In Sunday school at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church last week, we discussed body image and obscenity in relation to this campaign of YouTube videos and a related Texas billboard. Our discussion focused on the appropriateness of tattoos in society, mainly talking about growing popularity of tattoos (around a third of adults 18 to 34, including me, have one) and taboos, modern and ancient, on them. Is a tattooed Jesus appealing to us, or is this image grotesque and inappropriate?
However, I think the larger point of this ad campaign has nothing to do with tattoos per se. While I think there are problems with the campaign, particularly with video messages by Christians who claim they were miraculously cured of HIV/AIDS and depression solely with prayer, it speaks to our intimate and complicated relationship with our bodies. Our spiritual lives are not at all disembodied, despite millennia of post-Platonic theologies, and it is important to acknowledge this when trying to explain ourselves to non-Christians or trying to attract congregants to our churches.
We live through our bodies, and we experience not only sin but also salvation through our bodies, and through Christ’s body, ritualized in the Eucharist and Baptism. The video campaign’s promise that Jesus takes a away the marks on our bodies and souls and takes them on himself is at first glance heartening. However I am not sure that I am willing to apologize for the many marks that my life has left on my body and soul.
Also last week I read this blog post, Why Instagram Censored My Body | Petra Collins, about a woman who posted a picture of her bikini-clad non-airbrushed lower quarters. It made me think about the censorship that my church asks me to place on my body. In church I am afraid to speak about sex, homosexuality, tattoos, addiction, menstruation, femininity as an attribute of God, and numerous other topics because they are “worldly” or “of the flesh” or “obscene,” even if they are creations of God.
As a young woman who grew up in the mass market media world, my relationship with my body is one of the most influential aspects of my life. It is very easy to look in the mirror at my overweight face, weird body hair, acne, clinical depression, and spiral into self-loathing and equate this with loathing by God. If God made me depressed, does that mean God doesn’t love me as much as the next person? No. Absolutely not. Even the scars, mental and physical, show that I am human, created and loved by God. Christ, God embodied, suffers with me and gives me hope of future resurrection. For me to long for a mark-less life would be to wish for a relationship with God that is incomplete, a relationship that lacks humility.
Luke 18:9-14 describes a self-righteous Pharisee and a humble tax collector, a parable meant in some sense to illustrate that a mark-less life is not what you might think it is. The Pharisee, who suffered little and was not shunned by society, is taught a lesson about humility and drawing closer to God in times of trial and suffering. It is so easy to point to a suffering, isolated person and thank God that we are not like them, to see our privilege as God’s reward. But this parable tells us that God is near when we are actively seeking in humility and powerlessness. God lifts up the lowly because they are lowly.