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Religious dress and human ethics

Each time I remember this saying that, “The habit does not make the monk just as the scepter does not make the king;” I wonder how a Monk would be recognized without a habit and how a king would be identified without a scepter. Then I started reflecting on the mode of dressing from the old stone age up to this modern age. From nature and the scriptural narratives, it is obvious that no human being came into the world with any form of dress. Job was very conscious of this hence in his challenging moment in life, he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I shall return” (Job 1:21). The real dress in life is who you are and what you are. The most important dress for humanity is the content of character that must adorn the soul on earth to be fit for heaven where we shall be naked before the God whose divine eyes see beyond the externals of man to see the real self and whatever is inside of a person. That a child is naturally born naked shows that what is most important is childlike innocence and witness of life.

Adam and Eve were not conscious of their nakedness until they fell from grace by disobeying God. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:6-12). Since this unfortunate fall, it is only humans that wear cloths in the animal kingdom. The brutes still walk about naked.

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Ever since man accepted the fruit from the woman, he behaves as if he has lost the capacity of self-control. The original concupiscence of original sin has put man under the emotional intelligence of the woman as if she has become his breath. Recall that the meaning of Eve, the first woman is derived from the Hebrew, Chawah, meaning, “to breathe” or “to live”. Who knows if the reaction of man to the presence of a woman has become an indicator to test the emotional health, temperament and self-control of the man. Why is it that in the ethics of dressing, the woman’s mode of dressing today takes the central focus? This does not nullify the fact that different religions and traditions prescribe types and mode of dressing for their clerics (clergy) and recommend descent dressing for their followers. Clothing has become for many religions a symbol of identification and creed. We must not forget that dressing generally is conditioned on climate and health. For instance, wigs were recommended for people who were suffering from hair loss due to cancer chemotherapy and those who were suffering from alopecia. Today, wigs have become part of fashion.

In Judaism, mode of dressing is prescribed for different categories of people. The Jewish men and boys wear Tzitzit. Very religious Jews wear the V’ahavta during weekday prayers. They are not worn outside of religious functions in order to prevent one from ‘defiling’ them. Vestments and liturgical garments are strictly for worship. Peyot are worn by some men and boys in the Orthodox Jewish community based on an interpretation of the Biblical injunction against shaving the “corners” of one’s head (https://www.google.com). In Christianity, women are required to cover their heads while everybody is required to dress decently. Men and Women Religious wear clerical dress and habits. The colour of the habits of different congregations are symbolic. Black habit symbolises repentance and simplicity while white symbolises holiness and purity. Clerical collar and cassock are worn by Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and Seminarians. In Zoroastrianism, Priests dress in white robes and caps. The Sikhs wear turbans for identification and kesh (long hair) out of respect for the perfection of God’s creation. Wearing a Sikh dastaar, or turban, is mandatory for all Sikh men and women as an article of faith that represents honour, self-respect, courage, spirituality, and piety (https://www.google.com).

The Quran, An-Nur prescribes modesty in dress. Some Muslim women wear a headscarf called hijab or Khimar in Quranic Arabic. Some Muslim women wear veil to preserve their dignity but the veil differ depending on how each Muslim country adapt it to their culture and traditions. For example, in Turkey, headscarf is common. Niqab or Burqa or Khimar are typical in Saudi Arabia and common in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Sudan, Indonesia and Malaysia. In India, Muslim women wear the Veil and the Khimar (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_clothing). The Peace Mala Project for World Peace, an organization based in Morriston in Swansea, Wales was  founded in 2002 by Pam Evans. This project is dedicated  to fostering inter-cultural and inter-faith tolerance through the manufacture, distribution and wearing of a symbolic mala (bracelet) whose beads represent various faiths to  promote the message of the Golden Rule of mutual respect recognized by many spiritual paths. It consists of 16 beads, forming a double rainbow, which represent Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Judaism, Bahá’í, ISKCON, Zoroastrianism, Tribal and Native Religions, Jainism, Earth Religions, Taoism, Hinduism and Yungdrung Bön.     (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_clothing).

Religious dress is very important but it does not always imply that those who dress religiously are holier and endowed with more moral integrity. Some criminals have used religious dress to commit crime in the society.  The sanctity of a person does not depend on what he or she wears. What matters most is the goodness, moral strength and the interior content of character. Akin to religious dress, there are institutions that have uniform for their peculiar assignments. It may not be socially and morally right to replace the uniform of a school, military, police, para-military, custom, immigration, etcetera with religious dress. I wonder how I would look if as a military chaplain, I appear in a parade ground with my cassock instead of the normal military uniform. Uniform may not be worn throughout the day. I may not be condemned to hell for wearing the uniform of my organisation and change to my clerical dress after my official duty. It is against the spirit of piety to allow my religious dress to be a source of conflict in an institution that has uniform for people of all the religions. There is need for respect for government institutions that also have the support of God who allow these institutions to exist for the citizens irrespective of religion and ethnicity. If religious dress is respectfully restricted to those who should wear them without imposing them on institutions that are already known for their uniforms, there will be peace in our nations. We all fight for the garment of salvation which is the life of witness and holiness.

Rev. Fr. Cornelius Omonokhua is the Executive Secretary of Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) (nirec.ng@gmail.com)

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