F*** Everything (Except Me)
I was listening to a radio program this morning about tattoos. Specifically, the co-hosts were discussing whether or not it was permissible to refuse employment to someone because of tattoos in prominent places—places like faces and necks and whatever other places people are finding to ink themselves up these days. Even more specifically, the co-hosts were wondering about if said prominent tattoos contained offensive messages. “What if, for example, someone had a tattoo in a place that was impossible to ignore that said, ‘F*** the World?’” asked one co-host to the other. What if, indeed. Can people who choose to decorate their bodies in such ways expect to be hired in public roles, for example? Do employers have an obligation to ignore such things and focus only on competencies? Murky waters, these are…
At the outset, I should say that I am part of the lonely 3% of the population of those born between 1970 and 1995 who does not have a tattoo. I am not against tattoos. I think some of them—a rather smaller number than those that happen to be in existence, to be sure—happen to look quite nice. But I’m mostly just too much of a coward to subject myself to the needle. I’ve done the cost-benefit analysis: Physical pain + the expenditure of vast sums of money = no tattoo for Ryan. I’ve also tried to imagine myself at age eighty with a faded, saggy, ink-blotched arm, and, well, I’m just too vain to subject myself and my future caregivers to that spectacle.
But the issue in this case isn’t really tattoos, is it? It’s more about the question of rights vs. obligations. Must the community accommodate to the individual and his preferences or vice versa? When I go to renew my insurance, to pick a hypothetical example, is my surprise and/or discomfort at being served by a man with a green Mohawk, metal spikes coming out of every nook and cranny of his face and a sinister-looking F*** the World! tattoo migrating from his neck to his forehead a function of my intolerance and prejudice or his disregard of basic norms of propriety and professionalism? Is a prospective employer who might wish to avoid this awkward scene guilty of callously trampling on green-haired, spiky, tattoo guy’s human rights or is she protecting the norms and protocols of her community of clients?
Even framing matters this way makes me seem hopelessly out of touch, I know. Of course the individual’s rights must always be protected! Of course green-haired, spiky, pierced tattooed insurance salesman has a right to look however he wants. Of course those who might question this are just rigid conformists pitifully enslaved by outdated social norms. And of course, I—a religious professional of all things!—would entertain the possibility that obligations to a community might occasionally, possibly, kinda, sorta, maybe trump the rights of the gloriously sovereign individual to their beautifully unique forms of self-expression. God knows religion has been one of the main culprits in stifling individual creativity and expression and dissent since the dawn of time, right? Right?!!
And what about Jesus, himself? Wasn’t Jesus the ultimate non-conformist?! Didn’t he repeatedly thumb his nose at the religious establishment? Was not his entire life and body of teachings a rejection of propriety and social control? Wasn’t he all about freedom from constraints and grace and acceptance? Wasn’t Jesus on the side of the outcast, the misfit, the one who didn’t fit in, the rejected, the mocked and ridiculed? Would not Jesus have been standing in solidarity with green-haired, spiky, pierced, inked up people everywhere, demanding that they not be mistreated for their individual preferences?!
Well, yes. And no.
Yes, Jesus welcomed and accepted and advocated on behalf of those on the margins. Clearly. Especially those who were rejected by people in positions of power who punitively enforced social control. Absolutely.
But, I think Jesus would have a thing or two to say about the assumptions behind our culture’s addiction to individual expressivism (to borrow the sociological term) and all the many ways it manifests itself. I think Jesus would have had some questions about our default, reflexive, often reactionary assumptions that the individual’s right to self-expression always and necessarily trumps obligations to others in a given community. I think Jesus would be very critical of the place that the individual implicitly (or, more often, explicitly) occupies in our cultural imagination and the understanding of the self that this reinforces. Jesus had a thing or two to say about doing things to be noticed, if I’m not mistaken. I wonder what he might make of the twenty-first century Western phenomenon of human beings as walking, talking, social-media clogging billboards to the awesomeness of our preferences, our creativity, our selves?
What we see in the gospels is Jesus rejecting rigid, lifeless conformity to patterns of community that were destructive and loveless. But we also see Jesus always patiently, persistently, stubbornly, relentlessly pushing us away from ourselves and the many ways we find to delight in ourselves, and toward others. Because Jesus knew, of course, that a community cannot be sustained over time when its primary purpose is to protect and preserve the individual rights of sovereign selves. A truly life-giving community—whether it is a family, a church, a nation, a culture, or a planet—requires at least some understanding that we owe things to one another, that there are institutions and norms and assumptions that predate and even—gasp!—stand over the individual and her perceived needs.
I’m not suggesting that I wouldn’t want to renew my insurance from green-haired, spiky, tattooed metal-head. It might make the process more interesting than it usually tends to be. I do wonder, however, about the understandings of the self that our cultural practices betray. I wonder about what our ways of understanding and framing conversations around individual rights and community obligations says about what we think has ultimate value. And, more importantly, I wonder about what the long-term fruit of these practices and understandings and framings and values might turn out to be.
I snapped the picture above on a walk down my back alley a few days ago. I think it might even be in the vicinity of the back of an insurance agency, as luck would have it :).