If you are familiar with the current arguments opposing routine infant circumcision, you are already aware that babies experience a severe amount of pain when circumcised, the foreskin serves a protective and useful purpose as it covers the more delicate glans, cleanliness of the intact penis is an extremely simple matter, some babies experience serious complications of the operation, any diseases that circumcision has been purported to “prevent” (such as penile cancer) can easily be prevented by non-surgical means, and that babies are human beings with inalienable rights including freedom from unnecessary pain and body alteration.
However, some Christian parents, even after hearing and taking this information to heart, may still retain a feeling that circumcision must be a good thing to do simply because of its association with the Bible. Somehow for many people (at least in North America) the word “circumcised” sounds good. Therefore, many facts, as directly concern Christians, must be examined more closely.
What does the Old Testament say about circumcision?
At the time of Abraham, circumcision was established as a covenant between God and the Hebrew people. (Genesis 17:10-14) There are many speculations as to the reasons and background of this particular practice. Many historians believe that the early Hebrews practiced a simple gashing of the foreskin rather than the more drastic and traumatic practice that is done today with clamps and scalpels. Circumcision was also practiced by many other primitive tribes, well before the time of Abraham. Its actual beginnings were Pagan in origin. Most observant Jews (who accept only the Old Testament as part of their faith) still circumcise their baby boys for this reason. (This ritual, called a bris, takes place on the eighth day of the baby’s life. It is usually done by a Jewish practitioner, known as a mohel who specializes in circumcisions. This is very much different from the medical routine performed hospitals on non-Jewish babies.)
Christians are not bound by Old Testament practices.
When the growing concern against routine circumcision began, we focused only on the medical and social concerns surrounding non-ritual circumcision. We were always careful to exempt Jewish concerns as a separate matter, believing that religious considerations were more delicate issues which only the Jews themselves should deal with. Over the years, however, groups such as Peaceful Beginnings and NOCIRC have been approached by increasing numbers of Jews who do question this aspect of their faith with much sensitivity and concern. There is now a growing network of support for the “Alternative Bris” ceremony, in which the ritual is performed without cutting the baby.
Christians are not bound by Old Testament practices. Many people now realize that there were many customs and practices that were common in Old Testament times, such as burning up birds and animals as ritual sacrifice, which may have made sense to those people at that time, but have little relevancy or acceptability today.
What does the New Testament say about circumcision?
Jesus Christ is the New Covenant, rendering all of the Old Testament practices, including the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision, null and void.
When the Gospel was to be spread to the Gentile world, during the time of St. Paul, circumcision of Gentile converts was a matter of intense debate. Circumcision was dangerous, painful, and culturally repugnant to the Greeks and Romans. Early Christian church authorities quickly decided that circumcision was unnecessary.
- “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we can wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” Galatians 5:1-6
- “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh. But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.” Galatians 6:12-16.
- “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.” Philippians 3:2-3.
This was nearly 2,000 years ago. Throughout most of history, and in most parts of the world today, Christians are rarely circumcised. In many cultures, people are often not even aware of what circumcision is.
Doesn’t it say in the Bible that circumcision is cleaner?
There is no place in the Bible that states that a male is cleaner if he is circumcised. There are, however, many places in which the concept of circumcision is used metaphorically. In Deuteronomy 10:16 people are admonished to “circumcise the foreskins of their hearts.” Jeremiah 6:10 berates the unrepentant who cannot hear because their “ears are uncircumcised.” In Acts 7:51, St. Stephen declared “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost.” And in Romans 2:29 St. Paul states “He is a Jew, that is one inwardly: and the circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter.”
Much of this sounds weird to modern day people, but the writers were simply using a concept that would have had meaning to the people at that time. They were not proclaiming that there was actually any value or purification to cutting off any part of the body, but were admonishing people to apply that type of belief to their inner selves instead.
Well, after all, Jesus was circumcised.
Jesus was circumcised because he was a Jew. Mary and Joseph had little choice about the matter in that time and place.
At one time the Catholic church observed January 1st (8 days after Christmas) as the “Feast of the Circumcision”, commemorating this event as the first of his blood sacrifice and martyrdom.
Although Christian churches today rarely focus on this, at one time early Christian writers gave much attention to the circumcision of Christ – not as any perfecting or purification of the body, but as an act of further debasement to which he submitted after assuming human form.
- “Already diminished by assuming our flesh, Christ further lessens himself by receiving the circumcision. God’s Son had abased himself one degree beneath the angels in taking on human nature, and this day, by accepting the remedy for our corruption, he descends a thousand times lower still.” (St. Bernard, 12th Century)
- Since the debt incurred by the sin of Adam cannot be met by Adam’s insolvent progeny – and since Christ’s blood pays the ransom – his Circumcision becomes, as it were, a first installment, a down payment on behalf of mankind. It is because Christ was circumcised that the Christian no longer needs of circumcision. In the words of St. Ambrose: “Since the price has been paid for all after Christ … suffered, there is no longer need for the blood of each individual to be shed by circumcision.”
As adults, of course, we undergo many sacrifices and sufferings in our lives, but no baby has any understanding of such things. Most people would seriously question the ethics of subjecting a baby to any kind of trauma or loss of body part just because that was the fate of Jesus or any other admired leader.
What does modern medical circumcision have to do with the Bible?
Nothing. The medical practice of infant circumcision came about in the late 1800’s, for a number of spurious, superstitious reasons. Some people believed that it would prevent masturbation, or a number of other possible diseases. All of these suppositions have long been proven invalid.
While the medical profession provides a needed function in society, and most medical practitioners are hard-working individuals deserving much respect, the medical profession in many people’s eyes has become a type of idolatry. We treat hospitals like “sacred temples” and have turned doctors into false “gods.”
Just as many people believe that birth has to take place in a hospital, we have come to believe that the newborn infant must go through a number of rituals and ablutions to be “official” and survive in society. Weighing, measuring, putting ointment in the eyes, washing the baby, putting on identification bands, putting him in a special warming crib, bundling him in blankets, and keeping him in the hospital nursery are all hospital rituals imposed upon the newborn. How different are we from the primitive who believes that his illness will be cured from his Shaman shaking rattles and dancing? In this respect, infant circumcision in hospitals has become a “ritual” of its own accord — a product of our tendency to regard all medical practices as “sacred.”
The Christian is especially admonished not to make anything into a false religion – not even things that are necessary or beneficial in and of themselves. We are to worship only the Lord our God. To give the medical profession, or anything else, any kind of undue worship is going against basic Christian beliefs.
Do babies have rights?
Concern over abortion and concern over routine infant circumcision are equally volatile issues which in most cases should be kept separate. Yet they have many parallels. Some people see both as acts of medical violence and invalidation of our precious, innocent infants.
Most Christians either oppose abortion, or at least have serious moral concerns about it, and do agree that human life is real and deserving of respect and consideration from the beginning of pregnancy on.
Those who oppose routine infant circumcision are deeply concerned with the infant’s rights as a human being. No baby or small child has ever wanted or asked to be circumcised. Taking away a baby’s foreskin (or any other normal body part) is altering/mutilating his body without his permission, as well as subjecting him to severe and unnecessary pain.
Anyone who supports the rights of the pre-born child, certainly should be challenged similarly to consider the rights of the already born child.
How are Christians supposed to treat other people?
- “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23
- “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12
The intact baby movement is borne out of a deep sense of compassion and sensitivity to the needs of helpless infants. A tiny newborn, barely out of his mother’s womb, totally dependent upon adults and trusting them to attend to all his needs, is one minute sleeping peacefully in his crib or in his mother’s arms, and the next minute is undressed, taken away from those who love him, placed upon his back, spread-eagled, with his arms and legs strapped down into an immobile plastic board. First a hemostat is used to tightly crimp a small length along his foreskin. then a dorsal slit is made and the foreskin is torn away from the glans. The most common modern methods employ a “bell” device which fits beneath the foreskin and over the glans. By one method a metal clamp is tightly screwed down over the outside of the foreskin, left in place for about five minutes, and the foreskin is then sliced away and the clamp and bell removed. By another method a string is tied around the plastic bell, part of the foreskin trimmed away, the handle of the bell broken off, while the remaining plastic ring and small piece of foreskin is left in place until the skin dries up and the ring falls off about a week later.
Usually no anesthesia is used for this procedures. Most babies scream in anguish as this is done. Some vomit, urinate, or pass their bowels in response to the trauma. Many arch their backs and struggle futilely to free themselves. Some babies shrink within themselves and cannot cry in response to the pain, but instead pass out into an unconscious state. Although platitudes that “babies feel no pain” have abounded for centuries, anyone with any level of sensitivity towards infants can only feel heartbroken that a helpless, exquisitely sensitive infant should ever be made to endure such an ordeal
Activists in the intact baby movement wish to put an end to this. We are filled with a deep, heartfelt compassion for the most helpless, voiceless of our fellow human beings – our own precious infants. We love babies too much to accept that this much cruelty should be allowed to happen to them. We uphold that infants should be treated with great gentleness and kindness and that the beginnings of their lives should be filled with joy and peace. Aren’t these also Christian ideals?
Where does infant circumcision belong in the light of the “fruits of the Spirit?” A tiny infant, strapped to a board, knife to his genitals, certainly isn’t feeling joy nor love. It is about the most un-peaceful scene imaginable. There is no kindness nor goodness manifested in cutting and hurting a child’s genitals. Circumcision is about the most un-gentle action anyone could do to a baby. And where is our faithfulness in the correct design of the body, much less our faith in the belief that our sins are paid for in the blood of Christ alone, by saying no to what has become an idolatrous medical ritual? Where is our self-control in not mutilating our child? Our patience in allowing the child to be himself?
What kind of example should Christians be presenting to the rest of the world?
Too often in the eyes of the rest of society, many non-Christians appear to be much more loving, compassionate, gentle, and concerned about the welfare of children (or about a number of other social concerns) than do most Christians. The non-believer often sees hypocrisy and feels repulsion at the idea of identifying with such people when Christians present themselves as unloving, uncompassionate, uncaring, narrow-minded, cruel, and unyielding. Christians must always remember that when we present ourselves to the world by our actions and attitudes, we are showing them Jesus, and of course, Jesus never hurt a child in any way.
Of additional concern is that of inner personal strength and self-acceptance. Some parents have their sons circumcised because “everyone else does” – although this argument is considerably less strong today as increasing numbers of parents areleaving their sons intact. Some parents have intentionally chosen to leave their sons intact specifically because they firmly believe in “not following the herd” and wish to teach their children the value of not succumbing to mindless conformity. In an age of dangerous fads and peer pressure and rampant drug abuse, this can be an essential survival skill.
Many of us who voice concern over routine infant circumcision have been wishing for an organized voice from the Christian world speaking out against genital mutilation. Christian apathy to this issue can only be considered a public embarrassment. If our Christian ideals of love, gentleness, peace, and following the Golden Rule cannot begin with our own children, how relevant can they be to the rest of the world?
Steinberg, Leo, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 1983, Pantheon Books (div. of Random House), NY, and Random House, Toronto, Ont.
All Biblical references are taken from the Revised Standard Version.