Circumcision? Says Who?

Thinking of getting circumcised? Probably not….but how about getting your baby circumcised? A recent court decision may be relevant.

A German court in Cologne ruled that circumcising boys is “grievous bodily harm” and should not be performed on a child until he is old enough to make the decision for himself–basically, the rights of the child to bodily integrity take priority over religious freedom and the practices of a religious community. Jewish and Muslim groups worldwide–along with Protestant and Catholic groups–were quick to denounce the ruling as a gross violation of religious freedom, with Dieter Graumann, the president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, declaring the ruling “unprecedented and insensitive.” Within a few days, the German Foreign Minister was trying to quell fears of anti-Semitism and lessen the appearance of restricting religious freedoms in Germany.

As I browsed the comments on the Sydney Morning Herald and Washington Post websites, the terms of the discussion fell into two stark categories: in Australia, the discussion was largely about whether circumcision was a medically justifiable practice (with the implication that only in this case would the parents have the right to subject the child to the operation), whereas in America, the discussion was centered on religious liberty. Basically, the discussions reveal that the values of religious freedom, individual liberty (the parents’ and the child’s), and science in the form of current medical opinion conflict in the issue of religious circumcision.[i] As one commenter put it, it is either human rights or religious freedom, with science being the assumed context for knowledge and judgements.

What intrigues me is the very limited way in which “human rights” or the child’s rights are being construed and what this understanding of “rights” suggests about our ability to reason morally. In the case of religious circumcision in Germany, the child’s rights are reduced to the right to “bodily integrity.” But, what about the right to a community identity? Or the right to a cultural inheritance? By insisting upon the right to bodily integrity, the court ruling denies children the right to cultural and historical integrity. Partly, this denial of community identity is dismissed because of a misunderstanding regarding the nature of culture and tradition. The logic of the scientific world goes like this: religions can simply change their practices, stop circumcising infants, because new information from studies and experiments is superior to ancient knowledge and practice. It is as if cultural practices should be discarded at will simply due to changing information and opinion.

The problem with this line of thinking is not only that it runs contrary to the idea of community identity and cultural identity by undermining the sense of transhistorical community practice but, more importantly, it is contrary to the very essence of religious truth and consequent practice. If the revelation of God’s law in the Hebrew Bible is true, which is what orthodox Jews and Christians claim, then God is God. That may seem like a tautology but if you actually consider the statement—the implications and modern discomfort with those implications—reveal just how revolutionary a claim the Abrahamic religions make.  If the God of the Bible is, in fact, the ultimate ground of all being, the creator of the universe and all within it, then by definition he has knowledge, understanding, and authority to set laws for his creation. Whatever “rights” humans possess are thus derived from and hemmed-in by God and in whatever way authorities might function in a culture they are always and everywhere second to the authority of God. And this is the great scandal of such faith: when it is authentic, it refuses to accept any authority–humanistic, political, scientific–as ultimately binding or of ultimate authority. Ultimate authority is reserved for God alone…and my sense is we don’t really like that.

The idea that my own deepest thoughts, dreams, ideas, or experiences may not be right or true and must be governed by someone outside myself grates against the very notion of the modern self. But this is the claim of faith–it is the submission of the self and all other authorities to God.  And the good news is that this same God is also the ground of all mercy, goodness and love, and thus his law is perfect and his commands are right, enlightening the eyes and rejoicing the heart.

Jessica Hughes


[i] For the purpose of this post, I am assuming that medical opinion is opposed to circumcision, although that is not a decided point in recent medical research. Also, I am assuming that individual liberty and religious freedom are, in fact, core values of western society and that science is the primary way in which western society establishes knowledge. However, I recognize that all these assumptions could be contentious in certain circumstances.

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One response to “Circumcision? Says Who?

  1. Thanks Jessica, both for pointing out this story, and also commenting thoughtfully on a wider view of human rights, as scandalous as others might see that view.

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