Pick Your Battles: Blue Hair, White Shirts, Right Hands, Patriarchy, Corporate Culture, and God

Blue hair - tool of Satan? You decide.

Blue hair - tool of Satan? You decide.

Someone remarked to a mother in church one day that it might not be appropriate for her son to have blue hair and bless the sacrament. This wise mother arched her eyebrow and fired back, “I pick my battles in parenting – he can keep the blue hair as long as he’s worthy. So far, he’s been worthy so I’m not too concerned with the blue hair.” That lesson has stuck with me since.

Recently on Mormon Matters, a post about white shirts by Jeff Spector created a lot of controversy. Have someone pose the question of whether the white shirt is a symbol of oppressive conformity or an appropriate symbol of priesthood. If you foam at the mouth and start ranting for either side, you might be a Mormon. The post mentioned that he saw the symbolism of wearing a white shirt with the priesthood and cleanliness for ordinances as a nice way where wearing a white shirt to Sunday can act as a gentle reminder. Others roared about how the white shirt had become a “psuedo-doctrine” and how “ethnocentric” and “obsessive” the Church had become towards outward appearance. Eventually, people begin talking about other small things, such as earrings, tattoos, and using the right hand for taking the Sacrament.

Ah, white shirts. I used to hate them so much. Now, it's more of a resignation than anything else.

Ah, white shirts. I used to hate them so much. Now, it's more of a resignation than anything else.

I used to simmer with resentment at the white shirt. I look better in blue shirts. Ironically, this was during my teenage to early college rebellion years. My faith has radically evolved since then, and such small matters don’t matter to me. In fact, like Jeff Spector, I can appreciate the small tokens of symbolism within the white shirt. Was it intentional? No, I don’t think so, but that doesn’t mean you can’t extrapolate good from it. Same with taking the Sacrament with my right hand. I am left-handed, but this never bothered me much. Rather, it’s a nice symbolic way of renewing covenants with God.

However, I’m not going to dismiss the other side. White shirts can become an outward symbol of righteousness all too easily for some members. It can lead to pharisee-esque behavior and so forth. But that can be applied to almost every commandment. Refraining from judgment, demonstrating charity to your fellow man – these are the hard things to do. Nobody said otherwise. Should we throw out all the rules because they can be abused? I think most rational people would say such an argument is preposterous. Most often, white shirt hatred (or hatred towards the non-canonical practice of taking the Sacrament with the right hand) is symptomatic of a larger issue with the Church, and I can understand that. To those people, I offer this advice: Pick your battles.

White shirts don’t make me froth at the mouth anymore. But mention “patriarchy” around me and I’ll roll my eyes, sigh, and probably start brewing a strong batch of yerba mate. If we start talking about corporate culture in the Church, you’ll probably get the same reaction. These, in my opinion, are real issues the Church is dealing with. And when we focus too much on the small appearances, we ignore bigger picture problems.

The idea that whiteness = good is "ethnocentric" doesn't hold a lot of water. Gandhi recommended wearing white clothes as - what else? - a way to fight against Western influences. He saw white clothes as simple and pure.

The idea that whiteness = good is "ethnocentric" doesn't hold a lot of water. Gandhi recommended wearing white clothes as - what else? - a way to fight against Western influences. He saw white clothes as simple and pure.

When we start frothing at the mouth about little things, like white shirts, we make it a big deal. I’m not aware of many people who actually believe deep within their hearts that white shirts are a requirement for priesthood ordinances. If we run into those people, we gently remind them why such a thinking process is problematic and move on. There is no need to conflate the white shirt issue so vastly. The common argument for anti-white shirts is that your relationship with God trumps the color of your shirt when it comes to salvation. I heartily agree (I think most people would). So live your life, and go to church in a colored shirt, if you believe that is what you must do. Don’t be surprised if people raise an eyebrow at your cultural defiance, and certainly don’t throw a childish fit if people don’t immediately herald you as some kind of iconoclastic genius. That would be very pharisee-esque behavior.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Pick Your Battles: Blue Hair, White Shirts, Right Hands, Patriarchy, Corporate Culture, and God

  1. Jeff Spector

    I like your take. I agree 100% even down the Mate’ comment.

  2. Jeff Spector

    Oh, and wait until my next post on Friday!

  3. We knew lots of Filipino members of the Church when my family lived in the Middle East. When they passed the sacrament, they didn’t wear “traditional” white button-down shirts with collars. The shirts were white, but had colored embroidery on them.

    I think people who accuse the Church of being “ethno-centric” haven’t attended wards in other countries. The Church does have order and hierarchy and all that, but there is also a great measure of adaptability to different cultures.

    example: women in Brazil nurse their kids (uncovered) in Sacrament meeting. It’s considered totally fine and not at all shocking. Just try doing that in Provo! Also, in the Strength for Youth pamphlet, under dating it says, “In cultures where dating is appropriate…”

    • Ted

      Brazilians nursing their kids in the open? Perish the thought! :p

      This brings up a whole ‘nother can of worms that I will open but not tackle – does this mean American Mormons can be a little bit…prudish?!

      And I would agree with your assessment on Church ethnocentrism. We’re not perfect, but we’re far from blunderingly ignorant. Ethnocentrism is a problem, don’t get me wrong. Too many people use the attack, however, simply to justify their own concerns and they have no real idea how other cultures live or believe. Ironic, really.

      • Jamie

        Americans are prudish. Not just Mormons. You can’t breast feed a baby uncovered in a mall without causing problems, and not just in Utah. (Though Victoria Secret and Abercrombie can display larger than life sized near nude photos in their storefront windows.)

  4. Jeff Spector

    I agree with Beth, but find it silly to see Samoans and Tongan men wearing Lava-lavas with white shirts and ties!

    • Ted

      Sometimes I wonder if our problems with white shirts and ties is because of our familiarity to it (as well as our cultural connotations of the uniform with corporate/upper American culture). I would love to wear tassels and a yarmulke if our religion required it, but I imagine that many a Jewish kid would shirk from wearing such things, much like the deacon who yowls like a dying cat about having to wear a clip-on tie.

  5. dteeps

    Good points, all. I think too often we lose sight of the important things for the obvious things. It is easy to tell whether someone is wearing a white shirt, or has blue hair, but impossible to tell if someone is worthy or not. I can’t help but think of God’s words to Samuel when choosing the next king of Israel, ” the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7). The problem with white shirts, or blue shirts, or purple shirts, is when it takes precedence over what is most important. In a ward where I served, there was a poor family who couldn’t afford a white shirt for their son, so he passed the sacrament in the nicest shirt he had. That was what was important, he was worthy, and he was showing respect for the ordinance by wearing the nicest, cleanest thing he had. A older couple in the ward then bought him a white shirt, and he wore it, not because it was white, but because it was then the nicest thing he had.

    • Ted

      I absolutely agree. Bring your nicest clothes for God, and let us leave any fashion judging to God as well, for vengeance is mine, thus saith the Lord.

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