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Tattoo You?

Ever since our first mother, Eve, facilely discovered multiple reasons to do what God had expressly commanded her through Adam not to do, we’ve proven to be, in our fallen estate, a darkness-loving lot that excels in creatively justifying any sin-embracing choice we desire to make. This ability wreaks havoc in ethics. No sooner do we learn the right thing than we begin paralogizing in the pursuit of what we think of as "freedom."

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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Ever since our first mother, Eve, facilely discovered multiple reasons to do what God had expressly commanded her through Adam not to do, we’ve proven to be, in our fallen estate, a darkness-loving lot that excels in creatively justifying any sin-embracing choice we desire to make. This ability wreaks havoc in ethics. No sooner do we learn the right thing than we begin paralogizing in the pursuit of what we think of as "freedom."

But freedom from God’s Law as a rule of faith and life is no freedom at all. Some think the opposite of Law is Grace. Rather, the opposite of Law is chaos, meaninglessness and death. Thinking which leads to a justification for disobedience is, by definition, wrong thinking.

With the modern church having largely capitulated to some or another form of antinomianism, it should not surprise us that it seems ever to be engaged in lowering the flag before each new assault on the ethics of the Antithesis. Whether we are asked to adjust God’s standards for marriage and divorce, or Lord’s Day worship, or the tithe, or homosexuality, or love of the brethren, we find an ever-vigilant phalanx of theologians whose favorite color is grey and whose favorite work is dismantling the Antithesis, directing us, like the serpent did Eve, to ignore what God says and to seek life in death.

In every dispensation God has made it clear that his people are a people of life, a people distinct from "the world," a people with a different idea of "wisdom," a people with a different way of living. God’s word to Israel and the church is (of course) one: "Do not think as they think; do not do as they do" (Dt. 18:9; Eph. 4:17-20).

Keeping God’s law in Christ is a community affair. To comply with the demands of the Antithesis, it is necessary not only to have those commands, but to have a people committed to abiding by them. Though we are made up of individuals, the covenant community is an entity in its own right, an organism which confesses covenant truth and lives the covenant life. We are to be a people set apart both by what we believe and how we behave.

Included in the set-apartness required of us in both the Old and New administrations of the covenant is the sanctification of our bodies unto God. "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world" (Rom. 12:1-2a).

Only a Gnostic, a Platonist or a nut would interpret the command to present our bodies to God as having nothing to do with our bodies. The human body is most definitely a concern of God’s and he has given us various laws designed to maintain its integrity and dignity, to keep it suitable for one in service to the living and true God. If anything, the New Testament heightens our concern with the body, for there it is oft-designated a temple of God. And we must not desecrate God’s temple. The wicked say, "Our lips [and our bodies] are our own" (Ps. 12:4). The Christian answers with the great confession: "I am not my own, but belong body and soul to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ."

But confessions without content remain mere words: pretty, maybe, but empty. When we confess that our bodies belong to God, do we actually believe that he may regulate what we do with them? At one time this was definitely what the Christian community believed. Lately, however, it seems to be standing with its hands in its pockets as it watches a new wave of defiance of this confession.

A phenomenon among us that is gaining notoriety and adherents, and sadly making inroads into Christian circles, is the deliberate and systematic desecration of the human body. It is making progress among us for three reasons: the Christian community has 1) neglected the law of God; 2) largely lost its sense of being a community of grace and law; and 3) bought into the notion that fashion is, for all intents and purposes, a matter in which God is disinterested.

The diverse methods of self-desecration have been lumped together under the fitting initials BM, though here it stands for body modification. BM includes piercing, tattooing, scarring, branding, cutting and mutilation. BM is becoming more than a trend: it is an identifiable subculture, impacting millions through a huge presence on the Internet. There are even international conventions. BM shops are proliferating at an astonishing rate (the one across the street from Messiah’s offices does a very brisk business).

Body piercing, like marijuana to heroin, is often but the first step into a world of multiple self-inflicted indignities. And like marijuana, proponents think it is the easiest to justify. After all, who hasn’t seen the male athletes and movie stars with their earrings? And haven’t you seen the picture of Shakespeare wearing one in his left ear?

And thus the reasoning begins with an assumption that what is right for women must also be right for men, and what is right in popular culture must be right for the Christian. But our standard is the word of God. And that word gives us warrant to regard piercing as possibly appropriate for some, but not necessarily for others. (The other forms of BM are fit for none but pagans, as we’ll see.)

Put plainly, piercing is normally an act appropriate only for women and, in some cases, male slaves.

Delicacy is difficult here—and I want to avoid a charge of misogyny—but the fact is that woman, by her from-the-creation role in the marriage act, is a "piercee." Within marriage, of course, no stigma at all attaches to this, but outside of marriage, Scripture often refers to it as a "humbling" (Dt. 21:14; 22:24; 22:29). (In this regard, too, childbirth is woman’s triumphant vindication—consider this when exegeting 1 Tim. 2:15.)

Obviously, piercing for a woman need not involve sodomy or "lowering." She was made a woman, for man, a fact to which her body itself testifies.

Man, however, was not made a woman nor was he made to abide piercing. It is still a universal that he is not expected to. The recent attack on a Brooklyn prisoner provides a tragic case in point. The Associated Press reported: One of the police officers charged with torturing a man by sodomizing him with a stick bragged about the attack, saying he had to "break a man" who took a swing at him. Officer Justin Volpe also told fellow officers "I had to bring a man down tonight."

Piercing may or may not bring a woman down, depending on many factors. But piercing always brings a man down. That piercing bespeaks a relational subordination is implicitly recognized even in our American culture, yet often below the surface. To the astute it appears dramatically when considering the vocabulary of popular "curses" (as in humiliating phrases, not maledictions). The most common two-word curse in English, the one we want our children never to use, is simply a wish for someone to be humiliated through being pierced. To be pierced, for a man, is necessarily to be lowered.

For in the view of Scripture, piercing is a token of being under the dominion of another. (Even the unique piercing of Christ was a testimony of his total submission to the Father: Isaiah 53:5,10; Philippians 2:8; see also Psalm 40:6-8.) Since woman was created to be under the loving headship of her husband, piercing can be seen as consistent with that calling. Hebrew men, however, were called to be directly under the authority of God (see 1 Cor. 11:3).

Consequently, limitations of Hebrew servitude were codified in the law. But if a Hebrew servant, at the time of his manumission, desired to be permanently under the dominion of his master, this was to be indicated in a rite in which his ear was bored with an awl (Ex. 21:6; Dt. 15:17). The fact that a pierced ear served as a sign of permanent subordination suggests that it was not practiced by males in general, else it would hardly serve as a distinguishing mark.

Some have called attention to the fact that Israelite males took off their golden earrings and contributed them to Aaron for the making of the golden calf. This seems to be the case (Ex. 32:1-4). But out of what estate had they just escaped? That’s right: slavery. So this proves nothing other than that slaves had earrings. Similarly, those who cite the Ishmaelite practice of wearing gold earrings (Judges 8:24) must not miss the point: the Ishmaelites had this custom, not the Israelites. Newly-delivered Hebrew slaves and Ishmaelites don’t constitute a powerful precedent for free males to engage in piercing themselves!

It is interesting that as men in our culture began to pierce their ears, women began piercing multiple holes in their ears. But it didn’t stop there. Piercing parlors now routinely pierce ears, lips, eyebrows, tongues, noses, nipples, and male and female genitals. For those who cringe, not only at the ghastliness of the piercings, but at the thought of the pain involved, you need to understand that the pain is central to the experience. This is freely admitted, even boasted of, in this new "subculture."

One woman describes the piercing of her clitoris as "a rite of sexual reclamation." The piercer explained, after a pre-piercing examination, that hers was going to be a particularly painful experience. She insisted that he proceed, and described the procedure: "My body tensed. I heard Jim say, ‘Ready?’ [It was as if] one hundred thousand volts of electricity jolted me out of my body. My scream never passed my throat . . . I couldn’t see. After Jim inserted the ring in my clitoris and handed me a hand mirror, I stood up and paced the small room. I never had an experience of such intensity. My body tingled. I felt powerful, charged, triumphant . . . I was alive! For the first time in my life I felt whole, complete and perfect." She then tells that years later, she returned to school "to broaden [her] understanding of pain, ecstasy and body modification."

Anyone who believes that this current obsession with body modification is simply a fashion statement is not merely naive, but ignorant of the literature of BM devotees. For them, the more radical piercings are self-consciously religious experiences. This association with paganism is known, understood and cherished. The piercings, etc., are regarded as rituals. "Rituals take place in urban settings: libraries, public parks, warehouses, abandoned city sites. Rituals take many forms: piercing, tattooing, branding and scarification in private and public ceremonies, S/M [sado-masochistic] psychodramas in private dungeons, technoshamanic trance dances at underground Rave parties, psychedelic shamanism, in living rooms—any activity capable of producing the direct experience of spiritual truth and healing in the participant." Consider the mindset of someone who regards mutilation as healing!

What we are witnessing in BM is the developing self-consciousness of a Christ-rejecting culture. For the fundamental need of fallen man is atonement. This is critically important to know and understand. There is only one God-provided atonement, and that is the pierced and risen Christ. A societal rejection of this atonement will result in the arising of pseudo-atonements, typically involving the infliction of pain upon others or oneself.

Thus it is, that to ask "Doesn’t that hurt?," is to miss the point. Of course it hurts! And the permanent holes and markings and scars are as sacraments of the false atonement. Thus the devil leads astray his hordes, turning their eyes and hearts from Christ to themselves.

A recent feature article in the New York Times Magazine talked about young people cutting themselves with knives, glass, fingernails, whatever, "to feel better." The girl featured in the story told of how she cut herself the first time with a wallpaper cutter: "It felt good to see the blood coming out, like that was my other pain leaving, too. It felt right and it felt good."

The New York Times, lacking a Christian worldview, can only describe the phenomenon; it cannot explain it. "In an age of tattoos and nose rings, self-mutilation is the latest expression of adolescent self-loathing." According to Dr. A. Favazza, professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri-Columbia medical school, "Self-injury is probably a bit epidemic." He defines self-mutilation as "the direct, deliberate destruction or alteration of one’s own body tissue without conscious suicidal intent." The Times recognized the relationship between the growing popularity of body modification and the estimated "two million people injuring [themselves] in secret." We are beginning to "look like a nation obsessed with cutting." One expert called it "the addiction of the 90s."

The article cites self-injury in other cultures, but the antecedents noted are cults, pagans, homosexuals and sado-masochists. Hardly the kind of gallery to which a Christian or a Jew might appeal for justification for body-mutilation. Yet there is an increasingly vocal number of self-professing Jews and Christians intent on making BM just another form of lawful expression.

Interestingly, all the apologists I’ve read begin by rejecting the law as normative. First, a Jew: "Are Jews prohibited from practicing body modification? In my opinion, the answer is ‘No,’ for several reasons. One, most Jews in the Reform [not to be confused with the Christian version of Reformed], Reconstructionist [not to be confused with the Christian version of Reconstructionist] and Conservative movements do not take the Bible to be pure divinely inspired word." He then explains that this view of Scripture (not surprisingly) facilitates acceptance/tolerance of such things as "homosexuality, pre-marital sex, birth control . . . and our general rejection of antiquated sexist ideas. . . ."

Next, a "Christian," a United Methodist minister pastoring two Midwest churches, who has numerous piercings (including sublingual, nipple and genital) and a growing number of tattoos: This "minister" finds "analysis of specific Biblical passages . . . useful," but prefers to justify BM theologically. (His theology includes spelling God as "Godde," explaining that this "is a term being used by some to shift away from the culturally gender-bound term, ‘God.’") BM, he insists, must be understood in the light of the Incarnation. For him this means that "Godde acts in and through the human experience." Christians who reject BM are plagued by Hellenistic dualism. Enlightened Christians, such as himself, see the body as "a sacrament of Godde. . . . My piercings and tattoos are my attempt to clothe and ornament well my body." His self-mutilations are "profoundly expressive of Godde." Maybe so, but not of our God, not of the true God.

In the law it is written, "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:28). The rabbis speak clearly on this passage: "It was a pagan custom to gash the skin when a close relative died. They also did this when they suffered any other grief. With this they would call upon their deity to help them (cf. 1 Kg. 18:28). God told us to avoid this custom.

"The Torah continues, ‘Do not make tattoo marks on your skin.’ It is forbidden to make any tattoo marks or to allow oneself to be tattooed. The pagans used to make tattoo marks by gashing their skin and then placing dye or other coloring into the gashes so the color would remain. We similarly see many Gentiles today who have tattoos on their arms, chests and other places. In ancient times this was done to show that they were like slaves to their pagan deity. The Torah therefore commands us not to do this. We are slaves of the Living and Everlasting God. We have our holy signs such as the mark of circumcision as well as the Sabbath and Festivals. These are the great signs that we are God’s servants."

The prohibitions of Leviticus 19:28 are said to include "every area of the body, whether [generally] exposed or covered by clothing," and to be "in effect everywhere, at every time, for both man and woman."

Compare this to the defense of BM by a self-described Christian: "Christians are not bound by the Law. Remember that it’s not what you do; it’s what’s in your heart when you do it." Uh-huh. And hear yet another professing believer: "These laws are from the first covenant, which Jesus replaced with the new covenant." This clever man uses the de facto American Christian view of the place of the law in the life of the Christian to release himself from any obligation to it. None but the Reformed can respond potently. But how can anyone respond to this fellow’s NT justification for BM? The sum of it, for him, is to be found in Eph. 5:29: "For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church." What remains to be said when a professing Christian equates piercing, cutting, burning and slashing the body with nourishing and cherishing it? Pity his wife!! (Eph. 5:28). And if we are to love neighbor as self, my advice to his neighbors: Move!

Among the Jews the historic penalty for violation of Lev. 19:28 was flogging. Of course, the Jews have not practiced flogging for some time, yet voluntary tattooing is non-existent among observant Jews, and almost non-existent among practicing Jews of most varieties. How do we explain this state of affairs, especially in view of the fact that nearly all Western Jews live in largely Gentile urban areas, where tattooing has not been unknown, and is sometimes not uncommon? There is a reason to explain this, and it is brimming with instruction.

Ironically, the reason can be traced to what is actually a myth: that if you have a tattoo, you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (The truth is that you may be buried in a cemetery, but if it is largely orthodox, you may be consigned to an isolated area marked off and away from the frum (observant) Jews. Other conditions may apply: no prayers on behalf of the dead [don’t confuse these with Romish prayers]; no shrouds; no entitlement to ritual cleansing; no prayers at the time of burial; Shiva, the traditional mourning period, may not be observed. In short, the "myth" is a handy, though inaccurate, shorthand for the facts.)

Virtually every Jew I’ve ever known believes the myth to be true. And that belief alone was enough to utterly banish any thought of tattooing from our minds. We would never even for a moment entertain the thought of tattooing ourselves.

But this fear of being excluded in death from "Am Yisrael," the people of Israel, is itself predicated upon a profoundly deep-seated understanding of oneself as a Jew. This, in turn, is built upon an understanding of Jewishness which utterly transcends the individual.

This—may I say?—is precisely where American Christianity has failed, pathetically and tragically failed. I am convinced that this a fruit of the triumph of Baptistic, atomistic, anti-covenantal theology in our history. Yet, be that as it may, the fact remains that the consciousness of a Jew regarding his being a Jew has value only as part of a called people. The suggestion that a certain behavior will disqualify him from being buried with his people is enough to banish any thought of that behavior.

Now try that with a typical American Christian youth who is contemplating body modification: tell him he won't be allowed to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Oh, wow! Can't you see him shaking in his boots?

Hardly. The fact is that we do not even approach (except among the Dutch Reformed) the Jewish sense of peoplehood. No matter that the Holy Spirit tells us that we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (I Peter 2:9), we can't help but think of ourselves as merely a collection of individuals who have made choices to become Christian. But this is precisely what the truth of the covenant, particularly as it is seen in infant baptism, is so-well fitted to overcome; we were appointed, designated and constituted a people by the one and only God! It is he who made us a people and not we ourselves!

Also involved in the Jewish rejection of BM is, as we have noted, the belief in the continuing validity of the law of God. The orthodox Jews have bested us with a highly developed sense of corporate calling. They also hover closer to Scripture when they regard God's moral standards as irrevocable. It is quite true that Christians, unlike the Jews, are united firstly by a common faith and creed. But this faith must never be thought of as a replacement for God's law, but rather as its only proper foundation (Rom. 3:31). True Christianity does not differ from Judaism by affirming faith and rejecting deeds. Rather it differs from Judaism in the arrangement of these two essential covenant elements: Jews believe in what they do; Christians do what they believe in.

The church in America and elsewhere will soon find itself plagued by the in-your-face confrontation of Body Modifiers. If it is to respond in a God-pleasing manner, its response will be exceedingly simple: we have no such practices, nor do the churches of God (I Co. 11:16). We do not do these things. We do not do such things because: 1) they are contrary to God's Law. We do not pretend to know how to apply every law in every generation and culture, but this one offers little difficulty, Biblically or historically. This is a pagan practice and we are not to be like the pagans. 2) Such practices are contrary to righteousness. Our bodies are not our own. 3) We reject practices which confuse the difference between male and female, and which confuse the differences between Christ's people and the world. 4) Above all, we reject these practices because we are the people of the atonement. All these practices are inseparable from a mindset that operates without atonement. But we are controlled by Christ's atonement in all we believe and do. "He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood." 5) Thus we are of all people the most free, for we alone have "been set free from the tyranny of the devil." It was for freedom that Christ set us free. We do not use our freedom as a cover-up for evil.

The encroachment of Body Modification into the church presents us with yet another opportunity to recover the sense of our unique calling. Shall we rise to the occasion of once again capitulate?

The task assigned by God to us, particularly those of us in Reformed churches, is huge. And it is comprehensive. It cannot be completed, however, unless we inculcate in our congregations a worldview and more: a consciousness, an identity as members of the covenant community, a community redeemed by God's grace to abide by God's law. Our calling impacts everything we do. We do not proclaim a one-dimensional Christ, but a Savior who is Prophet, Priest and King of his people, the Ruler, in fact, over all the world and all of life.

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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