Kangas Manifesto: The (Im)Morality of Tattoos

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[Is It Immoral]
Within the first chapter of the Bible, humankind is described in an incredibly unique way. Genesis 1:26-28 states that humankind is created in the “image” of God and according to His “likeness.” One primary position concerning tattoos is that they are immoral because they desecrate the “image of God”. People who think tattoos are immoral will say:
• Structurally, tattoos are immoral for they violate our conscience (Romans 2:15) because they violate the Law (Leviticus 19:28).
• Functionally, tattoos are immoral. As God’s representatives, we are to care for creation (including our bodies) through exercising responsible authority. Tattoos mutilate the body which is supposed to be nurtured and sustained, and make it vulnerable to infection.
• Relationally, tattoos are immoral because they hinder unity within the body of Christ. Tattoos could be seen as immoral by a fellow believer, and may violate their conscience (1 Corinthians 8:9-12).
• Teleologically, tattoos are immoral because they glorify the ungodly and vulgar, instead of God’s righteous character. Tattoos may also convey vanity and arrogance; vices inappropriate for believers (1 Peter 3:3). Jean-Chris Miller verifies this point by stating that, “Death and darkness have always been a classic tattoo theme – skulls, snakes, demons, spiders, and spider webs are all conventional tattoo imagery.”

[Is It Moral]
The other primary position concerning tattooing is that it is moral because it is simply an artistic expression of the “image of God”. People who think tattoos are moral will say:
• Structurally, tattooing is moral because humankind is created with the ability to appreciate beauty and art, and decorate themselves accordingly.
• Functionally, tattooing is moral since humankind has free will and believers are free in Christ to do what they want with their own bodies (1 Corinthians 6:12). Jean-Chris Miller bluntly states, “It’s your body and you can do what you like with it.”
• Relationally, tattooing is moral for it accounts for diversity amongst believers. Just as God created humans with different colored skin, so people who are tattooed with different colored skin shouldn’t be prejudiced against. Unity should not be based on outward appearance, but on spiritual matters (Philippians 2:2).
• Teleologically, tattoos are moral for they are a medium by which a believer can communicate God’s character to the external world, as well as to their own internal world.

[Old Testament References]
In the OT, God wanted the Israelites to separate themselves from the pagan people. Many verses in the OT refer to pagan worship and acts that usually lead to lacerations to increase mourning, offering blood to a departed spirit, and also mutilations during Baalistic fertility worship (especially when Baal appeared to be deaf to the pleas of his followers in 1 Kings 18:28). Self mutilation of the body is clearly outlawed in numerous passages in the OT; these verses speak of God’s people gashing their bodies during mourning rituals (Deuteronomy 14:1, Jer 16:6, 41:5, 47:5, 48:37). Tattooing and self-mutilation in mourning for the dead was a religious practice in which the Israelites participated in until the exile (Jeremiah 16:6, 41:5)…though it was originally pagan (Jeremiah 47:5, 48:37) and connected with the Canaanite fertility god. I believe the key principle in Leviticus 19:28 is that God did not want His people to be idolatrous. The emphatic theme of Leviticus is God calling His people to holiness. This particular verse in Leviticus explains standards which Israelites were to uphold in maintaining their relationship with the one true God. A Professor of Old Testament, Rudolf Kittel, portrays the idolatrous nature of tattooing in the Israelite culture by stating, “When a person was tattooed he became dedicated to the god and became its servant, as well as came under its protection, so that he should not be harmed.” Since tattooing was done by the pagans as a sign of ownership and devotion to their gods, God did not want the Israelites to be identified with this idolatry.

[New Testament References]
There is very little reference to tattoos and markings in the NT. I did find, however, that a mark (or tattoo) was usually made to show that a person committed an offense…either for running away, stealing, or some other transgression. Also, recruits to the Roman army were marked by a tattoo, most likely the abbreviated name of the emperor. Usually, a slave was marked on the forehead and the soldier was marked on the hand. Revelation 13:16,17, 14:9,11, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4 all refered to the mark of the beast which the ungodly will receive on their forehead or hand as a symbol of their devotion to him. Yet those who are faithful to God will also receive a mark, the name of God or Christ (Revelation 3:12, 14:1, 19:6, 22:4). Lastly, at the return of Christ, He has a name written on His robe and thigh, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:16). In conclusion, the biblical references all indicate that tattoos are a symbol of ownership and devotion. These tattoos further represent protection by the deity with which the tattoo is made for and the punishment towards any one who harms them.

[My Conclusion]
I believe that tattoos do not inherently violate the “image of God” or the conscience of the believer, since we are not bound by the Old Covenant (found in the Old Testament of the Bible). Leviticus 19:28 states: “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.” This verse is part of the OT Law which Christ superseded (Ephesians 2:5). We are free from the Law, and are now under the Law of Christ which does not mention the prohibition against tattoos. When you actually look at the verse, I believe the principles found in Leviticus 19:28 is very clear: God’s people are not to be idolatrous.

I believe God created us with the ability to appreciate beauty and art. I understand that the appreciation of art is very subjective, and as the saying goes “beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder”. Whatever your personal opinion of beauty may be, tattoos are legally considered art. While tattooing is considered a legal art form in almost all of the United States, beauty and art can still be misplaced. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, seemed to acknowledge that some tattoos were ill-placed and violate the “image of God” more than others. He issued a decree saying that hardened criminals should not be inscribed on the face but rather on the hands or calves, for “This will ensure that the face, which has been formed in the image of the divine beauty, will be defiled as little as possible.”

I believe that tattooing permanently marks the skin of the body, but I do not think it can be classified with body modification and mutilation which alters the functional structure of the body that God created. It is for this exact reason that the Catholic Catechism does not prohibit tattoos. With that said, I do believe that the psychological pain which motivates people to be mutilated may also motivate them to be tattooed. In this situation, tattooing would be equivalent to mutilation (which is a desecration to the “image of God”).

I believe tattoos do not cause disease. During the OT period, I read how tattoo and scarification instruments were not sterile and were presumably a source of disease and infection. A common theme within the holiness code is that many of the laws were given to prevent the Israelites from experiencing illness. Therefore, God’s prohibition against tattoos and mutilation in Leviticus 19:28 could have been His gracious prevention against disease. Current tattooing techniques which include one-time-use needles, individual ink pots, latex gloves and autoclave equipment have all but eliminated the spread of disease. The Center of Disease reports that no data exists in the U.S. which indicates that persons exposed to tattooing alone are at increased risk for Hepatitis C or HIV.

I believe tattoos hinder unity within the body of Christ by causing fellow believers with weak consciences to stumble. Christians are encouraged to take great pains to prevent violating a weaker brother’s conscience in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. In reference to this verse, Bible scholar David Lowery suggests that, “Paul did not say that a knowledgeable Christian must abandon his freedom to the ignorant prejudice of a “spiritual” bigot. The “weak brother” was one who followed the example of another Christian, not one who carped and coerced that knowledgeable Christian into a particular behavioral pattern…The “weak brother” …was to be taught so that he too could enjoy his freedom.” Therefore, I believe that tattoos within the Christian community need to be openly discussed and their meanings explained. People who believe that tattoos are immoral may have their conscience strengthened if they realized the meanings behind them, and people who believe tattoos are moral may have their conscience refocused if they realized the perception they portray.

I believe that tattoos may or may not communicate God’s character to the external world. If a person were to be tattooed simply to look macho or vain, this would be immoral and would not communicate the character of God (1 Peter 3:3). Also, if tattoos portray something offensive or glorify sin, this obviously would not communicate the character of God. Yet I believe that tattoos do have the ability to communicate the character and truths of God to an external world, as well as remind the bearer of the truth which the tattoo symbolizes. This seems to be how the Bible describes the meaning of tattoos. Throughout the OT and NT period, tattooing symbolized ownership and devotion to the god which they portrayed. It also provides a reminder to the tattooed person as to whom they belonged to. Christians throughout history have been tattooed with Christian symbols as a sign of ownership and devotion to Christ.

In conclusion, I believe tattoos are morally neutral. Depending on motivation, effect, culture, and your devotion to the object or person that the tattoo symbolizes…a tattoo can be either immoral or moral.