“What do you think, Mom?” Our oldest daughter, Sarah, proudly showed me her newest tattoo when she was home to visit this summer. “I think it’s great,” I responded. “Tattooing the word ubuntu on your wrist makes a very positive statement about your respect for the humanity of all people.” “You’re kidding, Mom! You actually know what ubuntu means?” “Sure,” I replied. “It’s an African word means which means that my humanity is wrapped up in yours. Ubuntu is a communal harmony that enhances the personhood of all people. When we dehumanize others, we actually dehumanize ourselves because we are one human family. You may not know it, but ubuntu is a very theological word.” “Cool!” Sarah gushed.
As you probably suspect, I do not have any tattoos on my body – or piercings, for that matter. The only markings I have are scars, sores, scrapes and bruises from falls related to sports. Both of my daughters wanted to have their ears pieced as girls, which was fine with me. But when the piercings included the nose, eyebrow, navel and tongue, I began to recoil in embarrassment. Then the tattoos started.
When our children were teenagers, life became so interesting that piercings and tattoos were the least of my worries. “Pick your battles,” I continually reminded myself. I was even able to smile when Sarah, who was married 2 years ago, walked down the aisle sporting a highly visible tattoo on her bare shoulder.
Because body art has become almost mainstream today, I have moved from questioning why anyone would want to go through the discomfort of getting a tattoo to understanding the statement our young people are trying to make by adorning their bodies with every figure imaginable. According to a 2003 Harris poll, 16% of Americans have at least one tattoo. A 2005 report of the American Society of Dermatological Surgery shows that the figure is now as high as 24%. And among 18-29 year olds, it’s 36%.
Today even Christian tattoos are popular. Crosses, pictures of saints, symbols, theological words and scripture verses are common. Some people draw the line at Christian tattoos by citing Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” Others believe that their Christian tattoos declare who they are; namely, followers of Jesus Christ. In that way, tattoos become a form of evangelism.
Of course, external symbols of our faith are not new. From earliest times, Christians have worn crosses as a sign of faith. During our recent trip to Greece, we spent a day visiting the fascinating monasteries of Meteora. In one of the monastery museums, as we passed displays of richly ornamented vestments and jewelry which Orthodox priests wore through the centuries, our youngest daughter, Talitha commented, “Mom, have you ever noticed that the people who wear the gaudiest jewelry are Christians?”
If you wear a cross, why do you do it? Probably as an outward sign of an invisible faith. However, just as the Leviticus passage prohibits tattoos, I Timothy 2:8-10 deals with jewelry, “I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.”
Since we can find biblical support for prohibiting both tattoos and jewelry, what is the difference between wearing a tattoo cross or a cross around your neck? Could it be the lifetime commitment of a tattoo? You can’t take off a tattoo nearly as easily as a necklace. You can draw your own theological conclusions from that observation!
I do not own jewelry. Nor do I have tattoos, for I believe that I have already been marked as a disciple of Jesus Christ through my baptism. Even though my baptism is not visible to others, I am trusting that my hands, voice, face and heart show that I am a follower of Jesus Christ rather than the marks on my body. I’d never judge anyone who chooses to declare who they are through jewelry or tattoos. At he same time, tattoos and jewelry can never replace actual discipleship and servanthood.
Sarah thought she’d have to hide the ubuntu tattoo on her wrist when she returned to teaching this fall. She bought wide bracelets and long sleeved shirts to cover it up. The first day back, however, she met a young male teacher whose arms were full of tattoos, and no one said a word to him. So now her ubuntu tattoo is uncovered. I hope it will open the door for conversation, so that Sarah can share her passion for equality and unity among all people in our world. Could there be anything more significant than that?