The Christian & the Tattoo
In the opening chapters of Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael, who in straitened circumstances has purposed to go to sea, can afford no better lodging than a shared bed at the Spouter Inn. He retires, hoping his roommate won’t bother to show up that night, but wakes to find the man, a shocking specimen, has arrived.
As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares; he seemed to have been in a Thirty Years’ War, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt. Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms. It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Seas, and so landed in this Christian country.
It is one of the ironies of the novel that Melville draws the heathen Queequeg as its principal Christian, but the possibility would be lost if the symbolic differences between Christian and heathen weren’t clearly marked: Tattooing is not a Christian practice.
In the nineteenth century the point hardly had to be argued. Tattoos were not found on sober, serious Christians, especially of Calvinist persuasion—the Reformed orthodoxy of New England placing heavy emphasis on the applicability of Old Testament precepts to the life of the Church. That tattooing was a breach of divine law was laid down in the Bible with perfect clarity, and the better the Bible was known, so was,
You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord (Lev. 19:28, RSV).
A modern conservative Christian authority, however, appears to make short work of all that, at least as a divine prohibition:
Q. What is the Synod’s stance on tattoos and body piercing? If my son or daughter asks for a tattoo or pierced lip or tongue, what Scripture may I rely on?
A. The Synod has no position on this subject. It should be kept in mind that the prohibition in Leviticus 19:28—“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord”—belongs to Old Testament levitical or ceremonial law—which has been set aside or annulled with the coming of Christ (Col. 2:16-17; Acts 15). Leviticus is full of such laws, including the command one verse earlier: “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.”
For Christians, matters such as this lie in the area of Christian freedom and wise judgment (such as, for example, taking into account health concerns, the perceptions and sensitivities of others, and the counsel of Christian parents and advisors). [ http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=2169]
S. M. Hutchens is a Touchstone senior editor.
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