The White Shoe Rule and the Wideness of God’s Mercy

Yesterday was Labor Day in the United States (and Canada, I believe).  It is, not the “unofficial end of summer” and a last chance to barbecue, but a public holiday to honor the contributions of the labor movement to the well-being and prosperity of all Americans.  If we like having a limit to the number of hours we can work during a week, a regularly-scheduled day of rest to spend with friends and family, safe working conditions, and other such things we take for granted in 21st century America, we need to remember and give thanks for the men and women who risked much to ensure that workers would be fairly treated. 

In various Facebook conversations, and in my favorite fashion blog, however, Labor Day always seems to bring up the question of the White Shoe Rule:  you know, the one where ladies are not supposed to wear white shoes in the portions of the calendar year between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  I heard it from my grandmother, and later from my mother.  Even for new Easter clothes as a child, it was always black patent maryjanes, rather than white shoes (which would have looked so much better with the pastels of spring).  Classmates got white shoes at Easter, and some of them even went to my Sunday School–so I’m pretty sure this wasn’t part of the Commandments of the Torah, and I’m sure nobody really has gone to hell over this.

Miss Manners is about as authoritative on this as anyone needs to be.  In her 1982 Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, the better part of three pages (543-545) are devoted to this.  The penalties for wearing white shoes outside the Memorial-to-Labor-Day bracket include the admonition that doing so means “you will develop warts on your toes.” Not exactly eternal damnation, although when asked if the rule is “outdated”, she replies with the question “Is the law against murder outdated?” So maybe I’m wrong about eternal damnation, but I don’t know anybody who’s had charges brought against them.

Even the formidable Miss Manners makes exceptions, noting that the origin of this “rule” is probably entirely context-driven:

 White shoes may be worn year-round in resort areas.  However, if you live in a resort area, you may want to observe the regular rules, which originated in places of erratic climate, first to give yourself some variety, and second to distinguish yourself from the tourists.

She even says that almost-white shoes are permissible:  if they can be called “cream, bone, beige, or taupe, you may where them whenever you like”.  This is an uncharacteristic loosening of the “rule” for Miss Manners.  Rebelling against such a libertine approach, a number of people have made the rule even stricter, requiring that we not only put away truly white shoes, but all white clothing–jeans, skirts, jackets–once the sun sets on that first Monday in September (although I presume that white shirts are acceptable year round). I’m not sure what the penalties are, except perhaps some fashionista snickering behind her hands that I’m hopelessly unstylish, as I sit here on Tuesday afternoon in a white denim jacket.

It seems to me that the human spirit wants more, and stricter, rules, rather than more freedom.  And the Christian church, despite worshipping one whom they claim to be Truth, and that the truth will set us free (John 8:32), likes making rules, and tightening them up just a little every chance we get.

There’s a wonderful old hymn that I always enjoyed, about the wideness of God’s mercy. It’s got a lot more verses than most of us are familiar with.  It wasn’t until I lived in England that I even saw the text of one of them:

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

(Okay, the clunky piano playing is pretty bad, but I really needed this piece of text, and that’s where I found it.)

When we get too prissy about what the right way to be a Christian is–what exactly we must believe, how exactly we must worship, the correct amount of time or money to give to the church, even which vestements are acceptable (I wanted to puke over the debates about whether  “cassock albs” are an abomination before the Lord)–we are probably guilty of setting false limits and making God more strict (and unattractive) than God really is.

It’s even worse than the white shoe rule, and I think it lacks the gracious generosity that we should be manifesting when we speak about, and live by the example of, the one we say is full of Grace and Truth.



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