Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory: Tattoos

A recent edition of the Kind World podcast told the story of Dave Ente and Dave Cutlip, a couple of tattoo artists from Maryland in the US. Operating out of Southside Tattoo, Dave and Dave offer to transform racist or gang-related tattoos into designs that reflect a better future for people who want to start a new life. In the podcast, Dave tells the story of redesigning swastikas and Confederate flags for people who’ve left prison, left gangs, left lives of prejudice and violence. The emails he receives are known as ‘redemption requests’, messages from around the world looking for change, the transformation of their tattoos symbolising the changes they’re trying to make in their lives.

Tattoos can be art, and art can be violent, and when the podcast starts with a screwed-up description of a ‘messianic’ Hitler covering someone’s entire back, you can see the scale of the challenge that faces the two Daves, but also that facing those who want to move away from a legacy and a history of hatred. Art can be violent, but it can be transformed into something more beautiful. Sure, the hateful tattoos could simply be covered up, or removed, but the act of transformation has a symbolic purpose, a rite of passage. And in offering a welcome environment, the Daves befriend people who have left behind family, gangs, institutions because hey, it’s hard to change when you’re also battling loneliness.

By coincidence, I heard this podcast on the same commute that I listened to an episode of Shane Blackshear’s Seminary Dropout in which Shane interviewed Michael Beck, a pastor who has started a number of ‘fresh expression’ churches, including one in a tattoo studio. In the interview, Michael talks of how tattoos are sometimes seen as sacraments, an expression of something deeper reflected in the design etched onto an individual’s skin. And I can’t help but think of that in the light of the work done by Dave and Dave, in all the swastikas turned into roses, in the ink that beats swords of art into ploughshares. Redemption can be found in the strangest of places; grace can be written in the tattooist’s ink; hope can be found in art that transforms.



(Cross-posted from Bezalel’s Legacy.)


Tombs for the Prophets: A post on Martin Luther King

Look, the last thing the world needs is another white guy talking about Martin Luther King. I get that. But thoughts have got lodged in my head, and I keep going back to words spoken by Jesus in the last few days of his life. In a searing attack on the Pharisees, he yells “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous”, even though they’re complicit in the acts that put the prophets and the righteous in the tombs in the first place. And Jesus is rightly furious at this, because it’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

Martin Luther King is a towering figure of the 20th Century. “I have a dream” isn’t just a great speech, it’s a prophecy, a glorious, beautiful vision that’s rightly remembered decades later. But the tragedy is that King gets frozen in amber during the March on Washington. He’s considered a Great Man, and we learn about him in schools, and the Americans have a day dedicated to his memory. He’s an icon.

But he was more than that. He was a flawed man who found himself caught up in history, and he made mistakes, and by the end of his life, people were questioning his relevance and noting the tensions inherent in his message. He was also a prophet, but not in the sense of a plaster-cast saint; he spoke words of righteousness, against racism and inequality and violence and war. And so the FBI wanted to destroy him, and people beat him and firebombed his house; he got thrown in jail and, ultimately, he was murdered. We like prophets who talk about non-violence, because they’re less likely to beat us in response to our own violence.

That’s what happens to real prophets. We like them once they’re dead and gone and we can sanitise their message, but while they’re actually running around on earth, we’d much rather just shoot ‘em. Two thousand years ago, Jesus railed against how we treated prophets and just a couple of days later he was nailed to a cross. If we think about it long enough, we can probably come up with the names of prophets who are being persecuted right now.

The worst of it is, we then erect statues to their memory and publish their words in nice little gift books, and the rage and the fire and the Spirit that danced through their words gets extinguished. We praise Martin Luther King for his vision of an integrated word, but we’re still cheering on wars, we’re still a grossly unequal society, we’re still seeing unarmed black people shot by police. And the prophets will still rage, and they’ll still get killed, and we’ll still use them as inspiration porn in an effort to quiet their cries and put out their fire.

Maybe we should just start listening and changing instead

Epiphany and the Illusion of Power

The Magi went to the palace first.

Eventually they would kneel before Jesus, but first they’d be distracted by earthly power, a magnificent palace, a king who whispered in the ear of emperors. It’s a distraction that’s understandable, but still it leads to an atrocity. The pursuit of power so often does.

Then, when the Magi arrive in Bethlehem they find God, toddling and crying, graze-kneed and circumcised. Godhead made uncoordinated and babbling, death squads just days away and the Omnipotent forced to run.

It’s a strange sort of power that’s revealed at the Epiphany, certainly not the power we see worshipped today, not the power we seek for ourselves in a twisted attempt to build the Kingdom of God with the bricks of Empire. Epiphany reveals God in vulnerability and in nappies, the Word of God without words. This isn’t where we look for power, we don’t look among the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. We look to the rich, the connected, we turn on the vulnerable out of a never-ending fear, we want to drive away the homeless to make way for a royal wedding. Two thousand years after the Magi blundered into Herod’s palace and we still make the same mistake.

There’s an ongoing temptation to look for God in all the wrong places. That’s when we need to remember that God stands with the weak, the oppressed, the persecuted, the poor; we need to remember that God works not in our arrogance, our pride, our confidence but in our weakness, our vulnerability, our brokenness. Maybe this Epiphany it’s not about asking why we can’think see God; maybe it’s about confronting whether we’re looking for Him in the right place; if we’re truly looking for God or just the trappings of power.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

The year is almost over and not a moment too soon. It’s been a strange twelve months, marked by political upheaval and a seemingly neverending succession of scandals, conspiracies and the overturning of everything we hoped was secure. If there’s a season for everything under Heaven, then 2017 has been a time to mourn.

2016 was characterised by the loss of beloved cultural figures like David Bowie and Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher, and we mourned their loss. This year was different, the Hollywood Apocalypse, the unveiling of so many crimes, the sins pf men like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein laid bare.

It’s fair to grieve and rage about all this, necessary even; we grieve and mourn, and maybe we’ll even be inspired to pick up a pen, or a guitar, or a script. Because while the Holy Spirit is a Comforter, he’s also an Inspiration and an Encourager, and if he can give Bezalel the vision to create beauty in the desert, maybe he’ll give us ears to hear new music, eyes to see new art, a Pentecost heart to speak new words. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted, and sometimes through being comforted, through our tears, new possibilities are born. And blessed are those who cry out for justice, who were courageous enough to type #MeToo and in doing so dragged deeds of darkness out into the light. Let’s never forget that this comes at a cost; the world doesn’t always embrace justice as it should. 

Then there’s Yemen, there’s Syria, there’s Grenfell and Manchester and Las Vegas, wars and rumours of wars. May we see the destruction sown around the world and be moved to cry out for justice and hope. The Children of God are peacemakers, or shold be, and this last year has been a reminder that we should lean into that inheritance, that we shouldn’t accept the world as it is, but instead work to build bridges, to break down walls, to beat swords into ploughshares. And where we’re suffering from apathy and compassion fatigue, may we be given an appetite for justice, may we hunger and thirst for righteousness and cry out to God to be filled.

That’s been difficult this year; something seems to have broken and the world lurches out of control. Fake News and conspiracies and trolling and gaslighting have replaced debate and compromise, democracy even. So many are fighting all this, but they’re tired; the fight goes on, but the war is long. We need to look after each other, those who fight and those under attack. Too many choose to take their own lives because of the weight of the world, to many are crushed within the gears. 2018 is the year that a broken machine needs to be fixed.

And so we mourn those we’ve lost. We mourn the upswing in prejudice and bigotry, we mourn the trolling, we mourn the hate speech. We mourn what we may become, we mourn the darkness we may be stumbling towards. We have to decide how we respond to this – with complicity, with malice, or with a desire for justice tempered with mercy and grace. This is our choice going forward.

2017 is about to recede into history; we stand at that liminal time of year at which a pregnant future swirls before us, ripe with both opportunities and fears. And we all walk towards it; no-one can stay behind, but in the midst of it may we glimpse Christ beckoning us forward, calling us to be compassionate, calling us to be creative, calling us to stand. 2018 opens its arms to receive us, to welcome or to crush we don’t yet know. Whichever it is, may a light still shine in the dark; may a better Kingdom come.

Some brief theological musings on The Last Jedi (spoilers)

(Spoilers throughout, so if you’re planning on seeing The Last Jedi, you might want to wait ’til you have before you read this one…)

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg. 2017 is therefore a good year for the Jedi to have their own Reformation.

That’s what The Last Jedi is: a moment of crisis in a belief system that, through either corruption or mistakes, has failed the galaxy. Luke in particular has given up, the weight of his own failings convincing him that his religion needs to quietly die with him. Better for the whole thing to die than the mistakes of the Skywalker family to lead to more suffering and oppression.

But there’s a younger generation stepping forward, a generation that has sought the wisdom of its elders but that has subsequently been let down or manipulated. And because this is unsustainable, The Last Jedi sees characters like Rey taking a stand: they can’t perpetuate the mistakes of the past, can’t be led or mentored by men who can’t see under their own noses or, even worse, only seek to maintain their own poisonous brand of power.

So Rey has to become a leader herself, and in doing so teaches Luke what needs to be done for the Jedi Order to survive. And she does this instinctively but falteringly, making mistakes but still offering Luke a measure of grace that gives him and the faith a way forward. The old ways have to die, but they offer a foundation on which to build something more able to serve and save a galaxy torn apart by war. The legalism and rigidity of the past, which arguably led to the chaos, heartbreak and war we’ve seen across nine movies to date need to be burned down so that everyone can move on.

The journey of Luke and Rey contrasts with that of Ben Solo, who, when offered the chance to move beyond a family legacy that’s become toxic, just falls deeper under its spell. He uses the language of a reformer, but really it’s all just the same old ranting: he needs to be in charge because only he can lead, only he can do things right. He’s trying to be his grandfather, but all he’s doing is repeating Vader’s sins rather than following his path of redemption. He actively rejects redemption, because all that matters is power, as much power as possible, never mind how many people get hurt, never mind how many people die. To use Yoda’s metaphor, he’s only interested in looking towards a horizon where everything’s ‘perfect’ while missing what’s right in front of him. He misses the wisdom summed up by new character Rose: “We don’the win by killing what we hate,” she says, “We win by saving what we love.”

Rey, when offered the same choice, does the right thing, going to help those who need her most. She’s not part of this legacy that’s become a millstone; despite plenty of fan speculation, her parents were ‘nobodies’ and therefore she’s free to follow her own path. Throughout the film we’re reminded of what’s at stake for those who aren’t Skywalkers, who aren’t ‘chosen’, the extras along the hero’s journey, and in doing so the story starts to reorientate itself on the margins.

That’s why it’s important that, at the end of the movie, the future lies in the hands of women and people of colour, voices that traditionally haven’t been front and centre throughout the whole Star Wars franchise. The only way forward is to start listening to marginalised voices, to be led from the margins, because otherwise the poison from within can overwhelm the body, the cracks in the foundations can bring the whole edifice to the ground.

The Last Jedi is about change, it’s about power, it’s about toxic legacies and about who gets to lead us into the future. Maybe, in this Reformation year, it has more to teach us than we might at first have thought.