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.

One response

  1. Modern Christians have a responsibility to uphold human rights, esp. the rights of those who are most vulnerable, in this case, male children at risk of having their basic human right to bodily integrity violated by non-therapeutic circumcision (where there is no medical need).

    As I understand international human rights documents, human beings attain their basic human rights at the moment of birth, not before. As children, any rights that they cannot exercise owing to their status as a minor, are ‘rights in trust’ (rights they will be able to exercise with increasing age). These rights are the responsibility of parents to safeguard, just as important as the right to shelter, food, education, healthcare, etc.

    Many readers here might benefit from delving more into human rights law, esp. those rights that are violated by non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors (whether for religious, social, cultural, traditional or aesthetic reasons). I recommend these articles, reports and statements.

    Darby, R. (2013). The child’s right to an open future: is the principle applicable to non-therapeutic circumcision? J Med Ethics, 39, 463-68. doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-101182

    Earp, B. (2015). Sex and Circumcision: Ritual Infant Circumcision and Human Rights. Am J Bioethics, 15(2), 43-45.

    Myers, A. (Hebrew Univ/Jerusalem, 2015). Neonatal Male Circumcision, If Not Already Commonplace, Would Be Plainly Unacceptable By Modern Ethical Standards. Am J Bioethics http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15265161.2014.990166

    Saraljic, E. (2014). Can culture justify infant circumcision? Res Publica
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11158-014-9254-x?no-access=true

    Svoboda, J. (2013). Promoting genital autonomy by exploring commonalities between male, female, intersex, and cosmetic genital cutting. Global Discourse. doi:10.1080/23269995.2013.804757

    Ungar-Sargon, E. (2013). On the impermissibility of infant male circumcision: a response to Mazor. J Med Ethics. http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2013/09/06/medethics-2013-101598

    Int’l NGO on Violence Against Children (2015). Violating Children’s Rights: Harmful practices based on tradition, culture, religion or superstition.
    http://srsg.violenceagainstchildren.org/sites/default/files/documents/docs/InCo_Report_15Oct.pdf

    Children’s Rights International Network (2015). Call for adequate recognition of children’s right to freedom of religion or belief.
    https://www.crin.org/sites/default/files/attachments/call_for_adequate_recognition_of_childrens_right_to_freedom_of_religion_or_belief.2.pdf

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