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God Squad: What religions say about tattoos

A reader asks if God cares about tattoos.

A reader asks if God cares about tattoos. Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

Q: I would appreciate knowing how you interpret Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” Regardless of how we interpret or apply the whole of Leviticus, the above is the law of the Lord at all times — past, present and future. My belief is that we came into this world with a clean body and we should exit with a clean body.

— From M, via email

A: So the question is whether God cares about your tats? Does God think about your ink?

Here is how some of the world religions line up on the question of tattoos:

JUDAISM Tattoos are a form of self-wounding (in Hebrew havalah b’atzmo) and self-wounding is prohibited. Judaism believes that God owns our bodies and so defacing what we do not own is a sin. This belief that God owns our bodies is from Ezekiel 18:4, “All souls are mine,” Exodus 19:5 “The whole earth is mine.” and Psalm 24:1 (that is also quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:26), “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” God’s claim over us is the direct spiritual corollary to God’s creation of us. Aside from the health risks of tattooing, there is the aesthetic/spiritual point that our bodies do not need extra attention to make them beautiful in the eyes of God. Although traditional Jewish law opposes tattooing, the widely held belief that if you have a tattoo you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery is not true. This makes tattoos something that in Judaism is OK if you don’t ask and prohibited if you do.

CHRISTIANITY Christianity is always torn about the question of which Jewish laws still apply to Christians. On one level, the atoning death and resurrection frees Christians from the demands of Jewish law including keeping kosher and tattooing, but Christians are still bound by the ethical biblical laws such as, for example, murder and theft. There is therefore a strong anti-tattoo tradition in Christianity (Mormons forbid it) based upon the Jewish belief that God owns our bodies and we ought to respect what we did not create. Thus, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

ISLAM Sunni Islam prohibits tattooing (Surah 4 Verses 117-120 and in the Bukhari where Abu Juhaifa recounts that The Prophet cursed a lady who practiced tattooing). Shia Islam, however, permits tattooing. This difference in practice is part of the effort to distinguish Shia from Sunni religious practices. A common object for Shia tattoos is the zulfiqar, the legendary sword of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is considered by Shia Muslims as the successor to Mohammad, but whose authority Sunni Muslims dispute.

HINDUISM Although there is no specific reference to tattoos in the sacred Hindu Vedic literature, the practice of marking the forehead and face and hands and legs has become a common practice. Particularly the forehead tattoos are a way for women to indicate clan affiliations.

One exception to the anti-tattooists religious ideology is the widespread use of the plant dye henna as a temporary skin marking though obviously not a tattoo. Many Middle Eastern cultures both Jewish and Muslim use henna to decorate particularly the palms of the hand before weddings as a sign of blessing and a hope for good fortune.

So where does all this history of henna and tattoos bring us today? I believe as you do that the human body is ultimately spiritually and morally a creation of God and as such needs no added decorations to make it holy or beautiful, but I also recognize that this is an aesthetic, not a moral judgment.

Except for its permanence, there is not a whole lot of difference in my eyes between tattooing and cosmetics. I am always dubious about medical procedures that can cause potential harm without bringing potential benefits, but I am OK with tattoos. So, apparently, are most religious college students. A recent study of how religious college students felt about tattoos discovered that, “Since the strength of the numerous correlations was very low and barely reached statistical significance, religious belief and behavior do not appear to be associated substantively with attitudes and behavior regarding tattoos. This suggests increasing cultural acceptance of tattooing.”

I think we all might improve our spiritual journeys if we worried more about how we are disfiguring our bodies by unhealthy indiscretions of diet and drug use far more than by indiscretions of ink.

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