Tattooed Irony: Just Keep Reading
A friend of mine, Will Andrews, posted a picture on his Facebook page titled: “Why is this anti-gay Leviticus tattoo extra absurd?” Will Andrews’s post calls attention to a separate post, found on the website Technoccult, of its own by a guy named Andrew Sullivan, who has tattooed his right arm with Leviticus 18:22–the nauseatingly oft-recited scripture, detailing how a man should not lie with another man. The irony is, as the post points out, the fact that Leviticus 19:28 (which, of course, rests between the other, even more homicidal scripture from Leviticus in chapter 20 that condemns same-sex, sexual activity between men to death) says: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord” (see the NRSV translation).
Could Mr. Sullivan better demonstrate for us the wantonly irresponsible way in which we utilize scripture to persona-fy our sense of superiority to the world by means of an appeal to the Bible?
Over the last week or so, I’ve been having my own little “crisis” (albeit, a very healthy one) of theological faith, due to the harsh and mean-spirited nature of some of Bible’s most telling scriptures, which I have usually overlooked, idealized, or excused by use of clever (or, even better, mentally exhausting) apologetic strategies. For instance, in Matthew 10, Jesus tells us that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword to divide families for the sake of the Gospel (see Matthew 10:34-35). These passages parallel Luke 12:49-53 and 14:25-33. The former recalls the “I do not bring peace” language of Jesus; the latter, a rather chilling remark encouraging a hatred for “life itself.”
Some scholars have pointed out the textual parallels in the passage with Exodus, when Moses commands the sons of Levi to kill some 1,000 Israelite apostates with the “sword.” It is very common for the Gospel writers to recall stories and scriptures from Hebrew tradition to make a point. Thus, it is very likely, they argue, that the scriptures in Luke and Matthew are meant to recall Exodus (see the Harper Collins Study Bible).
Recognizing, of course, that there are as many interpretations of these scriptures, and apologetic explanations for them, as there are, perhaps, denominations and people in those denominations, including the very probable explanation that these verses are an addition to the original sayings of Jesus (in an attempt to explain the fall of the temple in the year 70, and the sign that it purported to be of the end of times), we cannot forget that such verses are so often recalled to justify serious horrors against people who do not believe “as we do”–or better, as God does.
I want to note that the scripture in Matthew rests in the context of one of Matthew’s most touching themes. Deirdre Good writes “Jesus’ Family Values” (published 2006), which I had the privilege of reading for class this week, and which I recommend (especially for those of us who feel certain that the Christian family ethic is a timeless phenomenon). In dealing with the Gospel of Matthew, she demonstrates rather moving ways in which the Matthean Jesus has it in mind to set up a family (in a very literal sense) under a heavenly Father, by use of His language, His choice to use (or not use) significant appellations, etc. The short of it is, according to Good, the Matthean Jesus is concerned about extending the boundaries of the Christian community to those who are sincerely devoted to His call to follow the will of God. She writes:
“So as Matthew understands it, the community of Jesus’ followers constitutes a new family based not on biology but on behavior. Those who associate themselves with Jesus by doing the will of the heavenly Father become the brothers and sisters and mothers of Jesus, and offspring of the Father in heaven, and are therefore related to each other as brothers and sisters. There is no role for the human father in this community; the male who begets has equal standing with his offspring as a brother of Jesus and a child of the heavenly Father. The authority of the heavenly Father overrides any obligations of biological kinship and is mediated by the community as a whole” (see page 71).
When I read this, I applied it to the part of myself that feels a sense of connection with a much-needed relationship with a heavenly Father (especially considering rather pivotal moments in my own development). However, in doing so, I realized that the comfort I have drawn from this scripture is, indeed, the byproduct of my own personal take on the meaning of these scriptures, and what it is that I need these scriptures to do for me.
Am I doing the same thing with the scriptures, in basic principle, as Andrew Sullivan? That is, am I pulling from the scriptures what I “need” them to say? What happens if that need becomes malevolent or homicidal?
What if I have instituted a belief in God for the purpose of responding to and sanctioning the craving I feel for peace and human connections? What does it say of me that I, too, have picked and chosen this or that passage of scripture in the Bible, so as to justify my own private desires to construct a world that looks a certain way, according to the ways in which I need it to look or function?
I think that this entry could easily end here. The question is very much rhetorical. I have come up with an answer that I believe satisfies, but it requires that we presuppose the existence of God… and not just that, but the existence of a God I am not yet ready to relinquish (if I must do so).
It seems like a no-brainer to say that there is no consistent, harmonized theme in holy scripture–especially the Bible, and especially when considering other scriptures outside the Jewish or Christian traditions. The Bible is not “all about” love and peace. It is not “all about” social justice, nor is it “all about” heteronormative privilege. It is “all about” whatever we want (and perhaps need) it to be “all about.” And I believe that therein lies the real test of religious practice and belief. What if it’s the case that God has designed (or, at least, allowed) it to be this way, just to see what and how we will negotiate it? It is almost as if, in every step of our respective religious journeys, we are constructing an image of what we think God is–what we think is important to God, how we idealize God, etc.–in the things we choose to select out of the scriptures, and how we choose to apply them to other people. Levinas argues (more or less) that it is in the encounter with the face of other people that [our] Gods come alive.
So, I suppose the main point of this post is: Whether or not you believe in the anthropomorphic, white-bearded God on the thrown somewhere in a dimension we know nothing of, or if God is more pantheistic or created in discourse (or, of course, something in between), it remains an obvious fact that our Gods come alive in how we allow scripture or any given revelation dictate where we will place ourselves in “human hierarchy,” and by what ultimate ethic we will chose to govern our lives.