SLUMMING WITH THE CANAANITES
The Canaanites were a rotten bunch. They practiced human sacrifice, burning babies at their pagan Baal temples. Moses gave laws to the ancient Israelites to ensure that the Jews knew they were different from the Canaanites. The Israelites were commanded in Leviticus 19:27-28 not to: trim the beards at the chin; clip the hair at their temples; lacerate themselves for the dead; or get a tattoo. Since the Canaanites had these practices, these laws were meant to make it perfectly clear that the Israelites were different, and in no way, shape, or form should be imitating the Canaanites.
The laws concerning outward behavior were given in order to prevent inward sin. The purpose of these laws were to keep the Israelites separate from the Canaanites, so they would not pick up their bad habits. These laws were made to keep the Israelites from hanging around and trying to be “one of the gang” with some shady characters. These laws were to keep the Israelites from slumming with the Canaanites.
There is a trend among many today especially among the young, to get a tattoo. At one time tattoos were limited to certain segments of society. Now they seem virtually ubiquitous.
There is a definite connection between tattoos and an evil lifestyle, or at least to Godlessness which leads to an evil lifestyle. Tattooing in our western culture started when British sailors picked up the practice from Indonesian tribesmen in the late 18th century. It then moved to prisons as many sailors had been taken from prisons to serve on ships. Prisoners and carousing sailors are not usually the model of Christian virtue. These subsets of our society were, and are, noted for their other-than-Christian habits.
Tattoos are a form of expression. When people, especially the young, take up a form of expressing themselves, it is not done in a vacuum. They try to imitate the actions and fashions of others. Getting a tattoo is a form of imitating the un-christian sub-cultures in our society. If someone imitates the actions and fashions of un-christian sub-cultures it is because they want an image that is tough or “cool” or anything other than the meek and virtuous model of outlook and behavior that our Lord commanded. To get a tattoo is to demonstrate embarrassment at virtue and a desire to fit in with evil subsets of our society. It is an attempt to portray oneself as other than Christian in order to fit in with, hang out with, go slumming with the modern day Canaanites.
Tattoos like other forms of deviant behavior, seem to be everywhere these days. Even average people who ought to know better have forgotten the simple concept: if a lot of people do a wrong thing, it is still wrong. The “mainstream” has not elevated this practice, they have sunk into it.
Young people are especially vulnerable these days, because they are trained to equate material success with moral justification. They may think if one does well in school, is not in jail or on drugs, it does not matter if one has a tattoo. They may not realize that one could be the top of the class, a Rhodes scholar, even the President of the United States and still be in a state of mortal sin subject to eternal damnation.
What guidance can we get from scripture? St. Paul advises us that women “should dress modestly and quietly...” (1Tim 2:9-10). St. Peter advises the same when he advises married women, “The affectation of an elaborate hairdress, the wearing of golden jewelry or the donning of rich robes is not for you.” (1Peter 3:3). While these passages are directed specifically at women, they are just as applicable to men. Either sex can be subject to vanity about their appearance.
While not specifically mentioning tattooing, this scriptural advice gives us a theme or attitude about our comportment and appearance. Women, and men, must always dress “modestly and quietly”. Therefore any outward appearance, intended to attract attention, or in imitation of the deliberately unchristian, or to stoke one’s pride, including permanently painting one’s skin, violate the dictums of scripture.
Every one must be prepared to examine his conscience to determine the reasons behind his actions. We must also be prepared to help others do the same. The desire to fit in with the deliberately un-christian society we live in can be very strong, especially to a young person. But our Lord does not call us to that. If someone you know mentions wanting to get a tattoo, try to help them think through their motivation. It may prevent them from slumming with the Canaanites.
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Published by The Minnesota St. Thomas More Chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, January 2001.