September 13, 2013

Tattoos: A Sin, or a Sacramental?

This post is both a statement, on my part, of what seems to me to be the truth, and also an honest searching for the truth. So far as I know, there is nothing in canon law prohibiting tattoos. Different subcultures in American Catholicism seem to hold different ideas on whether they are good or not. So, I'm going to try and look at them theologically, looking at Scripture and stuff to see if I can sort it out. Hopefully, it will be a fun and enlightening ride for everyone involved. Also, 200 posts! Yeah....

First, I'm going to look at the standard fundamentalist and mainline-Christian argument against tattoos, which is based on an Old Testament passage. Then, I'll take my own look at tattoos in a positive light, using a language of bodily sacramentality hashed together from sacramental theology and JP II's Theology of the Body. This is not the final stage for this idea: I intend to clean this up, add some further research, and publish this academically at some point. Here goes.

The general Christian argument against tattoos lies in a literal interpretation of Leviticus 19:28, which states: "You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord." This seems like a very clear statement. God says, "Don't get tattoos, because I, the Lord, said so." In fact, if we were only to interpret Scripture as a lawbook for moral teachings which applies equally to all ages and cultures, then we would be forced to follow this statement legalistically, or else not really be Christians.

However, Christian exegesis does not work like that, neither the exegesis of our own time, nor that of the Fathers. Both modern and patristic methods of exegesis look deeper than a surface-level understanding of what the text apparently says. Patristic exegesis looks to uncover the meaning of the entire scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, according to the truth of the Incarnation. Thus, Scripture is to be read not verse-by-verse, but in light of the whole, illumined by Christ. This includes a look at the surface-level, but goes much deeper into the theology behind the text according both to the author's supposed intent and the interpretation provided by centuries of Jewish and Christian worship and scholarship. Modern exegesis, on the other hand, looks to expand our understanding of the text according to its social, political, cultural, historical, and literary background, in order to place it firmly within the culture it was written in. This does include a surface-level look at authorial intent, but also includes a firm grounding in the horizontal nature of cultural influence upon the writing of Scripture, which better allows for cross-cultural interpretation. To unpack Leviticus 19:28, I'll look at it first according to modern exegetical, and then patristic exegetical standards.

The author of this text would have been writing or redacting prior sources for Jewish moral and legal code after the return of the Southern Kingdom of Judah from Babylon, according to modern scholars. During this period, the Jews were undergoing an intense struggle to find and safeguard their national identity. Alien cultural practices and religions were not as good as the worship of YHWH, and therefore the author or redactor of these laws, inspired by God, sought to keep out the least taint of foreign influence. Read in this light, the authorial intent is clear: don't mark your bodies like those filthy pagans in their polytheistic rituals. Don't cut yourselves for Pan, and don't tattoo yourselves for Athena. Rather, worship YHWH, because he alone saves. According to this reading, Leviticus 19:28 does not address the nature of tattoos at all: rather, it addresses polytheistic practices. The injunction is not based on tattoos themselves being bad; rather, pagans are bad, and so we shouldn't do things like them. The idea of a tattoo undergone in YHWH's name and for the sake of his more perfect worship is not dealt with, and as a result is not precluded by this text. The idea of a tattoo done right, as opposed to a tattoo for Pan or Athena, is still valid and consistent with the Levitical text.

SEcond is a patristically-inspired interpretation of Leviticus 19:28. The first look at this text highlights two key points: the law against cuts, and the law against tattoos. The two are in the same sentence, and therefore must be somehow connected. First, tattoos. Tattoos are essentially a permanent mark upon the skin. Marks are mentioned several places in the Bible. One notable place is the Mark of the Beast, in Rev. 13:15-18. In this context, the mark is the sign of the second beast, which marks out its bearers as being in the service of the antichrist. However, other passages in Scripture also speak of marks and signs, in a different light. Rev 14 speaks of those following the Lamb (Jesus) as having the mark of His Father upon their foreheads. Deut 6:8 describes the binding of the words "Love YHWH your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength" around the hands and between the eyes. A similarly good and bad nature is evident in Scripture's discussion of cuts. While cuts in Lev 19:28 are reminiscent of pagan culture, in Isaiah 53:5, "by his stripes, we are healed." This Isaiahan passage is universally interpreted by the Fathers to refer to the wounds Jesus received during his Passion. These wounds, far from being a pagan concession, are salvific. Thus, cuts and marks are not significant in and of themselves. Rather, they are significant as sacramentals: things or acts whose meaning and significance rely upon what they point to, and not upon the thing or act itself. A mark of the beast is a sacramental pointing to damnation; a mark of the Father is a sacramental pointing to salvation. A cut for Pan is a sacramental pointing to damnation; the wounds of Christ, as participated in by the martyrs, are sacramentals pointing to salvation.

This close of the scriptural interpretation brings me directly to a short and, unfortunately more speculative, discussion of tattoos as sacramental. To do so, I first need to quote the Catechism definition of a sacramental. "Sacred signs which bear a certain resemblance to the sacraments, and by means of which spiritual effects are signified and obtained through the prayers of the Church." (CCC, Glossary) While the seven sacraments of the Church are specific and have rites, sacramentals are not listed by the Church, and instead include a wide variety of items and practices. Such things as candles and rosaries and such practices as kneeling and the sign of the cross share the nature of the sacraments: "A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." (Baltimore Catechism, Q 304) An outward sign, such as kneeling or a rosary, has been given the capacity by Christ, through the mystery of Christ's incarnation infusing the material world with the divine, to bring us closer to God. A tattoo, taken in full understanding of the human body as imago Dei, and which artistically represents a truth about the divine, is capable of fulfilling this definition of sacramental. And thus, tattoos prayerfully received which depict the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, can lead us toward and serve as a constant reminder of God.

A short caveat: this sacramental conception of tattoos requires that they depict something true, good, and beautiful. Lewd sexual images, gang signs, and demonic symbols probably do not fulfill those three requirements. However, the presence of such tattoos does not preclude the existence of good ones, just as the presence of bad music does not preclude the existence of good music. Just as a tattoo done wrongly can be detrimental, a tattoo done rightly can be supplemental.

I hope this has been insightful. If I ever finish this idea for publication, I'll edit in a citation for the article here.



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