Before the college football game between the No. 1 Florida Gators and the No. 4 LSU Tigers, USA Today had an in-depth story about Florida’s tight end Aaron Hernandez, whose arms are covered with tattoos.
One tattoo is of God’s hands. Another tattoo has the hand of Jesus on the cross. Angels are on his wrist, reported the feature story.
Religious tattoos appear fitting for an elite football player, who began meeting soon after his father died with Florida’s head football coach every morning for Bible study.
Like Hernandez, Christians are getting tattoos and talking about them. Some talk is negative. Some is positive. Some is satirical.
“Historically, the origin of the tattoo is associated with paganism, demonism, Baal worship, shamanism, mysticism, heathenism, cannibalism and many other pagan beliefs. The tattoo has NEVER been connected with Bible believing Christians,” wrote Lynette Schaefer on the Web site Rapture Ready.
She identified tattooing with “blood-letting,” which “has both occultic and demonic origins.” Her proof-text for the demonic was the demoniac named Legion in Mark 5 who cut himself with stones.
She also cited another text for her opposition to tattoos: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:28).
“If you received tattoos before conversion to Christ, then you have already been forgiven for that,” wrote Schaefer. “On the other hand, if you have received tattoos after giving your life to Christ, you need to repent of this sin and not repeat it, under any circumstances, because it is considered abominable.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary student David Dunham offered a much different take from Schaefer. He wrote earlier this year: “As both a Christian and one who has tattoos … there is nothing irreconcilable about the two, and in fact tattoos can be an intriguing way to proclaim the gospel.”
Writing on the Web site Christ and Pop Culture, Dunham interpreted differently the Leviticus passage, pointing out that contextually God was commanding the people of Israel to avoid associating with pagan nations. Furthermore, this command “falls under what Old Testament theologians identify as Israelite civil law,” he said.
Dunham claimed that one of the benefits of tattoos was witnessing to others, including the tattoo artist.
Writing about women’s issues for one of the Christianity Today family of publications, Lisa Harper said she believed the Leviticus passage and other texts related to ceremonial law and should not be applied to tattooing. If they are, she argued “no one could eat shrimp or cheeseburgers.”
“Avoiding tattoo parlors or Red Lobster doesn’t make you righteous—Jesus’ death and resurrection do! While you need to remember your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16), you don’t have to let other people’s sense of religious propriety constrain you,” she claimed.
From a satirical blog, Stuff White Christians Like, Luther Zwingli wrote in March, “Nothing quite says ‘X-treme Faith’ to the white Christian like an awesome faith-themed tattoo. That’s right- ‘X-treme,’ not ‘Extreme.’ Referring to extreme things without using proper spelling makes them more extreme.”
“Like every white person, white Christians enjoy body art,” blogged Zwingli. “Tattoos allow white Christians that are in creation (outdoors) in warm weather to engage in ripped bod, flesh-revealing ministry.”
My first memory of a man with a tattoo was of a Southern Baptist missionary. He had a tattoo on the forearm.
When he served in the Army during World War II, he had gotten a tattoo. Whether he got the tattoo in the United States or Europe, I don’t recall. Nor do I remember any real conversations about his tattoo.
I did absorb the understanding that his tattoo represented who he was in the Army. It did not represent who he was on the mission field. More pointedly, the issue was never his service in the Army, but his decision in the Army to get a tattoo. Being a missionary was a course correction away from tattoos.
His tattoo had a practical message for children about the problem with tattoos: Be careful what you do. You might not be able to undo it. In hindsight, his tattoo also had a theological message: newness of life in the Christian faith did not erase the past.
Fast forward from then to now. Everything has changed. At least, the faith community is talking about tattoos—not all the conversation is civil. But perhaps some uncivil conversation is better than no conversation about a business that appears recession-proof.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.