Circumcision, yes or no?

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.”

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6 Responses to Circumcision, yes or no?

  1. Peter says:

    It’s barbaric genital mutilation and child abuse, which NO culture should allow. The physical and psychological damage can be terrible.

  2. Peter, thanks for writing. In response I added a couple of sentences to the post–I hope that isn’t cheating! I’m new at the blog game. I don’t expect my changes to change your point of view, but I hope they fill out the picture.

  3. About raising children religion-free… Over the years I’ve been observing differences between families where the kids were raised ‘religion-free’, or, were raised ‘inside’ a faith community. What I’ve noticed is that kids who’ve been raised within a religious community, with an accompanying respect for the young person’s freedom of choice, have a clearer foundation from which to make their choices. They seem more likely to find a spiritual home that really feeds them. That home might turn out to be in a completely different faith tradition, but I think what really matters is that they have claimed a spiritual community for themselves. They are acknowledging the significance of their relationship to the Divine, and living as if that was a reality. Blessing indeed.

    On the other hand, young people I know who have been raised religion-free seem also to be missing a big piece of our cultural history – for ex, not knowing the identities of Mary the Mother of God or Pontious Pilate… But harder than that – I see them searching without knowing exactly what they are searching for. They don’t even have a spiritual culture to rebel or push against! This seems like a form of blind, soul-poverty to me.
    (Interesting how challenging it is to write about this in short, concise, clear sentences!)

  4. Sarah says:

    I see the issue of individual rights at the cost of the community as being a complicated topic, but I believe that in most cases, the rights of the individual cannot outweigh the rights and needs of the community as a whole. Individual rights were born with enlightenment thinking, along with the seeds of capitalism, and I think that it is due time to reconsider the sustainability of these concepts. While they are important to consider and are not without weight, an individual’s rights cannot justify behavior that is detrimental to the whole. I believe that we are facing this problem socially, as well as environmentally, particularly amongst western nations.

    To bring it back to the issue of circumcision, I don’t believe that this is a decision that a regional court is qualified or authorized to make, and it is not in the best interest of the community as a whole if a regional court can undermine widespread and sacred practices. The court could certainly provide information on the negative aspects of circumcision or even create social pressure to lead to compliance, but to outlaw a religious observance of this kind is going too far.

  5. JJB says:

    The Kielburgers don’t seem alienated enough to me. Did they ever thrash about, or has it been ardent and earnest since before their voices changed? I’m afraid to say it, Don, but the pendulum isn’t swinging back. Modern people haven’t moved from organizing as communities to organizing as individuals; we’ve moved from organizing to not organizing. I live in Toronto in, I think, general psychological health. And I’m unashamed to say that I stab “Door Close” if, standing in the elevator, I hear my neighbour’s door unlatch. The dynamic has many permutations, but one thing it isn’t is seasonal. People don’t swing back to communities of no-choice (where you must speak to strangers) from communities of choice (where you never speak to strangers). We simply swap–sadly, perhaps, but with awareness–the hell of being known for the hell of being unknown. And post the rest to Facebook.

  6. I find myself caught off-guard by this, though the *American* ethos has been moving in this direction for some years. Thanks for bringing it up.

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