Recently, a regional court in Köln, Germany (Cologne to most of us), ruled that circumcision of a child was a form of physical assault, and should be outlawed. The court recognized that circumcision was performed for religious reasons for Jews and Muslims, but held that these did not outweigh the physical pain experienced by a child in a surgical procedure that was not medically necessary. (I wonder what the court would have decided if someone had brought a case against a Roman Catholic bishop for slapping the candidates for confirmation on the cheek–a gesture intended to signify to the candidates that they should expect a certain amount of pain if they attempt to put their Christian identity into actual practice.) Yes, there is a moment of pain, something significant in a pain-averse culture, but probably very little more than a polio injection.
Predictably, this generated a furore, complicated for Jews in particular by memories of the Holocaust. A number of responses saw the ruling as offensive to religious freedom, and rejected the court’s dismissing of the religious rationale. Then the federal government of Germany weighed in, with the assurance that circumcision of children would continue to be legal. It will be interested to see how this all ends up.
However, I want to address one of the opinions offered by the regional court, namely, that to circumcise a child in effect makes a religious decision for him before the age of adult consent. Parents, the court opined, should not “impose” any religious choices on their children, but should let them grow up blissfully religion-free (OK, I’m editorializing) so that having come to adult years, they could choose a religion for themselves.
I’m not aware of any research having been done of what children so raised actually do when they reach the age of majority, whether they choose the parental religion, another religion or no religion at all. But what I want to address here is the unacknowledged individualist bias of the court. In effect, the court is placing individual “rights” above any collective or communal rights. The fact that circumcision has been the mark of (male) belonging to the Israelite/Jewish, community since the time of Abraham (c. 1800 BCE, or a little less than 4000 years) cuts no ice with the court. (You can read about how this all got started in the Bible, in Genesis 17.) Perhaps the day will come when a court will prohibit infant baptism on the same individualist grounds.
It’s obvious that individualism, fostered by consumerism, is the dominant social dynamic in our culture. “It works for me” is the victory cry of the happy (and financially secure, it should be noted) individualist. Margaret Thatcher, who memorably said that there is no such thing as society, would nod warmly in agreement.
However, there are many signs that we need to find a new balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of communities. First Nations are leading the way in this regard; and Québec has been arguing for years for collective rights around language. Earlier this year, the Vancouver Foundation discovered in a survey that the biggest problem for the residents of the most liveable city in the world is loneliness–non-belonging, disconnectedness. It’s clear to me that individualism (the suffix identifying it as an ideology) is a distortion of individuality, just as communism is (was?) a distortion of community.
I offer these thoughts to suggest that while individualism remains dominant, as evidenced by the court decision in Köln, the social pendulum is beginning to swing back in the direction of community. For the sake of all those lonely people in Vancouver, I hope it keeps moving until our society has found a better balance, as the Kielburger brothers would say, between “me” and “we.”