Monday, March 17, 2014

Tattoos, Labels, and Social Identities

Leviticus 19:28: "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD."

Why are tattoos wrong? Because they originate from, form, and encourage a self-imposed social identity, placed by the hand of man on the the body, which belongs not to ourselves but to the Holy Ghost. 

On the other hand, the Lord put a mark on Cain (Genesis 4:15); He had those who lamented over the sins of Israel marked with the Thau to protect them from destruction (Ezekiel 9:4); and He marks the redeemed with a seal on their foreheads (Revelation 7:3-8). In Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, the soul is signed with an indelible mark, placed there by God, establishing an unbreakable relation to God that did not exist beforehand, the relation of being a son of God. These are sealed in the Holy Ghost (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30). It is by the hand of God that this mark is placed, not on the body, but on the soul. God alone gives us our true identity, individual and social, and death, so showed the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, reveals the fraud of all human-created social identities.

The image in human constructs goes out to the Other so as to attract the gaze of the Other back to the image. It is fundamentally egoistic. It matters not what the image is; that is besides the point. The psychological function of the image transcends the image and the intention of the Subject, which in Lacan's terminology is mostly unconscious of itself and of its actions (I capitalize "Subject" simply as a reminder of its specialized usage here). This psychological function of the image, we can say, establishes a relation between the Subject and the Other, a relation existing suprasubjectively

So too does the relation between God and the soul marked by the hand of God. In the former case, we establish the relation; in the latter, God is the initiator and terminus of the relation, the Alpha and the Omega. In the former case, there is a kind of unconscious attempt at salvation by human hands ("the work of human hands"), an attempt to "prove" that I am God's—"see? I even put this image on me to show you—to show them—to show God—to show myself." And what does it really prove? Once the body rots and has been resurrected, will the tattoo be there? What has been accomplished? In the end, it's like the Tower of Babel, doomed to failure, for there is an infinite chasm between us and God.

Then we like to find justifications, even the smallest, for our actions; it is always a matter of whether this action is "OK" in the eyes of God. We like to think that if it's a "small" tattoo, then that's all right—as though God would become more upset by consideration of size! This is being a Pharisee. No, we offend God through sin, which is an act of the spiritual will working through our physical bodies; size is irrelevant—it's the fact that we willed to do something that was wrong.

But the Church's vast tradition of spiritual and mystical teaching shows us that we clearly hear God's voice in our lives only on the condition and to the extent that we are detached from our own wills and committed to doing the will of God. So if you want to know whether getting a tattoo would be "favorable" in God's sight, ask yourself, after detaching yourself from all creaturely loves according to the teachings of the Saints, whether you discerned God was telling you to get a tattoo or whether you just want to have one.

But God gives us some "labels" by which He desires us to be identified: sons and daughters of God, the people of God, the mystical Body, the Church, Christians, saints, co-heirs, and all the other Biblical images. 

But everything that is said about a tattoo, even a so-called "devotional tattoo," applies just as well to self-imposed lingual identities—with the significant difference being lingual identities do not leave a mark on the body.

Here we find the crucial difference between being called (something) and calling myself (something). Our vocation is precisely where God calls us and, then, concretely calls us what our state in life is: cleric, religious, lay, consecrated, but foundational to all of these, holy. (As an aside, notice how religious habits are given and worn as a sign. Our uniform, although in itself meaningless, ought to be a truthful representation of what we are and hence what we do, but our uniform is determined by our state in life and, due to fashion, open to a certain amount of variety at least for layfolk.) We do not "call ourselves"; we accept our calling and hence what we are called. Our action is cooperative, not initiative. Anything else in the order of salvation is futile and arrogant. To prove this, simply imagine trying to defend on your judgment day in front of Christ that your label somehow aided in your sanctification and in being a disciple of Christ. See where it gets you...

Whatever label I may use to describe my faith is ultimately meaningless and in a radical way inspired by the pride of the Fall—the grasping of a forbidden fruit, an identity that I take on for myself rather than what is given to me by grace, i.e. by gift from God. It may be convenient during a conversation, for a survey, or for debate, but it is meaningless for my salvation. After all, Christ said, "Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21). Those who cooperate with grace enter the Kingdom. Anyone who cooperates with grace will fulfill the commandments, will serve Christ in "one of these my least brethren" (Matthew 25:40), will be like those "that heareth these my words, and doth them, [and] shall be likened to a wise man" (Matthew 7:24).

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