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.
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.
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.