy to be the cow of Bashan.
God’s clearly not a big endorser of that lifestyle.
Instead Amos calls for God’s people to seek God, to establish justice in the gate. And not modest justice. Not justice that is withholding, but justice that rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And when we seek this good, we find life.
Paul says a slightly gentler version of this in I Timothy 6. “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”
The God I follow is a modest one. I follow a God who works through modest people in modest ways. But this same God gives immodestly. This God lavishes upon us immodest grace, immodest blessing, and immodest love. It is from the overflow of God’s outrageous immodesty that I have anything I claim to possess. And so, as God has shared from the divine abundance, I am to also share immodestly, give immodestly, and sacrifice immodestly. Because what I have is not my own, nor does it make any promises to me. My consumerist idol rests upon unsure foundations. But to empty myself of these empty possessions so that I can be filled with a greater treasure, something that somehow transcends my present reality, that is how I take hold of that which is truly life.
And so I continue on this journey toward grasping at true life rather than grasping at passing things. I will continue to struggle in the tension between living modestly and giving immodestly. And, at least for now, I’ll be doing it with the fan on.