body, care of the earth, carnival, gay pride, modesty, nakedness, nudity, swimming

Frank Answers About Christians Participating in Public Nakedness

Question:
Hi Frank! I would really love to see you discussing the participation of practicing Christians in naked bike rides,  naked parades, nudist beaches, and others.  Please note that in some Latin American Countries such as Mexico, this seems to be OK, but in others it is seen as a grave sin.

Warning: full nudity images.

Frank answers:

The questioner notes that there are public events and situations that involve nakedness and wonders about whether Christians would participate in such events, like a naked bike ride, or situations, like swimming on nude (clothing optional) beaches. His reference to Mexico and Latin America indicates that he may be from one of those countries. So in my answer, and the accompanying images, I will try to take that into account. We will be dealing here with the Americas, from north to south.

Nudity in the Bible

Christians take their guidance from the Bible, our sacred scriptures. There’s nothing sinful about nakedness or nudity in the Bible. The body is God’s good creation. When Adam and Eve covered their genitals with fig leaves, the Lord God asked them, “Who told you that you were naked?” When God gave them clothing of animal skins, it was a gracious concession to their human fallen state. It was not because of their need for modesty but for protection from the elements once our primal parents were expelled from the paradise garden. See my fuller discussion lf this in Frank Answers About Nakedness and Modesty.

Conservative Christians often cite 1 Timothy 2:9 as requiring modesty in dress for women (but not for men!). This has to do with simplicity in dress; it is not a ban on nudity. The most celebrated naked parade in the Bible was King David dancing quasi-naked before the Ark of the Lord as it was brought up to Jerusalem in a procession. The king’s wife Michal didn’t come off well for criticizing his public display of nakedness (2 Samuel 6).

King David dancing quasi-naked at the head of the procession bring the ark of the Lord up to Jerusalem.

Social Norms

Sometimes social conventions and cultural customs pass for religious dictates. In the Victorian Era of the 19th century there was a great covering up even of table legs!). What was considered appropriate covering soon became what was required. For example, whereas men used to swim naked (and sometimes women too) in lakes and streams and in the ocean, with the development of urban beaches bathers were required to wear bathing suits. The men, too, had to cover their bodies to protect female modesty. In rural places naked swimming continued.

With the development of indoor pools, at least boys and men were required to swim naked for public health reasons (wool suits, bacteria, primitive filters). In deference to female modesty the girls wore plain bathing suits, but were still required to shower nude. When I was a youth in the 1950s and 1960s, swimming naked was required in my high school swimming class and in the pool at the YMCA. There is some debate, but also some testimony, that boys swam naked in public swim meets that were attended by female coaches and girls and women among the spectators. In public high schools these could have been events open to the public. See Frank Answers About Swimming Naked.

Nude swimming was also required in the pools of the Young Men’s Christian Association, an evangelical Christian organization. Family nights brought mothers and sisters to the pool to watch their naked sons and brothers perform what they learned in swim classes. This would probably not be regarded as public in the technical sense since the YMCA was a private membership organization. But the boys would have been swimming naked in front of a mixed-sex audience. See Frank Answers About Swimming Naked at the YMCA.

Clothing Optional Beaches

In terms of what the question asks me to comment on, let me begin with the issue of swimming naked and nudity on clothing optional beaches. I am a Lutheran, and in the Lutheran countries of Germany and Scandinavia there are a lot of clothing optional beaches around the Baltic Sea and inland lakes and ponds. I know a retired Danish female pastor who confirms that beaches in Denmark are clothing optional, and she takes the option.

The Germans are about the most naked-prone people in the world. It would not be uncommon to see naked people in public parks close to the city center. I trace this back all the way to Martin Luther, who developed a positive view of the body as God’s good creation in his promotion of marriage and family as divine institutions over against celibacy and the cloister as human institutions. When monasteries were dissolved they were turned into hospitals, orphanages, and old folks homes. Care for the body was as important in Protestant missions as the conversion of souls both in their home countries and in foreign mission fields. Out of this body-positive spirituality came the 19th century physical culture movement, which promoted gymnastics and physical education, and the early 20th century free body movement, which promoted nudity in nature in reaction to the urban-industrial society. See Frank Answers About the Body in Protestant Spirituality.

Clothing optional beach in Germany in 1986

We’re dealing here with the Americas, not Europe. But I simply want to affirm that there’s nothing in my religious/cultural background that is opposed to naked swimming, hiking, or exercise. A lot of German Lutherans settled in Mexico and the countries of Central and South America. The largest number of Lutherans are found in Brazil (more than a million), which is also one of the most body-positive countries in the world. I’m not saying there is a connection, but it is at least an interesting coincidence.

A puritanism has characterized American society all the way back to the colonial period. Not that the original Puritans were prudes. For them simplicity of dress did not mean anti-nudism. Notable Americans like Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, and Theodore Roosevelt were known to swim naked, the latter two presidents even in the Potomac River. But dress codes from Victorian England crossed the Atlantic, and you had to wear “suits” on public breaches.

Atlantic City beach, early 20th century

After the 1960s, Americans traveling abroad began to experience clothing optional beaches in Europe (the French Riviera, Greek islands) and then in the Caribbean. Eventually nude beaches were set aside in California and Florida. Just as local Christians (including pastors!) populated the nude beaches of Europe, so some have made their way to clothing optional beaches in the U.S. I’ve never had a chance to go to a nude beach. But with all my experience of swimming naked outdoors in creeks and rivers as a youth, I’d be willing to strip down on a clothing optional beach.

Close to New York City – nude swimming on the beach in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Photo by Alina Oswald
Zipolite, a unique nudist beach to stay with your friends, partner or even alone, on Mexico’s Pacific coast

The World Naked Bike Ride

Next, let’s consider naked bike rides. The most famous one is the World Naked Bike Ride, usually in June, which supports the cause of a cleaner environment with less dependency on the carbon-emitting use of fossil fuel in automobiles. The Ride also promotes cycling and a positive body attitude. It seems that just about every major city in North America and Western Europe has one. Practicing Christians are undoubtedly among the naked riders because it is a cause they can support. It should be noted, however, that in some U.S. cities naked riders have been ticketed by the police for indecent exposure. In most cities full frontal nudity is illegal, but may be tolerated. That is the case in Chicago, which gives a permit for the WNBR every year. But some cities may require some minimal covering up of genitals and breasts.

World Naked Bike Ride in Chicago
Naked bike ride for a cleaner environment in Mexico City

There are naked bike rides in other Latin American cities, including (not surprisingly) Sao Paulo, Brazil.

World Naked Bike Ride in Sao Paulo, Brazil

I should include a photo from Canada, our neighbor to the North.

World Naked Bike Ride in Toronto

World Naked Hike Day

What may be less well known is World Naked Hike Day, observed on the summer solstice, June 21. It also serves the purpose of raising environmental consciousness. Americans may not realize that nude hiking and camping is not illegal in our national parks. There are, in fact, Christian nudist camps in the U.S. See Frank Answers About Our Stewardship of the Earth.

Naked hikers on the Appalachian Trail on World Naked Hike Day
Naked hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail

Not surprisingly, there have been some naked demonstrations on Earth Day, April 22. One is the annual naked bike ride by some students at the University of Maine. The riders paint their bodies green, perhaps suggesting the Green Man and wood sprit motifs as environmental symbols. See Frank Answers About the Green Man and Friends.

A group of about 30 students at the University of Maine donned green paint and nothing else to celebrate Earth Day, Thursday, April 22, 2010 as they took a 15 minute cycling tour of the campus including the Mall where they received waves, cheers and a round of applause. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY KEVIN BENNETT

There has also been a TreeSpiritProject to save the trees by witnessing to the interdependence of humans and trees and nature generally. It was founded and organized by Jack Gescheidt, an environmental artist who specializes in photographs of people, naked and vulnerable, in communion with trees.  This tree hug-in was at a camp ground in Florida “way down upon the Sewanee River.” See Frank Answers About Connecting with Earth’s Body.

Gay Pride Parades

June is also Pride month and most major cities in North America, Western Europe, and increasingly East Asia have Gay Pride festivals and parades. Many Christians would not support the cause of LGBTQ rights, but there are LGBTQ Christians and they do have supporters in congregations who march in Gay Pride parades. I marched in the Chicago Gay Pride Parade several times, but wearing a clerical collar, which seemed for me a more important statement than marching in my underwear, since I was with a church contingent showing some Christian support for LGBTQ civil rights.

Again, it should be noted that total nakedness is not legal in most cities, and while many parade participants are stripped down even to underwear, they have to keep their genitals covered. See Frank Answers About Gay Pride, Homosexuality, and Homophobia (based on my experience participating in a Gay Pride parade).

Chicago Gay Pride Parade
Mexico City Gay Pride Parade
Gay Pride Parade in Montreal, Canada

Forget Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, Montreal, and Toronto. The world’s biggest Gay Pride Parade by far is in Sao Paulo, Brazil, drawing crowds of 3-5 million people in spite of conservative Catholic (and Pentecostal) attitudes toward homosexuality. But there are progressive Catholic and Protestant Christians in Brazil and other Latin American countries.

Gay Pride marchers in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Naked Love

A parade in which marchers can be naked is the San Francisco Valentine Week Parade, which started as a demonstration to abolish San Francisco’s law against public nudity. Ironically, demonstrators could get a permit to have nude marchers in a parade that was a protest against the city’s anti-nudism law. The parade starts in the Castro District ā€“ once famous as the nation’s center of gay love ā€“ and ends in the Haight-Ashbury District ā€“ where the Summer of Love took place in the year 1967. I personally would not march in this parade, but I’m all in favor of being naked for lovemaking (a joke with reference to the sign).

Carnival

Carnival is a big celebration throughout Latin America before the beginning of Lent and it has an explicitly Christian origin. Carne vale means “farewell to the meat,” and refers to the beginning of the Lenten Fast. That’s why Carnival occurs on the days before Ash Wednesday. Especially in the warmer climates costumes are very skimpy as well as very elaborate. Whether all the revelers are practicing Christians is hard to say, but the chances are that many of them are. Here are photos of Carnival from various Latin American countries. Carnival celebrants are usually not completely naked, but it is the nature of Carnival to emphasize body (eating, fasting, dressing up, dressing down).

Mexico
Trinidad
Topless Samba dancers in the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Carnival
Almost totally naked Adam and Eve on float in the Rio de Janeiro Carnival

Summary

With this survey of naked public events and venues, I see little that practicing Christians could not participate in. Nude swimming, especially in designated areas, is a long standing tradition that presents no issue for Christians. Naked bike rides are carnivalesque, but at least they are demonstrations for the important cause of protecting our environment and addressing global warming. Christians should certainly support the cause. The same applies to naked hiking and other activities that demonstrate to call attention to ecological issues. Gay Pride parades are celebrations of LGBTQ liberation and demonstrations for equal rights which some Christians don’t support, but others do. Demonstrations for public nudity? Maybe, in reserved areas as in Germany. Carnival? Definitely!

Following the Naked Christ

As to the general principle of Christians participating naked in public event, I would point out that we are followers of one who was lifted up on the cross stark naked in the public event of a Roman execution, alongside others who were also being crucified, as an act for our deliverance from sin, death, and the powers of evil. (Romans did not crucify victims with a modest loin cloth; the object was total humiliation.)

Willem DaFoe as Christ in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)

Francis of Assisi also demonstrated his call to a change of life from wealth to poverty by stripping naked in front of his father and the bishop and people of Assisi. He led his followers, the Franciscans, according to the motto of “naked following the naked Christ.” There were occasional penitential processions of naked Franciscans in the late Middle Ages, a time of plague and warfare. (See Frank Answers About Naked Before God.)

Graham Faulkner as Francis of Assissi in Franco Zeffirelli “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972)

Obviously, many people, Christians among them, are modest about how they appear in public. With the tendency in recent years for people to dress down in social events, I could write an article about when it’s appropriate to dress up. The body is available for festive or formal attire for special celebrations as well as for shedding clothes for a cause, or just to enjoy the natural environment in our natural state. Frankly, I enjoy occasions for both dress up and undress.

Pastor Frank

Latin Americans Juan and Silvia. Maybe on a nude beach in Mexico.

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