Monday, April 21, 2014

Tattoos, Resurrection, and the Womb of Forgiveness

Alan MacWeeney for The New York Times

When I think of the resurrection of Jesus, I think of Leslie Jamison’s tattoo.  You may have read about it in The New York Times last weekend.[1]  She wanted a tattoo to mark a major transition in her life or at least her desire to be in a new place:  a place of forgiveness after breaking off a relationship with the man around whom she had built her life for four years.  She didn’t want just any old tattoo.  She wanted inscribed on her left arm, in Latin, the words of the Roman playwright, Terence, “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”  It was to be a sign of her acceptance of her humanity and that of her former lover, in all its brokenness, marking the start of a new life.  This desire would be embodied in her very flesh for all to see.  Everybody should be down with that, right?

Wrong.  Right from the start, her tattoo provoked unexpected reactions.  The whole idea perplexed the tattoo artist.  Wouldn’t she prefer an image, something a little less provocative, maybe a nice dragon?  She went right from the tattoo parlor to the drugstore to purchase the necessary aftercare supplies.  The woman at the counter, of course, asked her what the tattoo said.  When Leslie told her, she just stared at her for a long while.  Then she said quietly, “I think there is so much evil in the world and so much good.” 

Her father wrote to her from the Rwanda Genocide Memorial:  “Do you really believe what the tattoo says, even about perpetrators of genocide?”   First dates turned into heated philosophical conversations that turned into last dates.  The tattoo was supposed to represent a new freedom but it began to feel like a shackle, a reminder of how hard it was to heal the hurt of the relationship that had ended, much less forgive the hurt caused by radical evil in the world. The tattoo turned her body into a conversation starter, as if she were pregnant.  But just what is being born here?

I don’t know how Leslie would answer that question, but it strikes me as a beautiful, ordinary experience of resurrection.  What is being born are a set of relationships with friends and strangers and even enemies (or, at least, exes) shaped by forgiveness and the desire for reconciliation.  She is being transformed by a love radical enough to embrace and overcome radical evil, a love that tugged at the edges of her awareness and grasped her through the words of the Roman poet, embodied now in her very flesh.  It isn’t just a nice idea.  She has to live it.

This experience of resurrection, of new life, is unexpected and fearful and joyful.   Leslie is like the women at the empty tomb who are suddenly met by Jesus:  “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  It isn’t exactly what Leslie anticipated, but she has been grasped by a Love that keeps pulling her forward in its wake. When we encounter it, the force of this Love is surprising and powerful, setting us off in new directions we hadn’t planned on going.   It changes us in ways we can’t easily explain, brands us like a tattoo that the whole world can see, and sometimes evokes reactions that we’d rather avoid. 

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s radical love, God’s desire to reconcile the whole world to himself.  In Christ Jesus, nothing human is alien to God; all is forgiven.  This love resurrects: gives new life without preconditions if we are willing to accept it – if we risk being changed by it.  This love is embodied in Jesus; in the bread which is his body taken into our bodies; in we, who together are the Body of Christ, the social reality of relationships marked by forgiveness and the desire for reconciliation.  This resurrection life centers in Jesus and radiates out in an ever-expanding circle to include everyone and everyplace. 

Even so, the reactions provoked by Leslie’s tattoo can’t be taken lightly.  Can everything and everyone be forgiven?  Should they be?  Is love more powerful than evil, more powerful than death?  That is what the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead would have us believe.  It is, finally, a matter of trust, a decision to orient ourselves, our very bodies, toward the world in a particular way.  It is not a truth to be argued so much as to be lived.  We embody our belief – we get the tattoo, so to speak – and then we see what happens. 

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela expresses this beautifully in her essay, “Forgiveness and the Maternal Body.”[2]  Pumla is a South African psychologist invited by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to help develop South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  She is primarily responsible for the creation of this forum in which South Africans were able to confront their traumatic past with honesty, creating the possibility for forgiveness and a new future.  Pumla explores how actual encounters between perpetrators of violence and their victims were driven by a desire for reconciliation rather than vengeance, and a sense of responsibility for the well being of the whole community.

She tells the story of a black former police informant who infiltrated a group of seven young black activists from one of Cape Town’s townships during the apartheid regime.  The informant pretended to be a member of the then banned African National Congress, sent by his commander to train young activists.  He gave the unsuspecting activists a crash course in the use of firearms, and then lured them into a police trap to be killed.   It was a common practice during the apartheid regime, designed to instill fear in the black population.

Under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the police informant came forward to confess his crime and ask forgiveness from the families of these young men.  During a hearing, he met with the families.  He was visibly shaking as he explained why he had asked to see them.  Only the mothers responded.  They were visibly angry, calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” who had sold out his own people. 

At one point, the man looked at the mothers and addressed them as “my parents” and asked their forgiveness “from the bottom of my heart.”  There was a long silence.  Finally, one of the mothers spoke.  She had not planned to, but was surprised to find herself overcome by inimba, the feeling a mother has when her child is in pain, emanating from the area of the womb.  She said to him, “You are the same age as my son Christopher.  I want to tell you, my son, that I forgive you.  I am at peace.  Go well, my son.”  The families then embraced him.

Reflecting on this encounter, Pumla writes, “There is something uncanny, even perverse, about victims gaining a sense of repair and restoration by connecting with, rather than separating from, a perpetrator.  Yet these encounters open up the possibility for the beginning of a new phase of relationships, effectively changing the story of past trauma – not so much by burying it but rather by transforming its meaning from a story of violation and human destruction to a story of transcendence and human connection.”  It is done face to face, embodied in tears, shaking hands, and tender embraces.  It requires extraordinary courage.

Through inimba, a compassion that transformed the “other” into a “son,” this mother gave birth to a new reality.  I like to imagine the resurrected body of Jesus as such a maternal body, a body animated by inimba. This inimba is powerful enough to transform no-bodies into some-bodies and enemies into friends; even death into life.  The force of this inimba visibly changes us, marks us, like a tattoo.

Leslie getting a tattoo to remind her that she is human, and so must forgive other humans; a South African mother, moved by inimba, giving new life to her son’s murderer: that is what the resurrection of Jesus is like.  It makes a new creation where all is forgiven so that we can begin again. It’s all about radical love. The only question is:  how much of it can we stand?

St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “From now on let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.”[3]  Now that is some tattoo! And it isn’t removable.  Like Leslie, we are just going to have to get used to it and learn how to live – and love – again.  We are reborn in the womb of forgiveness.  Amen.

Note:  My use of Jamison’s tattoo and Gobodo-Madikizela’s beautiful expression of inimba were inspired by the Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus’ Chrism Mass homily at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, Tuesday in Holy Week, 2014.  I’m grateful to Bishop Andrus for bringing these essays to my attention.

[1] Jamison, Leslie.  “Mark My Words.  Maybe.” The New York Times.  Web.  April 12, 2014.
[2] Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla.  “Forgiveness and the Maternal Body:  An African Ethics of Interconnectedness.”  Essays on Exploring a Global Dream. The Fetzer Institute.  Web.  January 28, 2011.
[3] Galatians 6:17.

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