Christians and Circumcision

My post last week about a movement in Scandinavia to ban the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys drew many comments. I’d like to respond to one of them. At Patheos, Joel Willitts criticizes Christians, like me, who oppose such bans. Willitts suggests that we are being inconsistent, perhaps even hypocritical. “The Christian tradition has little high ground on which to stand when it comes to the issue of banning Jewish practices,” he writes. After all, the “Gentile church” has prohibited circumcision for millennia as part of its “supersessionistic theology.” Who are Christians to criticize others when they, too, seek to end the practice?

I’m not a theologian, and I’m a little confused by the references to the “Gentile church” and “supersessionistic theology.” I think Willits is  alluding to debates about Messianic Judaism. But it’s not necessary to get deeply into theology to explain why his criticism of my position is misguided.

First, it’s not correct to say that Christianity bans circumcision. It’s true that Christianity rejects ritual circumcision. From the apostolic period until today, Christians have regarded baptism as the substitute for ritual circumcision–the sign of what Christians believe to be the New Covenant. Continuing to circumcise boys out of a sense of religious obligation, Christians believe, would be a category error. The Old Covenant has been fulfilled; why continue to observe its rituals? But circumcision for non-religious reasons is different. If, for example, the best medical learning is that boys should be circumcised for reasons of hygiene, Christianity does not oppose this. With respect to circumcisions carried out for non-religious reasons, Christianity is simply neutral.

Second, even if Christians reject ritual circumcision for themselves on theological grounds, they can still object in good faith to proposals that the state ban it for others. Christians do not build sukkot, either; but Christians can object to proposals that the state prohibit Jews from building them. Unlike the church, the liberal state is supposed to be neutral about such things. Christians who object to proposals to ban practices other religions hold sacred are not being inconsistent or hypocritical. They are holding liberalism to its deepest commitments, and showing respect for  traditions other than their own.

Koesel, “Religion and Authoritarianism”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Religion and Authoritarianism by Karrie Koesel (University of Oregon). The publisher’s description follows.Religion and Authoritarianism

This book provides a rare window into the micropolitics of contemporary authoritarian rule through a comparison of religious-state relations in Russia and China – two countries with long histories of religious repression, and even longer experiences with authoritarian politics. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in multiple sites in these countries, this book explores what religious and political authority want from one another, how they negotiate the terms of their relationship, and how cooperative or conflicting their interactions are. This comparison reveals that while tensions exist between the two sides, there is also ample room for mutually beneficial interaction. Religious communities and their authoritarian overseers are cooperating around the core issue of politics – namely, the struggle for money, power, and prestige – and becoming unexpected allies in the process.

Hatina, “Martyrdom in Modern Islam: Piety, Power, and Politics”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Martyrdom in Modern Islam: Piety, Power, and Politics by Meir Hatina (Hebrew University of Jerusalem). The publisher’s description follows.Martyrdom in Modern Islam

The Islamic resurgence in modern times has received extensive treatment in scholarly literature. Most of this literature, however, deals with the concept of jihad and disputes between radicals and their rivals over theological and political issues, and far less with martyrdom and death. Moreover, studies that do address the issue of martyrdom focus mainly on “suicide” attacks – a phenomenon of the late twentieth century and onward – without sufficiently placing them within a historical perspective or using an integrative approach to illuminate their political, social, and symbolic features. This book fills these lacunae by tracing the evolving Islamic perceptions of martyrdom, its political and symbolic functions, and its use of past legacies in both Sunni and Shi’i milieus, with comparative references to Judaism, Christianity, and other non-Islamic domains. Based on wide-ranging primary sources, along with historical and sociological literature, the study provides an in-depth analysis of modern Islamic martyrdom and its various interpretations while also evaluating the historical realities in which such interpretations were molded and debated, positing martyrdom as a vital component of contemporary identity politics and power struggles.

Weir, “Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany by Todd Weir (Queen’s University Belfast). The publisher’s description follows.Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Negotiating the boundaries of the secular and of the religious is a core aspect of modern experience. In mid-nineteenth-century Germany, secularism emerged to oppose church establishment, conservative orthodoxy, and national division between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Yet, as historian Todd H. Weir argues in this provocative book, early secularism was not the opposite of religion. It developed in the rationalist dissent of Free Religion and, even as secularism took more atheistic forms in Freethought and Monism, it was subject to the forces of the confessional system it sought to dismantle. Similar to its religious competitors, it elaborated a clear worldview, sustained social milieus, and was integrated into the political system. Secularism was, in many ways, Germany’s fourth confession. While challenging assumptions about the causes and course of the Kulturkampf and modern antisemitism, this study casts new light on the history of popular science, radical politics, and social reform.

Cook, “Ancient Religions, Modern Politics”

Next month, Princeton University Press will publish Ancient Religions, Modern Politics by Michael Cook (Princeton University). The publisher’s description follows.

Why does Islam play a larger role in contemporary politics than other religions? Is there something about the Islamic heritage that makes Muslims more likely than adherents of other faiths to invoke it in their political life? If so, what is it? Ancient Religions, Modern Politics seeks to answer these questions by examining the roles of Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity in modern political life, placing special emphasis on the relevance–or irrelevance–of their heritages to today’s social and political concerns.

Michael Cook takes an in-depth, comparative look at political identity, social values, attitudes to warfare, views about the role of religion in various cultural domains, and conceptions of the polity. In all these fields he finds that the Islamic heritage offers richer resources for those engaged in current politics than either the Hindu or the Christian heritages. He uses this finding to explain the fact that, despite the existence of Hindu and Christian counterparts to some aspects of Islamism, the phenomenon as a whole is unique in the world today. The book also shows that fundamentalism–in the sense of a determination to return to the original sources of the religion–is politically more adaptive for Muslims than it is for Hindus or Christians.

A sweeping comparative analysis by one of the world’s leading scholars of premodern Islam, Ancient Religions, Modern Politics sheds important light on the relationship between the foundational texts of these three great religious traditions and the politics of their followers today.