It’s very uncomfortable for me to discuss sexually related material in your weekly Faith Section. Yet the very real injustice of female circumcision, rightly called Female Genital Mutilation, opens naturally the question of why Americans consider male circumcision to be a foregone conclusion.
Over 135 million females worldwide are circumcised, with over 2,000,000 every year in danger of enduring the same procedure. When in Africa, I had offered to do some fundraising for a certain tribe’s local school-lunch program. But I had to tell them, “If I were to tell Americans that your tribe practices female circumcision, no one would want to support your cause.”
My brother had argued that we ought to leave aside the issues of traditions related to religion and culture, and I understand his point. But “FGM” is a procedure which deprives a woman of her God-given right to a normal and fulfilling sexual experience, and can even condemn her to a life of agony.
There are generally three levels of surgical damage and alteration practiced in the world, ranging from lesser degrees of cutting to entire reconstruction of the female genitalia. It is impossible to study the information without sensing the cruelty, even the brutality of these procedures. While Muslims do practice FGM in many countries, this is not advocated by the Koran.
So why not extend the debate to male circumcision? Well, even a cursory investigation will suggest why it is in San Francisco that the procedure is in danger of being cut off by legal means. So far as I can tell, it’s all about sexual pleasure – and one’s own personal level of identification with that particular piece of tissue located on that part of one’s body which most religions consider a big nuisance and a cause of way too much trouble.
Yet the efforts to ban circumcision in San Francisco, as far-fetched as they seem, have the positive effect of challenging the medical profession to re-consider a procedure millions have taken for granted since over a century ago. In fact, one doctor’s examination exposed the secret that the whole circumcision tsunami was first generated to curb what was considered aberrant (and, yes, abhorrent) behavior among wayward young men. Only later were many supposed health advantages attached to the procedure.
According to Ronald Goldman (“Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain”),
“The religious origin of the Jewish practice of circumcision is written in the Torah where God promised Abraham, ‘I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you…
” ‘I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God…
” ‘Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised.’”
(Jewish Circumcision Resource Center, Fall 1997. See Genesis 17:6,8,10).
Goldman notes that although for centuries Jewish scholars have defended circumcision, “There is another perspective on circumcision that is not openly discussed. Contrary to common belief, circumcision has not always been practiced. Moses failed to circumcise his son (Exodus 4:25), and circumcision was totally neglected during the forty-year period in the wilderness (Joshua 5:5). Some Jews in the Hellenistic period (circa 300 b.c.e.-100 c.e.) chose not to circumcise their sons in an attempt to gain public acceptance. During the Reform movement in Germany in the 1840s, some parents did not circumcise their sons.” If one concludes that Jews clung to circumcision when their collective identity was threatened, it’s also evident that not all of them were willing to pay the price of being branded.
Goldman goes on to explain why the debate among Jews is intensifying.
A parallel debate has been brewing among Muslims, for whom circumcision of young males has always been considered a guarantor of ritual cleanness.
An anonymous Islamic author begins this way: ” ‘In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful!’ That invocation itself is a good argument not to circumcise: what could be less compassionate or merciful than to hold a boy down and cut off his most intimate part?” Then he continues:
“Muslims are the largest single group in the world who circumcise boys… Ideally, opposition to Islamic circumcision must begin within Islam itself.
“The problem is where to start and how to proceed, when it is so entrenched…” The author laments, too, that reform movements are so few.
“The Qur’an,” he goes on, “does not mention circumcision.” Yet he does offer the following quotations from that sacred book about the dignity of the human person: “He (Allah) created everything in exact measure; He precisely designed everything (25:2). He designed you, and designed you well (40:64). He created the heavens and the earth for a specific purpose, designed you and perfected your design (64:3). He created man in the best design (95:4). [Satan said:] ‘I will mislead them, I will entice them, I will command them to mark the ears of livestock, and I will command them to distort the creation of God’ (4:119). We did not leave anything out of this book (6:38). Say, ‘Did you note how God sends down to you all kinds of provisions, then you render some of them unlawful, and some lawful? Say, ‘Did God give you permission to do this?’ Or, ‘do you fabricate lies and attribute them to God?’ (10:59). From these Qur’an passages, it’s easy to see how one could build an argument not just against male circumcision, but in a much stronger fashion against the ritualized mutilation of women.
Christians have never been bound by the Old Covenant regulation. In fact, Paul condemns the practice as a sign of bondage to the Law, which now has been superseded by Grace. The New Covenant, sealed in the Blood of Christ, is one of radical reliance on the mercy of God at work through faith:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:1-6, New International Version).
Ironically, Paul yielded to pressure and had Timothy circumcised. Acts 16: 3 notes that Paul did so “because of the Jews of that region, for they all knew that it was only [Timothy’s] father who was Greek…” For the early Christian community, even though circumcision would not be universally prohibited, it was generally not practiced. Some entire groups, like Coptic Christians, did embrace the tradition, but the First Council of Jerusalem had made the point clear once for all around 50AD: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit, and ours too,” proclaimed the apostles and those gathered with them, “not to lay on you [Gentiles] any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary…” The “strictly necessary” did not include circumcision.
In conclusion, I want to thank the extremists in San Francisco for pushing the issue of circumcision. Whatever their motives, they have a right to ask the question publicly. Indeed, since David cut off two-hundred Philistine foreskins (I Samuel 18:27) doctors have sliced away untold millions, and just maybe, it hasn’t all been necessary. But however you feel about male circumcision, one thing is certain: female circumcision must be abolished.