He Looked Like a Sinner

Imagine a person smoking. Saint or sinner? How about someone with a tattoo?

As I've mentioned from time to time, I used to play Jesus at our church during our Vacation Bible School. The other day someone told me about a lady they were inviting to our church. Apparently, she had a lot of tattoos. Because of her tattoos she expressed a worry about coming to our church. "I couldn't go to Highland with all my tattoos," she said. The person inviting her quipped, "Oh, you can have tattoos at Highland. Jesus has tattoos at Highland." Because I have a tattoo.

In Unclean I talk about the contamination attribution known as similarity. If something looks like a contaminant then it's hard to override that appearance-driven judgment. Even when we know, at a rational level, that appearances are deceiving us.

For example, borrowing from the work of Paul Rozin, I've poured lemonade into a sterile bedpan and have asked students to take a drink. They know it's just lemonade and they know the bedpan is clean. And yet still they refuse to take a drink. Lemonade in a bedpan just looks too much like urine and reason struggles to overcome our emotional response to that appearance. This is the appraisal of similarity. If something looks similar to a contaminant then it is a contaminant. Even if we know better.

As I argue it in Unclean, something similar happens when we size up people. We have stereotypes about what saints and sinners should look like. And at some deep emotional level if someone looks like a sinner then they are a sinner. It's this snap judgment that made that woman with a lot of tattoos hesitant to come to church. She knew what was going to go through people's minds, how church people would look at her and judge her.

And what makes this worse, as illustrated in the bedpan example, is that we make these judgments even when we know better.

That was the problem with Jesus.

Jesus didn't look like a saint. Jesus didn't look holy. He hung out with prostitutes and drank too much wine. He was a convicted criminal. He was given the death penalty. And he died under God's curse.

Jesus looked like a sinner.

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16 thoughts on “He Looked Like a Sinner”

  1. Excellent points, especially in your last paragraph. I have believed for a long time that if the story of Jesus changing water into wine in John 2 was found in one of the Apocryphal Gospels most conservative theologians and teachers would point to it as a far fetched tale that proves the gospel to be inauthentic. As it is, I remember as a child being taught that the wine was of the weaker sort, hardly any stronger than juice.

    Whether or not Jesus had long hair, we have no way of knowing, but I can remember as a teenager in the sixties hearing preachers and Sunday school teachers calling long hair on young men a SIN. Not just undesirable, but a SIN. But as time went on many of these same preachers and teachers grew their hair longer than the young men they were preaching to a few years before. And how they blasted Rock & Roll, only to be caught up later in country music that would make some of the old rockers blush. And the movies they watched when they got cable? Well, no need to go there.

    My point is this: Many conservatives desire the past, claim to live its values, while actually enjoying the pleasures of the present, such as dress, movies and music, that their parents, grandparents, and even they themselves at one time, would have labeled as obscene. But if the church would allow itself to observe the Jesus of the Gospels, his radical approach to, and acceptance of, the masses, it would not have to always be playing "catch up". This does not mean that everyone has to suddenly throw their Sunday dresses and coats and ties away, shop for throw backs at the thrift store and try to look as bohemian as possible. The truth is, most tattooed clad, orange or blue hair smokers that I know, who just enjoyed a "footloose" Saturday night, would feel uplifted and welcomed by any genuinely outstretched hand, regardless of the clothes behind it, because they know when someone is looking at the the human being in theirs.

  2. This makes me think of a local church with a pretty centralized authority structure and essentially a fundamentalist theology, but where tattoos and smoking are common. I have a friend who recently left after many years. She was criticized for seeking council from her Christian family members, who were not in the church. This church basically practices shunning: it builds extremely strong interpersonal relationships, but quickly severs them then moment people become suspect. There is also a young man in this church who just stopped attending, because he repented of calling another young woman who had left it the mouthpiece of satan. His parents responded by telling him that until he starts attending again, he will receive no support from his family. Which goes to show how arbitrary the particular markers in these situations are. In many ways, this church behaves like a fundamentalist cult, except they drink, smoke, get tattoos and hang out late.

  3. Excellent. We have tended to make Jesus look so clean, shiny and sanitised, and in so doing we've removed the offence of the gospel and made him into the Saviour we think he should be rather than the Saviour our sinfulness actually requires.

  4. I understand what you're trying to convey here but I disagree with the description of Jesus. None of us have met Jesus, hang out with him to describe him in this way. Your position swings drastically the other way to make a point but it miss the point of it all. The problem was never Jesus. The problem has always been us, human beings. As a follower of Jesus it's shameful that we blame shift because of what we say and claim. It is our words, our interpretations and all the garbage we injected into Jesus' ministry that has clouded the story. It's time we face the reality and own our actions. Do you know how many pastors actually bother to respond to phone calls and emails?

  5. Someone never read Revelation 19:16 where Jesus has his name tattooed on his forehead and thigh. Of course, as an atheist myself, this is one more reason to back slowly away from religion. Especially considering Leviticus 19:28, "Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos." Still, it's scary that you seem unaware of this but are so quick to judge your brother. Go Eagle Go!

  6. Hi Allison, thank you for your interest. I am curious as what you think of the Bible. Is it absolute truth and literal? What is the purpose of the NT and coming of Christ? There are differences of interpretation of the verses you've mentioned. What is it that I've said that really offended you? Thanks.

  7. It doesn't matter whether it's literal or absolute. Because that's the same thing. Also, Jesus supposedly came to fulfill the law so that modern Christians don't have to [which is sort of convenient when you realize that this is Christianity's 'get out of jail free' card]. If he was to fulfill the law that means that even HE shouldn't have had a tattoo.

    However, that is neither here nor there. The fact remains that you seemed unaware of this doctrinal issue of Jesus' Tattoo because of your statement: "None of us have met Jesus, hang out with him to describe him in this way." Technically NONE of you have met Jesus, but that has never phased the Christians I've met before. So we'll dub that 'straw man 1'. Next, you say 'to describe him this way'. Well yes, but that is sort of the point, isn't it? Everything you know about 'God' and Jesus comes from The Book. Therefore, if you don't know the book you DON'T know about Jesus. And since you used Strawman 1, we are left to conclude that you spoke in ignorance.

    So for all you know he had a tattoo. Which is funny, because, incidentally...he does/did [depending on if you take it literally or figuratively].

    Nope not offended. I just think it's ironic to see Christians tear each other apart over things that are easy to Google [or memorize in AWANA]. Especially in the comments section of a blog about acceptance. Brotherly Love and all that.


  8. I see what you are saying. Well, maybe I did not layout the foundation for my argument clearly. I see that you may have read or studied philosophy so we can discuss it from a different approach if desired.

    What I said that none of us have ever met Jesus in person is just that, physically and personally. Yes, traditional and popular teaching is to believe the Bible literally and figuratively but that is not how I chose to interpret the Bible. At least not where I am today. I am simply stating that none of us have visual confirmation of Jesus' appearance and at times translations could be off due to the limitation of language.

    You also assume that all Christians think and believe the same thing at the same time. Faith is personal and to be meaningful it has to be individualized. My challenge to my so called brothers of faith is not a message for an unbeliever. This is where we have be clear and distinct to have a productive conversation between us, if desired. You may not understand the challenge or struggle because we don't share the common goal or worldview. And your approach is to assume I am uneducated and unread to know your gotchas. I don't understand what constructive feedback you are trying to convey.

    One key correction on your statement that everything we know about god and Jesus comes from the book/Bible. That is not actually completely true. As a believer of God/Jesus there are additional sources of insights and the leading of the Holy Spirit. I won't verse blast you with that here but I am sure you can google it.

    I find it humorous to think that these points of contention can be resolved by Googling. I guess if you believe all truth reside in cyber space then I must be going about figuring out the meaning of my life the wrong way. At the end of the day I rely on fellow believers to forgive and be forgiven as we sort our way through life and faith.

    You sounds like someone that perhaps was in the church and decided that it's no longer a viable worldview. I would love it if you can teach me and point out my ignorant ways. Whatever is truthful and worthy of consideration I will definitely be open to it.


    Oh, I don't see that this is a battle to be won here because that would be pity. I do enjoy open and intentional discussion. Which Atheists do you believe best represent your worldview?

  9. I don't have any tattoos or piercings and have been raised in the church my whole life, and when going to a new church (and even sometimes an old one) I worry about whether I will be accepted, partially because my husband and I work on a comic book/magazine geared toward geeks and roleplaying game players that many Christians think are sinful and evil. We hang out with people with tattoos, and people of various persuasions, from atheist to gay to Baptist belly dancers and Wiccans. I even have a friend with vampire teeth that I must admit worried me when I first met her. She turned out to be a lovely person. I think Jesus would love my friends, but I am not so sure about our churches.

  10. Thank you for sharing also. Your story is heard too many times and that is one of the source of my frustrations about us, Christians. How could we still be asking the question whether the church will accept and love everyone? Why could any Christians not be the ones lending a hand in need or love? We have to surrender our ways for his. I am finding that amongst Christians there is an ignorance about accountability, support and education to mature our journey. Like you, I have friends from all kinds of backgrounds, interests and lifestyles. What i found is when sharing about my faith I try to make it clear that it's Jesus' story that they should focus on and not their experience or expectation from men - because we will always fail them in some capacity.

  11. I work in medicine and have had to fight this impulse -- this reflex.
    One trick, a cheap one, is to embrace the contamination -- a tantric option.
    That is, get a tatoo, drink wine from a urinal, take up smoking for a time.
    The more difficult road is to see behind the workings of one's own mind, but it is a good road.
    Well written!

  12. I don't like the picture you painted of Jesus. Yes, he hung out with prostitutes because He wanted to tell them about His eternal life, His Living Water. When was the last time you ventured downtown to the undesirable and talked and hung out with them, just loving them like Jesus loves you? And he drank too much wine? Where is this biblically correct? For your information, per a Jewish rabbi that can trace his family all the way back to when Christ was on this earth, it take 26 glasses of biblical wine to equal 1 glass of wine today, that served in the USA. They practically drank grape juice. He was not a convicted criminal, Pilate found him not guilty. He was hated by fellow Jewish rabbis, and they made the punishment happen. Yes, he was given the death penalty, but that was God's plan. A secret kept from Satan. Satan thought that death would get rid of him, but he was wrong. God came to earth in the form of man so that He could take OUR SIN upon Himself and be the final sacrifice. Yes, Jesus looked like a sinner, but to those who knew him, they knew that He wasn't. To them, He was their Lord and Savior.

  13. Yes, I have met Jesus, personally, and I spoke with Him this morning.

    As for the Revelation 19:16, no Bible says tattooed. It says 'written'. Besides, He is a spirit, as will I be when I arrive in heaven. I have His name imprinted on me right now that only He can see, because my body is just a vessel that holds my spirit.

    I love it when atheists take one Bible verse and give their interpretation without having read the entire thing. Take Leviticus 19:28. Let's go back a few verses. It talks about not eating blood "blood is a very precious thing to God, that is why no "blood letting" aka tattooing. Tattooing releases blood. It also says not to practice divination or soothsaying, which is fortune telling. As for the not making any cuts in your body for the dead, this was a practice that they picked up in Egypt, and God was wanting them to stop. The following verse says do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot so that the land may not fall to harlotry and the land become full of lewdness. I guess the USA missed the boat on that one. lol

    A lot of confusion that comes from the Bible is the result of not understanding the times in which it was written. When you take that into consideration, then it all makes sense.

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