These last few weeks, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my newest tattoo — a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on my right shoulder.
“Why Abraham Lincoln? Is it because there are rumors he was gay?” Well, no, but I do appreciate the opportunity to make a Gaybraham Lincoln pun, thank you.
“Why Abraham Lincoln? Do you want to make sure everyone knows that you really hate slavery?” Wait, was there ever a question about my stance on slavery?!
“Why Abraham Lincoln? Is it because you’re a hipster, and hipsters have beards, and he had a beard, and he was tall and skinny and wore a weird hat — so he was, in a sense, kind of the original hipster?” …What?
“So, why Abraham Lincoln?”
These kinds of questions aren’t terribly unexpected (well, okay, maybe those specific examples were). Every time I get a tattoo, the first question I get is “why?” But the investigation is always imbued with a tentative urgency, as if the asker is presenting a deeply personal — almost rudely penetrating — question. The inquiry always feels a bit loaded, as if I’m expected to answer with the most consequential, most sacred reasoning imaginable. It’s as if only something life-or-death could be worthy of permanently etching into one’s skin; as if tattoos should be confined to homages to dead relatives or to religious iconography. To be sure, a tattoo is a significant commitment, and not one I take lightly. But once you pass a certain number of tattoos, it can be easy to forget that they are a big deal to a lot of people.
I don’t mean to suggest that my tattoos aren’t a big deal to me. In fact, I cherish all of them — I’ve even come to appreciate the one with the Bible verse that I got shortly before I stopped believing in God. But I was particularly excited about this one for two reasons: it marked the completion of my right arm sleeve (pending some additional detail work on some of the pieces), and it is an acknowledgment of the work I’ve dedicated myself to.
Illustrated by my friend Grant Hanna, the tattoo is a profile of Abraham Lincoln situated in a tortoise shell frame, surrounded by stalks of rye, draped with a banner that reads: “Take the great high road to reason.” I pulled the imagery for this concept from one of my favorite quotes, taken from a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to Henry L. Pierce and others on April 6, 1859:
If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
I employ this quote nearly every time I speak on my work as an atheist and Humanist community organizer and an interfaith activist. (For more on this, see my most recent blog post, “Do Atheists Belong in the Interfaith Movement?“) I use it because I believe it articulates the importance of engaging those with differing worldviews in a respectful manner; in a way that treats them as intellectual equals and as fellow human beings.
As an atheist who lives in a culture that privileges religious expression, I believe that anti-atheist attitudes will be overcome through invested relationships with the religious, not combative shouting matches. As an interfaith activist, I’ve experienced the benefit of such relationships firsthand — over the years I’ve had countless opportunities to educate religious people on the challenges I and other nonreligious people experience, have given them reasons to advocate for our dignity and respect, and have in turn been challenged to reconsider some of my beliefs about religion.
I firmly believe that if atheists wish to convince more religious individuals of the justness of our cause and bring an end to conflict rooted in religious fundamentalism and anti-atheist discrimination, we must identify our religious pluralist allies, approach them with respect, and ensure that they are invested in our mutual best interests. Once this is done, we can move into identifying other shared interests and work together to end oppression and suffering in the world.
These thoughts coursed through my mind as I lay flat on my back on the second floor of a warehouse-turned-artist-loft on the west side of Chicago, staring at the ceiling, drenched in sweat, dehydrated and delirious. I was visiting Chicago earlier this month for a couple speaking engagements and a dear friend’s wedding, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit my tattoo artist. Crouching over me, my friend Serena worked up a dedicated sweat of her own, pressing ink into me and rubbing Vaseline over my increasingly tender skin. As Serena went over lines she had already tattooed near my armpit for a second time, I squeezed my eyes tight and bit my lower lip. Ouch, I thought. This really, really hurts.
And yet the pain always seems worth it. The momentary discomfort is an investment in something lasting. As in interfaith dialogue, it can be painful to step outside of one’s comfort zone, but it is a worthwhile endeavor because, in my experience, the consequences are enduring.
The decision to get a tattoo is an intimidating commitment, but it becomes easier each time I do it. As I’ve continued to develop in my approach to religion, I have found myself more and more able to make such sizable commitments in other contexts. We all bear the mark of the history that precedes us — I’ve just made this mark literal.
I credit the opportunities I’ve had to wrestle with religion and engage the religious with equipping me to navigate the difficult choices of life; and like the people and the stories I have encountered, this ink will always be a part of me. To me, this tattoo is a stake in the ground, a permanent nod to the public and personal gravity of cultivating productive and respectful relationships across lines of religious difference.
I hope people will continue to ask about the tattoo; that it will engender dialogue. My commitment to engaging with people of diverse worldviews — to bringing my full self into an act of encounter with another, and inviting them to do the same, with the hope that together we might contribute to the erosion of the kind of “us versus them” thinking that permeates inter-identity conflicts rooted in religious and secular identity around the world — is as enduring as the ink now residing in my right shoulder.
My tattoo finally finished, I hugged Serena and was bandaged and sent on my way. Sitting down in a blue plastic CTA bus seat, I sent a picture of the tattoo to my mother in a text message, accompanied by a typically terrible pun: “Drawn-est Abe L-ink-on!” At one time, each new tattoo was cause for a groan and a lecture — though she took me to get my first at eighteen, she began to express some concern after I got an outline of a capybara inked on my left forearm after college — but I think she has come to embrace that getting tattoos is a meaningful practice for me. Still, she hadn’t expressed outright excitement at any before this one.
“I love it!” she responded in a text. “But why Abraham Lincoln?”
I smiled and picked up the phone to call her. After all, these things are best explained in a conversation.