July 13, 2011
If you look up tattooing in an anthropology text book, you will find it covered under the area of "scarification." Scarification has been practiced throughout history by different peoples and cultures, going back to the neolithic. In recent years it has taken on a new life of popularity among the younger set, perhaps stemming from Janis Joplin's use of tattoos on her wrist and left breast, though you find older people getting tattoos, too.
In the Old Testament the Israelite was forbidden "cutting" their body in a ritualistic way (Lev 19:28). Judaism forbids the practice of tattoo due to this prohibition. Some Christians would follow suit. I remember a friend who told his children they could pay for their own education if they got a tattoo. He used the Leviticus reference. Since the Leviticus use refers to cutting for the dead (perhaps a Canaanite pagan practice), an association with a polytheistic rite (see Lev 21:5), perhaps the correlation is too distant to be valid in today's culture. Of course, anything that points to anti-God connotations should be viewed carefully by a Christian today.
Some modern usage may reflect evil, but most often it is just the "in" thing to do. Military service people often got tattoos to associate with their unit or a battle or that period in their lives. One of my brothers served in the Navy and later in the merchant marine and most of his body is tattooed. He regrets most of it now, but it is too late. It did open doors for the gospel when he ministered in the women's prison in Nevada.
The modern word "tattoo" comes from a Tahitian word, tatu. Slang often refers to them as "tats." Used in various cultures, including the Polynesian, as a rite of passage or a tribal marker, it continues to do so in a way in our culture. Body piercing of various sorts is usually associated with it. Most cultures recognize it as personal art.
The "mark" of a Christian in the teaching of Jesus was "love." Love cannot simply be a tattoo on the physical body. It goes much deeper and its impact proves more profound. I think of receiving a tattoo as a painful process, pricking the skin to put dye beneath the first layer of skin. But "love" as a mark of a Christian may also be painful, perhaps exceeding the physical pain of scarification. We are to bear the marks of Jesus, to suffer as he suffered (1 Peter). As we love others we risk failure, disappointment, abuse, misunderstanding, at times even physical suffering, all without any external mark, usually. However, this love marks us as his followers.
I don't have a strong word for or against tattoos. I know I am not going to get one myself (at least intentionally). On the other hand, I continue to labor to demonstrate love to my friends, my acquaintances, my contacts, to any and all people I meet in my wanderings among the world's population. I hope they see my "mark" because it points to Jesus, my savior, who loves them far more than I will ever.