Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tattoo Craze Destroying America!

Tattoos, the Bible, Thomas Jefferson, The Founding, and of course, John Locke...
by Tom Van Dyke


Relax. This isn't The Music Man, I'm not Professor Harold Hill, and tattoos aren't any greater threat to America than the game of pool was to River City.

But in having a bit of good clean snarky fun with the Bible in one of our comments sections, my colleague Eric Alan Isaacson unwittingly kicks over a rock and reveals a diamond, the very diamond that our life as we know it in these here United States was built on:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."


Oy, we've heard that one before. But where did Thomas Jefferson get such an idea? Why, from tattoos, of course.


“You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:28 (NRSV).


The erudite Mr. Isaacson helpfully provides a link to an "evangelical fundamentalist" at biblebelievers.com to explain the passage although it's pretty straightforward, and says what it says. No evangelicalism or fundamentalism required to suss it all out.

No tattoos, then. Why?

More informative is the link to Rabbi Alan Lucas, whom Mr. Isaacson kindly cautions us is affiliated with the Conservative branch of Judaism:

“In our day, the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent, should be maintained.”

Now, the article header notes that Rabbi Lucas "arrives at a conclusion very much like those reached by Reform and Orthodox authorities as well." Obviously, the rabbi's Conservative affiliation is irrelevant. So let's hear him out, then:

"In addition to the fact that Judaism has a long history of distaste for tattoos, tattooing becomes even more distasteful in a contemporary secular society that is constantly challenging the Jewish concept that we are created b'tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) and that our bodies are to be viewed as a precious gift on loan from God, to be entrusted into our care and [are] not our personal property to do with as we choose. Voluntary tattooing even if not done for idolatrous purposes expresses a negation of this fundamental Jewish perspective."


OK, OK, are we there yet? We were promised John Locke, and all we get is this boring Bible stuff. Locke famously said, "every man has a property in his own person," so he should be able to tattoo it if he wants to, eh?

So let's agreeably cut to the chase, the foundation of John Locke's arguments in his Second Treatise on Government [Chap 2, Sec 6]:

"But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable [sic] liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself...

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind...that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our's.[sic]"


(N.B.: Italics inserted for ease of skimming, [sic] inserted where 1690 spelling differs from today's.)

It is the same argument as the rabbi's, discoverable neither by the brute man nor his brute reason.

The Jewish b'tzelem Elokim goes to the first chapter of Genesis, the very beginning of the Bible, of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition, "God said, 'Let us make man in our image...'" [Also called Imago Dei in the Christian tradition, as they loved their Latin.]

"Image" need not mean that God looks like Charlton Heston or Barack Obama or Sarah Palin. What "image" must mean is that man shares an essential quality with God. What John Locke identifies before liberty and property is "life," and after we understand life---and hold it to be self-evident as God's gift of it to man---the rest naturally follows.

This is the Bible's argument. It is Jefferson's, it is Locke's. The rest is details, and many of them are admittedly troublesome. But we must start at the beginning, and Locke and Jefferson's beginning was this. From there, Locke draws liberty and equality, in quite reasonable and logical fashion.

And not to worry about the souls of the tattooed, Mr. Isaacson, even in passing fancy. As Rabbi Lucas points out, the Bible has no punishment for tattooing. It's simply a call for mindfulness and respect for the gift of your body, the gift of life, the same call for the mindfulness and respect of each other from where your "rights" truly flow. They make a conceptual whole, a fabric. We rip the fabric in two at our own peril.

17 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. Maybe this is why my parents, secular liberals as they are, are adamant that I never get a tattoo. Though, they are of the Volvo driving, red wine drinking, NPR listening egalitarian types. Tattoos are "low class."

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Well done Tom. I'm struck dumb.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Para usted, man.

Brad Hart said...

Ha! An excellent -- and entertaining -- post.

You state: "This is the Bible's argument. It is Jefferson's, it is Locke's. The rest is details, and many of them are admittedly troublesome.

So is the Bible's justification for slavery, suppression of women, etc. -- which are clearly contrary to liberty and the persuit of happiness -- examples of the "admittedly troublesome" details you speak of???

Tom Van Dyke said...

I wasn't going to get into all that, Brad, but I think your representations aren't exactly fair.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "I think your representations aren't exactly fair."

"exact" implies perfect precision ... so you have a point, but ... I do think Brad's comment makes a good point. For every individual who interprets the Bible through the eye of reason and discards the perversions, there is another who embraces such.

So even if Brad's comment doesn't apply to Jefferson, Madison, Washington, or you there are many who it does.

Brad Hart said...

Thank you abbott! You made my point better than I could myself! =)

Dave2 said...

I don't think Locke's views on natural law will sustain a ban on tattoos, and I don't think they're all that similar to what's going on in the Bible.

Start with tattoos. For Locke the "fundamental law of nature" enjoins the preservation of mankind. This is why, according to the law of nature, we're not allowed to commit suicide, kill each other, or even destroy useful resources in the state of nature. And since observation reveals that we all belong to the same species, with none of us evidently created as natural slaves to the will of our fellow humans (unlike e.g. livestock, which were evidently created to be used in this way), there is a natural liberty and natural equality among human beings. (In the earlier Essays on the Law of Nature, Locke suggests that we can figure out that God wants us to preserve ourselves by observing the natural impulse we have towards self-preservation.)

Getting a tattoo, it seems, would simply not fall under any of this. It would not constitute treating a fellow human being like a subordinate, denying their equality, nor would it constitute subjecting them to your will, denying their liberty. Tattoos in no way interfere with the preservation of mankind (unlike e.g. suicide or the destruction of natural resources). And nothing in Locke's system would seem to support any respect for the gift of your body, or (in general) grounding the law of nature in gratitude for God's gift: God's authority to issue commands is, for Locke, grounded in God's power to impose sanctions upon us for compliance or noncompliance (for this, see the Essays and the Essay Concerning Human Understanding), and we figure out what God wants us to do through observation-based empirical reasoning.

In Leviticus 19, a series of laws is listed as part of the so-called "Holiness Code" for the Israelites heading to the Promised Land. The Israelites (and especially their priests) were supposed to be holy, both so as to emulate the holiness of the God who brought them out of Egypt ("You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy") and also so as to differentiate themselves from the Egyptians and the inhabitants of Canaan ("You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes"). Not much of this code could be seen as discoverable by natural reason: the Holiness Code includes a complicated system of offerings centering on the portable Tabernacle that accompanied the Israelites on their sojourn, another complicated system of land use, byzantine regulations for the priestly caste, and a calendar of holidays, all set against the specific background of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

Notice that none of this fits Locke's model of natural law, where all mankind is equipped with reason, by application of which they can figure out God's wishes for humanity and therefore the precepts of natural law. The Holiness Code applies only to the Israelites, and especially to the sons of Aaron. Also notice that none of this can be grounded in the imago Dei of Genesis, for the same reason: all mankind was created in the image of God, and the Holiness Code applies only to the Israelites. Finally, note that Locke's foundation for natural law does not draw upon the imago Dei similarity between God and man -- as if we should abstain from murder and suicide because that amounts to killing Godlike creatures (this seems to be what's going on in God's covenant with Noah in Genesis 9). Instead, for Locke, we should abstain from murder and suicide because it involves killing creatures that belong to God, who presumably created them for a purpose, which we can figure out to some degree through observation.

As for the ban on tattooing in particular, this appears to be related to a practice of the Canaanites from whom Israel was keen to distinguish itself.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ben and Brad, you happily agree with each other, but that does not mean the Bible is as uncomplicated as it was presented here.

The proper theological tools must employed to, um, divine its meaning. I had the same objection to Mr. Atkinson's use of scripture, as you recall.

I do object to broadsides being fired in its direction using only philosophical or political vocabulary. Each is insufficient for a genuine understanding of what it actually means. If we wish to examine the Bible, we should speak respectfully of such important things, and use the proper tools that knowledge and reason afford us.

______________________

Dave, thank you for a well-argued rebuttal.

The holiness thing, first among them. Rabbi Lucas acknowledges it in his linked essay, per the great philosopher-theologian [perhaps the Jewish Aquinas] Maimonides. Rabbi Lucas moves on, as I did. The central concept remains.

You write:

For Locke the "fundamental law of nature" enjoins the preservation of mankind. This is why, according to the law of nature, we're not allowed to commit suicide...

This is so, but we cannot ignore all the touching words that Locke writes which I took the time to italicize. Life as our gift from God. This is his foundational premise.

In fact, I realized that when reading Locke, I always have my political philosophy hardhat on. Reading those words again, I was completely disarmed by them, not just my head, but my heart was moved.

"Natural law" is a very tricky thing, as we discovered comparing our takes of the Jesuit Suarez and the Protestant Grotius. The thought that our discussion triggered in me was that although God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, natural law would not permit God to accept the sacrifice. No way.

This highlights why the Bible---the Judeo-Christian tradition---isn't just the Divine Command Theory that Plato trashes in the Euthyphro, the idea that something is good because God says it's good, ipso facto, game over.

No, you don't kill your kid to propitiate a demanding God. The Judeo-Christian God is one of logos, of reason and sense.

So, human sacrifice, especially the human sacrifice of one's own children, is an abomination before the Lord in the Old Testament and it's all through there. It's a violation of the natural law, for the reasons you clearly define, and it was vigorously punished by God all through the Torah.

Now, back in the day---our friend Phil Johnson likes to call it [pejoratively]"pre-modern"---God, man, natural law and reason [!] were thought of as all of the same fabric. What is the Enlightenment, we might ask. Does the era of "modern" philosophy start with it, or after it?

That's my question to the labelers. What Locke speaks of here is what was in the air he breathed---the same air as the Founders---the notion that life was a gift from God, and based on that single assertion on the nature and essence of man, reason dictates that we're all equal and therefore entitled to liberty.

I've been obliged to hit only the bullet points here, Dave. Did John Locke have any tattoos? I have no idea.

Dave2 said...

Tom,

Maybe this is the key point: I think the italicized part of Locke isn't calling for gratitude to a God who gave us a gift, it's calling for obedience to a God who made us and owns us and gets to set the rules.

Matt Huisman said...

The Judeo-Christian God is one of logos, of reason and sense.

Dooyeweerd would agree and say that the fundamental building block of life is meaning, not existence. So perhaps the idea that ‘Life is a gift from God’ is enhanced a little if it incorporates meaning as part of that gift. Natural law bears this out, and I think Locke gets this.

With respect to tattoos, the prohibition on them in the Holiness Code is not some random temporal edict. Though it was explicitly given to the Israelites, it is based on timeless principles that apply to all of mankind.

Obedience to it is required because it is good - and here we find that edict=meaning=truth=God - and we can be grateful for that.

Dave2 said...

Matt Huisman wrote:
Dooyeweerd would agree and say that the fundamental building block of life is meaning, not existence. So perhaps the idea that ‘Life is a gift from God’ is enhanced a little if it incorporates meaning as part of that gift. Natural law bears this out, and I think Locke gets this.

Find some writings from Locke that support this, and I'll be interested to see them.

With respect to tattoos, the prohibition on them in the Holiness Code is not some random temporal edict. Though it was explicitly given to the Israelites, it is based on timeless principles that apply to all of mankind.

Though I'm not sure whether you're addressing anything that's currently at issue, find something in the Bible that supports this, and I'll be interested to see it.

Matt Huisman said...

You say that Locke commends the preservation of life as a right response to a God who gets to set the rules. And yet in the sentence prior to the one Tom cites, Locke allows that there are times 'where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for [one's life]'.

I see a recognition here of something beyond an unending series of divine commands. Life has (relative) meaning and a sense that we are to steward this gift towards some end.

As for Leviticus 19, aren't we just dealing with a working out of the 10 commandments? In this case, prohibiting idolatry because 1) it is a lie and useless for living; 2) it grieves the proper relationship between man and God; 3) you are marking something that has already been marked (Imago Dei).

These are not principles that apply only to the Israelites.

Dave2 said...

Matt,

Based on your bracketed '[one's life]', I'm thinking that you've seriously misunderstood the Locke sentence. Here's the sentence:

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.

The 'it' refers to destroying a creature in one's possession. Locke's claim is that the law of nature prohibits suicide and also prohibits the destruction of useful natural resources (except where destroying them is needed for something even more better). So (to invent an example) we are not allowed to wantonly burn good crops, though we are allowed to burn them in order to stop a fire from spreading.

I don't know what sort of meaning of life stuff you're getting a glimpse of. Locke's fundamental law of nature says to preserve mankind. And that's because God created us and we belong to him and he evidently wants us to be preserved.

In general, I doubt Leviticus 19 can be seen as a working out of the Decalogue. Take 19:23 as an example, the one about fruit trees. What commandment does this come from? "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy"?

And as for the prohibition on skin marking, you seem to be adding all sorts of things that are not in the text. No where is tattooing characterized as "a lie" or "useless for living", and nowhere can I find a prohibition on literally marking what has already been figuratively marked (and how exactly would such a prohibition accommodate the practice of circumcision!?).

The "proper relationship between man and God" is in some sense at stake: man is supposed to be holy as Yahweh is holy. But this particular relationship is not reciprocal (unlike e.g. the covenant relationship). It appears to be one of emulation.

And as for "idolatry", that shows up earlier, in 19:4, before stealing and lying, and nowhere is it suggested that skin marking is some extended or figurative form of idolatry. Again, you seem to be adding things to the text that are not there.

Matt Huisman said...

...to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.

Dave2, this sentence is structured in such a way that it links both person and possessions. There is no way, short of accusing Locke of poor grammar, to remove 'himself' from its attachment to 'some nobler use'.

There is a respect for life in general here (man and even his creaturely possessions) - you can't destroy yourself or your property without some greater purpose in mind. So (to invent an example), we are not allowed to commit suicide, but we are allowed to go to war.

As for Leviticus 19:28, skin markings and cuttings were done in other cultures to appease various deities. The Matthew Henry commentary remarks, "Those whom the God of Israel had set apart for himself must not receive the image and superscription of these dunghill deities."

[Note: The same commentary will give you an insight into the rest of Lev 19, including v23.]

Dave2 said...

Matt,

If we take your lead and have 'it' referring to either destroying oneself or destroying a creature in one's possession, that still won't vindicate your earlier gloss on 'it' as referring to one's life. But in any case, I think we shouldn't take your lead here, for the simple reason that the clause in question refers to the thing to be destroyed or preserved with 'it': "but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it". This seems to clearly restrict the clause, so that it applies only to the previous clause, i.e. to the destruction of a creature in one's possession.

I don't at all follow your suggestion that thus restricting the clause would convict Locke of poor grammar.

As for your remarks on Leviticus, they seem to fit very nicely with what I had said earlier, and so I don't see how they support your views as against mine. But possibly I'm just being dense here.

Matt Huisman said...

Dave2,

It doesn’t look like we’ll get anywhere on grammatical grounds. How about this? Locke allows that society has the right to administer ‘penalties of death’. Now I grant you that he is referring to society, and not the individual, here, but how does this societal right square with your reading of our favorite little sentence. Does Locke allow you to go to war or put your life at risk defending your property? Why? Your understanding seems to require a lot more work than mine.

As for Leviticus, are you really only seeing a series of random divine commands with no foundation on any lasting principles? Or are you just arguing their applicability to all mankind? Tattoos made to false gods are a form of spiritual ‘cheating’ on God. Fruit trees (v23) are a working out of the primacy of the relationship between man and God. (When we give to God the first-best offerings, we are both remembering the source of our prosperity and showing that we are committed to that relationship before any other.)

Perhaps natural law is limited in its ability to draw out these relational notions, but they are universal nonetheless.