Posted: July 6th, 2011

What Mom Least Wants to See

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema

What is the official position of the Orthodox Church on tattoos and body piercings?

In anticipation of my periods of service at our church youth camps this summer, I have been thinking about the list of questions that perennially come up in my campfire discussions with the kids.  Near the top of the list is: What is the Orthodox Church’s position on tattoos and piercings?

This is a tricky question.  I’m sure that all the parents are hoping for one answer, while the teens are hoping for another.  It would be easy for any priest to anoint his own preferences as “The Teaching of the Church,” but this would be both dishonest and ultimately unproductive.  (Because when young people discover that they have been misled once, they become that much more distrustful of all religious authorities.)  It is above all a tricky question because the answer requires one to exercise real spiritual maturity.  I offer below an extended discussion of the issue because I believe that simplistic knee-jerk responses are unhelpful in the long run.  Young people are very sensitive to double standards (which they perceive as “hypocrisy”); one must be careful, therefore, not to present reasoning that is inconsistent with one’s own behaviors.

My first response to the question is that I wish I had the money to buy stock in the latest tattoo removal technology, because I am positive that in twenty years or so, all that ink that seemed so cool in college is going to be a faded smudge on sagging skin—in other words, an embarrassment.  In twenty years, the current fad of tattoos for young people would make me a millionaire. 

My second response is to answer the question truthfully: the Church has no official position one way or the other on tattoos and piercings.  Such things are not inherently good or bad.  The good or bad resides in one’s motivation for modifying the body. A Christian must make this decision by considering the more general teachings of the Church, including:

  • treating one’s body as a temple of God
  • not offending one’s fellow Christians unnecessarily
  • having a clear comprehension of one’s real reasons for such a choice.

Now for the disclaimer: this is not the answer you will get from every priest.  You don’t have to look too far to find Orthodox clergy addressing this question with responses that froth at the mouth about Tahitian etymologies and idolatrous influences and health risks.  Most of these panicked responses distract the reader with irrelevancies—and astute teens will figure that out fast enough. No point in avoiding the plain, unadorned truth.  (And … for the record … I will say simply that I have no personal stake in the answer to this question.)

Most Christians accept the practice of women piercing their ears.  There is no obvious ethical distinction to be made between this activity and piercing a nose, navel, or eyebrow for jewelry.  Piercings of various kinds existed in the ancient world, and there is no prohibition of the practice, either in Scripture or in the Canons. In fact, the ring that Isaac’s servant gives to Rebekah in Genesis 24:47 is quite clearly a nose-ring! Likewise, in Ezekiel 16:12 God is prophetically said to place a ring in the nose of His beloved.  So there is no reason to deduce from the Scriptures that the only place you can put a hole in yourself is your earlobe.

Ethiopian Christians have a longstanding practice of tattooing a cross on their forehead or hands. This identifies them as Christians in a very anti-Christian part of the world. There is no obvious ethical distinction between coloring one’s skin for a tattoo and coloring one’s hair, … or whitening teeth, plucking eyebrows, or applying makeup to cover scars or simply to enhance one’s appearance.  About a century ago in this country, it was considered scandalous for a Christian woman to use a little eye-liner or rouge; nowadays a woman is more likely to be criticized if she comes to church without “putting on her face,” since makeup is seen by someone as a necessary element of making oneself presentable.  We should be cautious, therefore, against casting our personal standards (which are always in flux) as eternal and immutable divine law.

Some Orthodox maintain that early Church canons against self-mutilation implicitly include tattoos and piercings, but this is stretching the plain sense of the text, which is aimed at castration (of the sort that Origen is rumored to have done).  It is curious that—while we have abundant evidence from mummies and other ancient corpses that tattooing was known and widespread in the ancient world—there is not a single reference to it in the canonical or pastoral literature of the early Church. This silence speaks volumes.  In fact, there is an edict from a saint of the Church (the emperor Constantine) that enjoins tattoos on hardened criminals, but only on the hands or calves, not on the face, so as not to defile the divine beauty of the human countenance.  Procopios of Gaza, writing in the 6th century in his commentary on Isaiah, speaks without censure of the practice of Christians in his day of tattooing their wrists or arms with the cross or the name of Christ. 

(Floating around on the Internet is a purported quotation from Saint Basil forbidding tattoos, but no source is ever cited, and my best efforts to track it down have failed.  I suspect that, like a lot of Web information, it was cobbled up to suit someone’s opinion and attributed to an author whom most people have heard of but not read.)

On the one hand, it is true that piercings and tattoos can cause medical problems, usually due to infection.  This is also true, of course, of elective surgeries (nose jobs, liposuction, other kinds of augmentations and reductions), to which I hear no clergyman objecting all that strenuously.  Many more Christians have health problems caused by overeating, smoking, drinking, workaholism, sunbathing, caffeine or poor posture than have ever been caused by piercings or tattoos. In any case, the risk of hepatitis is essentially nil if the work is done by reputable artists with hygienic techniques and standards.  I say this, not to encourage a young person to get a tattoo, but to prevent the disillusionment that comes when kids find out that the horror stories told to them have little basis in fact.

Some very pious souls object that as Christians “we should adorn ourselves only with virtue” and should never modify our bodies for any purely aesthetic purpose.  Such people may in fact also condemn cosmetics and hair styling and shaven legs, but I bet they all take their kids to the orthodontist to get their teeth straightened. At least, I hope so. Let’s face it: when it comes to body modification, we all draw the line in different places, based more on our personal opinion than on reason or revelation.  (And in light of my own experience with the super-Orthodox crowd, I wish that, in addition to virtue, they would adorn themselves more often with shampoo, body wash, and breath mints.)

The key question for someone contemplating a tattoo or piercing is: What is your motivation? Too many young people follow the crowd and get one, only to regret the choice later on.  For some, these practices provide a sense of belonging; but our primary sense of belonging should in the Church.  If we feel a need for “belonging” elsewhere, there is something dreadfully wrong in our spiritual life.  (This sentiment also applies to the deliberate choice of wearing clothes with commercial slogans or designer labels.  Why turn yourself into a walking billboard for anyone?)  For others, a tattoo or piercing is meant to project an image of toughness or sexiness or rebellion or risk-taking or simple vanity, and these reasons are clearly contrary to the spirit of Christian humility.  For still others, piercings and tattoos are a way to call attention to oneself—something that is always problematic in Christian spirituality. 

Sometimes a body modification is sought to cover up a perceived flaw or defect. But there is more to be gained in terms of personal growth by learning to love oneself at all times, warts and all.  Over the course of life, as hair grays and thins, as skin wrinkles and mottles, as muscle tone diminishes and weight gets redistributed, some people have a hard time making the psychological adjustment to the realities of aging.  If they had learned earlier in life to embrace their individuality and inner beauty (instead of some impossible ideals imposed by a narcissistic culture), they would suffer far less anxiety and insecurity. Clinging desperately to the tokens of youth, they make fools of themselves.  Few things are more pathetic than a sixty-year old man in a Speedo or a seventy-year old woman in a leather mini-skirt.  (Otherwise, Florida is a great place to visit.)  It is a mistake, then, to get a tattoo or piercing in order to diminish some other perceived physical inadequacy.

For some young people, marking their bodies is an act of rebellion, a visible repudiation of the values of their parents.  It is difficult for young people to understand just how painful it may be for a parent to see a child intentionally make permanent modifications his or her body, especially out of simple defiance. If they knew how much distress it caused, perhaps they would think again. The parents who lavished so much love and concern on their bodies as infants and children, who took every measure to prevent them from suffering scars and blemishes, who invested thousands of dollars in straightening their teeth or posture or feet—these parents die a kind of death to see a child blithely throw that away with a hasty decision to deface their body (in the parents’ eyes). 

For other young people, body modification is a means of externalizing deep inner hurts.  This can lead to multiple piercings and tattoos, and in this way is akin to practices like cutting, burning, and extreme dieting.  These practices are taken up as a release of tension or to feel bodily the intense pain that a soul is experiencing inside.  None of these things really help, though, and a Christian should avoid all these kinds of abusive activities—including medically unnecessary plastic surgery.

Bottom line: I discourage young people from getting tattoos because they are more or less permanent, and I strongly suspect they will regret it later in life.  I especially discourage them from considering tattoos of icons or crosses or other religious symbols. While they might cite the motivation of having a visible reminder of their faith on their skin, they also run the risk of desecrating the image by bringing it with them into acts of sexual sin.  Getting a tattoo with the intent of honoring Christ or the saints, people could end up denigrating them instead.

Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient.”  With issues such as these, I try to help the young people see how following the crowd is not expedient for them.

A Final Note for the Unconvinced

At first blush, there does seem to be a law in the Old Testament against tattoos (Leviticus 19:28). But it is not known for sure what the translation should be for the Hebrew word in question, qa’aqa’:  the word occurs only once in the Bible, and even the Talmudic scholars were in disagreement about its meaning.  It may in fact refer to a kind of branding or ritual scarification, and not the application of ink or dye to the skin. Some suggest that the practice being banned is one of making cuts in the skin and rubbing in the ashes of a cremated relative (in this way to carry around forever a little bit of one’s loved one).  In any case, it is hard to believe that if God meant for us to avoid tattoos eternally, He couldn’t have expressed this desire in a less obscure and more unambiguous statement.

What is clear from the context is that the prohibition has to do with pagan practices of mourning. Four different kinds of cutting are banned for those in grief: cutting off hair on one’s head in certain ways, cropping the beard in certain ways, slicing the flesh in certain ways, and marking the skin in certain ways.  What these “certain ways” are is not clear, except that they all have to do with pagan beliefs, and so the Israelites are commanded to distance themselves from such rituals. 

Apart from the context of heathen theology, Leviticus 19 cannot be construed as a blanket condemnation of haircuts, beard-trimming, flesh-cutting, or skin-coloration.  Otherwise, we would also be prohibited from ever letting a doctor use a scalpel on us for a medical purpose or give a laser treatment to a port-wine stain.  Also, the same passage has a law mixing different types of fibers in fabrics (Leviticus 19:19)—so out with the wool/polyester blend clergy cassocks!  Christians generally no longer concern themselves with these Levitical rules, so it is not clear why should we cherry-pick that one (obscure and of uncertain interpretation) tattoo law out of the mix for permanent application.  There are, in fact, some passages in the Bible which seem to reference tattooing and place no value judgment at all on the action (Isaiah 44:5, 49:16; Revelation 19:16).

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