by Carrie B. Smith
LSTC finalist, James Kenneth Echols Excellence in Preaching Award, 2009
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am graduating from this place in about 2 weeks, thanks be to God! And I’ve been considering getting myself a very special graduation gift. I’ve been thinking of getting a tattoo.
Now this may not be very shocking to some of you—I’ve seen an amazing variety of skin art on my fellow classmates—but for someone who grew up in Oklahoma, getting a tattoo in honor of graduating from a Christian seminary is—well, pretty unusual.
You see, until about 2 years ago, tattoos were illegal in the state of Oklahoma. Now they have a number of interesting laws in Oklahoma, but this particular one has its roots in Leviticus 19:28: Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, it was just assumed that no good Christian would have a tattoo, so why would it need to be legal? Of course, it was only a short drive across the border to Texas, where tattoos were easily obtained over the weekend, but the point was this: you can’t be a Christian and have a mark on your body.
I have since learned that our Egyptian Christian friends would be really surprised to hear that, because in Egypt, Coptic Christians are often marked with a tiny cross tattoo + on their wrists, as a sign of their faith commitment. In Egypt, having a mark on your body is a sign that you are a Christian, rather than a sign that you are not.
Even though most of us don’t have cross tattoos on our wrists---at least, not yet!—we do mark ourselves as Christians in other ways. Some people mark their cars with fish bumper stickers or wear “Got Jesus” t-shirts. Here at the seminary, I don’t see too many WWJD bracelets, but I do see cross necklaces, globally aware bookbags and t-shirts and—yes—Christian-themed tattoos. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these Christian “marks”, I do wonder why we do it. If it’s a form of witness to others, that’s fine, but I wonder how many people have really come to Christ because of my “I heart Jesus” bumper sticker?
It seems to me that unfortunately, we often mark ourselves as Christians so we can clearly identify who is in the club. Too often, these outward marks of Christian identity merely ensure that we are demarcated, distinguished and set apart from those who are not like us.
But the Apostle Paul wrote that the Marks of a True Christian are not on our bodies, on our clothes, or even in our actions. The mark of a true Christian is who we are in relationship to others. Romans 12 tells us that who we are—who we are called to be—is people who are deeply engaged in relationship with other people. We’re called to love one another, to show each other honor, to bless others, to pray for others, to rejoice with others and to weep with others. Paul tells us that the true mark of a Christian is to be deeply engaged in the lives of others, just as God is deeply engaged in our lives through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
These true Christian marks would be easier to live out if we were only called to be engaged within this community, or within this church, or within this faith tradition—but Paul clearly speaks of engaging those who are outside of our immediate circle of relationship. He speaks of strangers, and of persecutors, and of the lowly—and of enemies. Unfortunately, all too often we hear Paul’s advice to give our enemies something to eat and drink, and our response is to get busy identifying them—so we can more easily pour the hot coals on their heads.
We saw this happen in the last year’s historic presidential campaign. I know I don’t have to remind Hyde Parkers that skin color wasn’t the only barrier to overcome in this election. There was also a rumor—the rumor that Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim.”
Never mind that the Obamas were members of a church for 2 decades. Never mind that he was baptized. Never mind that he made numerous professions of his faith.
No matter how he tried to mark himself as a Christian, there were still some who insisted—and who probably would insist to this day—that President Obama is a “secret Muslim.” It was two weeks before the election when Colin Powell finally said what should have been said much earlier: “Barack Obama is a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really real answer is: so what if he is [a Muslim]?”
The “so what” is that in this country, Muslims are the enemy. The “so what” is that for many in this “Christian” nation, being a Muslim means that you are less than American, less than equal, and less than human. Even as we celebrate the historic breaking down of racial barriers, it is clear that there are other barriers to be overcome. There are other lines that cannot be crossed. There are other walls that segregate us. There are those in this country—and in the world-- who, simply because of who they are, and for how they pray to God, are considered to be the enemy.
Friends, this is not how Paul advised us to engage with people of other faiths, and we are not marked as Christians so we can clearly distinguish ourselves from the enemy.
A few years ago, I was blessed to be a part of another historic inauguration right here when LSTC opened A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice. At the time, I thought “engagement” was an interesting word to choose for the title of the center. But I learned that the CCME is not in the business of “engaging the enemy” or being “engaged in conflict”.
Rather, the CCME’s mission is to help Christians find new “rules for engagement” with Muslims. The ongoing work of the CCME witnesses to the fact that people of different faiths can be engaged in conversation. We can even be engaged to each other—which means we have made a commitment to be a part of each other’s lives—through good times and bad, in sickness and in health. I rather think this is what Paul meant when he said we should rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
The fact is, A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement would not be necessary—there would be no work for it to do—if living out the marks of a true Christian were easy. Being engaged in relationship with those of different faiths is hard work! It means taking risks. It means you might be misunderstood. You might be criticized. Someone may even try to mark you as a “secret Muslim” yourself.
But brothers and sisters, you have already been marked. You know who you are! In baptism you were marked + with the cross of Christ forever. “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked + with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” Yes, it is true…you have already been tattooed for Jesus! You are already wearing the ultimate Christian body art. The cross of Christ on your body and in your life is indelible. It cannot be removed. There is no tattoo reversal process—no laser surgery that can erase that mark.
But these marks are not meant to show our Christian pride. Rather, they make us FREE. They free us to stop worrying about who we are and who the enemy is, and to instead engage in relationship with all people. Therefore, friends, let them call us secret Muslims—let them call us secret Jews, or secret Unitarians, or secret socialists, or –listen up, ELCA—secretly gay! With Paul, we will proclaim: “From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.”