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.