On Tattoos

Most of today has been occupied with reading and other activities, so I haven’t had the time to complete my latest Chauvet post. However, rather than break a run of thirteen days of daily blogging, I thought that I ought to post something. For this reason, I am deciding, not without some reservations, to post the following thoughts that I just wrote on the controversial topic of tattooing.

At the outset, I want to lay my cards on the table: while I can recognize the importance that they have for many, I neither have a tattoo, nor find them culturally or (in the overwhelming majority of cases) aesthetically appealing. My position is an extremely partisan one, and I am not unaware of the degree to which it is a product of my personal background and of aesthetic values that I have no right to impose upon anyone else. I am also conscious of a degree to which my opinion on this matter may be affected by an impression of tattoos as déclassé, involving a quasi-moral judgment that discriminates against a behaviour traditionally associated with a class other (and in this regard perceived as ‘lower’) than my own. At the very least, such a judgment should not be allowed to pass with close and probing interrogation. In presenting moral qualms relating to the practice of tattooing, it is crucial that I be attentive to the possibility of ugly classist prejudice or cultural chauvinism masquerading under the position that I outline (or, worse, that I am employing Scripture to underwrite my personal values, rather than submitting my values to Scripture). Given the significant possibility of moral blindspots developing in such an area where underlying prejudices might be operative, I would appreciate that, as my reader, you be no less attentive in this regard, alerting me to areas where I might be driven by something other than attentiveness to Scripture. I would also request that you be no less attentive to the ways in which your own background, affiliations, or prejudices might shape your opinion on this matter in a manner that dulls you to God’s truth.

In this post, it is not my aim to present a blanket argument against tattoos. I am not convinced that such an argument can be made. This is an area where relevant principles must be carefully identified, principles that might be operative in certain situations, cases, and contexts, while not being operative in others.

I believe that there are some very relevant biblical principles that we ought to apply in our thinking about tattoos. The Old Testament commandment against tattoos and cutting for the dead (Leviticus 19:28) occurs within the context of a tribal society. Without suggesting that this commandment is directly applicable to the current situation, we can benefit from reflecting upon its significance within its particular cultural context.

Within a tribal society, tattoos and cuttings for the dead are primary modes of self-identification. They are a way of denoting the fact that one belongs in a particular tribe. They are marks of family and group association, binding you to kin and to ancestors. In forbidding such tattoos and markings, God was forbidding a primary means of tribal identification.

Israel, of course, had its own identifying mark in the flesh in the rite of circumcision. In contrast to tattoos and cuttings for the dead, this did not augment or add to the flesh, but removed something from it. It was a sign of weakness and impotence. The commandment of Leviticus 19 was a commandment against a reversion to a tribalism that sought its identity in such marks, rather than or in addition to the covenant of circumcision. Tribalism is all about the flesh as the site of identity; God sought to teach Israel to find their site of identity in the covenant. The free Israelite body was free of all markings, save for the covenant mark that God placed upon them.

There were certain bodies that had further markings upon them. In Exodus 21:5-6 we see that the body of the lifelong servant was marked by the piercing of the ear by an awl (I wonder whether there is something to the fact that Jesus heals the severed ear of the High Priest’s servant in this connection – Luke 22:49-51). The marked or pierced body was the sign of ownership or belonging. The body marked solely by circumcision was a body that spoke of the weakness of the flesh and of God’s sole ownership by the covenant of circumcision.

In the New Testament, Paul speaks of a ‘stripping of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ,’ relating this to Baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). In Baptism the body is washed, and the old fleshly identities are displaced. We are no longer defined by our old family ties – we belong to a new family. We are no longer defined by our old national ties – we belong to a new nation. We are no longer defined by our old tribal identities – we belong to a new people. We are no longer defined by our old physical bodies – we are the heirs of resurrection bodies. We are no longer defined by our old dead ancestors – in Christ we become part of a new history, being the sons and daughters of Abraham.

Baptism has been spoken of as a ‘branding’. It is a branding that erases all other brandings. As I have been exploring in my Chauvet posts, the body is the place where we are written into the world and the culture that surrounds us. Baptism is the washing away of all of the old identities and definitions that once claimed us through our bodies. For us, there is now only one true branding: Christ’s claiming of our bodies as his living sacrifices in Baptism.

The body is the place where the distinction between subject and object is overcome, where self meets world. As such, actions performed upon the human body – not least as we are the images of God – carry immense significance (one reason why sexual sin is presented as a matter of such seriousness in Scripture – it is a sin against your own body, and the temple of the Holy Spirit). In permanently marking our bodies, we are seeking to express and realize our personhood and identity in a profound way. In many cases this is far more than a matter of aesthetics: it is a lifelong marking that declares ‘this is who I am’.

In the present popularity of tattoos, I believe that we are witnessing, as James Jordan, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and others have observed, a return to a more tribal way of regarding identity. Large social identities are breaking down – few of us find our primary identity in the old national or imperial identities – and people seek identity through affiliation with ‘counter-cultural’ or ‘tribal’ groups, or through marking their own private narrative upon their flesh. The dangers of tribalism that the Scriptures address in Old and New Testaments can here be seen to return in a transformed manner. Most people get tattoos nowadays for much the same reasons as they ever did. They are means of identifying with the ‘tribe’, or means of marking their own private identities on their flesh. Either they seek to identify their flesh with a certain tribe of people, or they seek to differentiate it from all others.

In Christ, our flesh is stripped, and our identities reconfigured. Our bodies are washed and claimed, and we become members of a body that is far more determinative for our identities than any other – the body of Christ. For this reason, I believe that any Christian who wishes to mark his or her body with a tattoo needs to think seriously about these questions of body and identity in Christ when making their decision, whatever conclusion they arrive at. Baptism involves a ‘putting off’ of the flesh, which crucially involves a turning away from the flesh as the means of identity that it once served as, whether through blood and kinship, race, national or tribal identity, or through body modification and tattooing as means of establishing our core identities.

The tattoo is also associated with pain, and through pain with both memory and initiation. In its own way, the cross displaces the tattoo in these respects too. Baptism is our initiation into the Initiation – the death of Christ. Baptism is the initiation that washes clean all our tribalisms, and surpasses all other initiations. It isn’t just another mark on our bodies among others, but the washing of our bodies for living sacrifice of the whole. It is God’s claim upon our bodies as his temple. Through Baptism we are ‘unplugged’ from our old identities, and become new persons. Paul is perhaps one of the greatest examples of this. The most tribal man of all – the Hebrew of Hebrews – becomes a universal man – all things to all men – through Jesus Christ and his cross.

The death of Christ is the event that is branded into our bodies. In Galatians 6:17, Paul can speak of bearing in his body the marks (the stigmata, literally the scars or brandings) of the Lord Jesus. Had you asked Paul what he meant by this, I suspect that he would have shown you a back furrowed by scars of beatings that he had endured for the gospel. It is the pain of the ‘stigma’ of the cross – not just physical suffering like Paul’s, but the social ostracization and ill-treatment – that should be the great source of memory for the Christian. It is in fellowship with the suffering of Christ that our Christian identities and memories are forged.

Paul presses the ‘stigma’, the mark, of the cross against any other tribal mark that would rival it. In the Galatian church Paul was facing a situation where circumcision had been perverted into a tribal mark, a mark that divided the church into two classes. Although Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians may have identified each other as Christians, circumcision was being treated as a mark of identity that was determinative even in the realm of the Church, as a remnant of the old tribalism and fleshly identity that escaped the stripping of the flesh in Christ’s cross. In such a context, becoming circumcised could be a rejection of a central truth of the gospel.

I believe that this same concern should be raised in relation to Christians who get tattoos as the same issues of the body, tribalism, and identity are present. While I don’t believe that we can categorically condemn tattooing on the basis of Scripture, I believe that we are given grounds for considerable caution.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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6 Responses to On Tattoos

  1. John H says:

    The difference between the new tribalism and the old is that the new tribalism is a product that we purchase. I define my identity through commodities. For some, that means buying an iPhone; for others, it means going to the tattoo parlour.

    Though that then suggests that Christian consumerism is cut from much the same cloth as the “body modification” culture…

    • I am not sure that I would frame the relationship as straightforwardly as that. Defining one’s identity through commodities and defining one’s identity through body modification are two very different things, even though they are most definitely related in complex ways. The rising trend of body modification is in large measure a reaction to the spiritually empty culture of consumerism (naturally, the reaction itself gets co-opted by the culture of consumerism in its own ways). It is significant that it is precisely the body that is being rendered the site of marked identity, something that renders it distinct from the more standard forms of the culture of consumerism. Tattoos are a way that people assert their ‘authenticity’ in a manner that enables them to abide the emptiness of the culture within which they are embedded as participants. It is also a way of finding permanence in a culture of rapidly metamorphizing identities and lifestyles to consume. In other words, body-modification is an attempt to gain an identity characterized by the very things that the consumer culture is incapable of giving.

      Understanding the manner in which our identity can be formed by the ‘branding’ of the market necessitates a slightly different angle of analysis. I might post something on that later this evening, if I have time.

  2. Good article. You added some things here that I’ve not thought about when counselling a young adult against getting a tattoo. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Body-Modification, the Market, and Identity | Alastair's Adversaria

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