Friday, August 3, 2018

Wearing Christianity On One’s Sleeve

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Some things are undeniable.

There are plenty of things in this life that can be avoided and ignored and sidestepped. Many are often prickly and bothersome and annoying. We don’t even know how we should feel when confronted by some of them, but we have a hunch they are somehow wrong. Like elephants in the room, we try to talk past them and pretend they aren’t there. Once in a great while, however, the very things that would otherwise cause us consternation and perplexity force us to pay very close attention.

I was recently doing a bit of research for an upcoming project and ran across – for a second time – an item that was initially brought to my attention by fellow Lutheran artist, Tanya Saueressig Nevin, who also happens to be a tattoo artist: The subject of Coptic tattoos.

It is precisely at this point that many will begin to feel squeamish and stop reading – not because the thought of getting a tattoo is repulsive, but because the thought of ANYone getting a tattoo is repulsive. It says so in the Bible. Someplace.

Typical Coptic wrist tattoo.

Of course, if we are to adhere to Levitical laws with as much vehemence as some, then a great deal of us would have been stoned ages ago. Likewise, our church larders would be overflowing with tithed spices instead of bland ones necessary for casseroles and Jell-O salad. No such luck. As a testament to our own sinfulness, we tend to bring out obscure laws when they suit us and conveniently forget obvious ones when they don’t.

And then the Copts come along.

Originally, the term Copt – or “Qubt” – was a Greek term given to a culturally-distinct segment of the Egyptian population. Later, Arabic invaders used the term to designate both the Coptic culture and their religion, which was a variation of Christian Orthodoxy. Through the centuries, the Copts managed to maintain both culture and Christianity, much to the chagrin of their Muslim neighbors. The beheading of Coptic Christians in 2015 by Muslims is indicative of the kind of persecution they suffer to this day.
Tigrayan girl with simple Coptic tattoo on her forehead
(Photo courtesy of

For nearly 700 years, however, the Copts have embraced a peculiar tradition that is sometimes bothersome to fellow Christians and is outright offensive to Muslims – Christian tattooing. While it isn't the rule, it is common enough to take note. Often a small cross is tattooed on the wrist of children shortly after Baptism, echoing the wounds of Christ. Women sometimes have a cross tattooed on their foreheads. Occasionally, men sport the same. The tattoos may be very simple, or simply in-your-face.

Tattooing has also become associated with making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. A tattoo from a small range of traditional designs may be obtained in Jerusalem as both proof of the pilgrimage and as a personal reflection on the pain which our Lord suffered. One Coptic family, the Razzouks, has been providing tattooing services in Jerusalem since they moved there – during the Crusades. Such is the depth of tradition.

Tigrayan man with Coptic tattoo on his forehead
(Photo courtesy of

There are possible influences that may have helped create this tradition. The Roman custom of tattooing the foreheads of slaves might have seeped into the culture and may have redefined the Copts as being “slaves of Christ.” There are also accounts of Muslims marking Christians who refused to convert to Islam. Such an act might have caused some to cut to the chase and get a proper mark of distinction beforehand.

It is extremely hard for Westerners in general and American Christians in particular to wrap our brains around such a tradition. It is the sort of thing that conflicts with what our mothers often warned us. It is the kind of thing that would have caused angst from our fathers. It can still be a source of disapproval within our households, and within the household of Believers. While existing in a world surrounded by Muslims, however, displaying a cross in such manner shouts a very clear message that surely must resonate with even the undecorated among us: In the face of horrible persecution, some Christians will not, and indeed cannot, deny their Savior.

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