On circumcision, Coca-Cola and McDonald's and how to affect reform

Circumcision of Isaac c. 1300
Readings: Genesis 17:1-14 and Giles Fraser's Comment is Free article This German circumcision ban is an affront to Jewish and Muslim identity.

UPDATE - 7 September 2012
BERLIN (AP) — Infant male circumcision for religious reasons is legal in Berlin, a top state official said Wednesday, making the capital the first of Germany's 16 states to specify that the ritual followed by Jews and Muslims shouldn't be considered a crime.

Given this news my address below given in July 2012 must be read in its light. 

Since most of my post graduate and interfaith work has been in the field of Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations, Giles Fraser's "Comment is Free" piece that we heard earlier spoke about an issue that is of great concern to me. The question facing me in writing this address was where on earth to start? I've decided the best place to begin is to pick up on one of Fraser's observation that 'one of the most familiar modern mistakes about faith is that it is something that goes on in your head.' To believe this is, he says, 'rubbish.' This address seeks to back up this claim and to encourage us to get our own faith (and, indeed, the faith of this local church) out of our heads and back into the world in the form of actual practices.

Part of the reason our Western European liberal culture and our own liberal church tradition as a whole is in the parlous state it is and that it has become possible to make the kind of legal decision that was made in Cologne last month (although it is important to see that this could easily have happened in other European countries - it's not just a German problem) is a general belief that the meaning of life can only be secured when a mature, individual mind comes to possesses intellectual knowledge of separate underlying (or overarching) essential pure and true ideas and theories about the world that, once discovered, are then capable of being attached to that same person's life and filling it with meaning.

In short we've be sold the idea that, on the one hand, there is life and, on the other, there is a separate intellectual realm of meaning (going on in our heads).

Fraser's contention and, of course, my own is that this is wholly the wrong way round. He and I are saying that meaning and worth only show up when we "acknowledge that we are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense" - that meaning dwells in the midst of life.

Here's an illustration which shows why failing to see this is so is deeply problematic. It comes courtesy of David Kishik. He begins by asking us to consider the thought that, here is a word and, over there, a meaning. He continues:

"To ask for the meaning of a word is like asking for the value of a 100 dollar bill. Yes, I might use this money in order to buy a cow, but this is not to say the cow corresponds to my money [nor, indeed, to any of the other things I might choose to spend my 100 dollars upon]. . . . In the same way that there is a multiplicity of things that I can use my money for, there are always different things that I can do with a single word: sometimes I call "cow" while pointing to it in order to teach my child the meaning of this word; sometimes I shout "cow" when driving with my wife in the car and suddenly I see a cow in the middle of the road; sometimes I say "cow" when the counterperson at the deli asks me whether I would like to buy cheese made from goat's milk or cow's milk; sometimes I whisper "cow" to a friend in a party while we glance at a person who is devouring all the hors d'oeuvre, and so on. Even though these examples seem to be so insignificant and mundane, or even profane, the meaning of the word "cow" cannot be separated from this multiplicity of uses." 

Kishik goes on to point out the connection with life itself: "When you live a life there are no 'meanings' that accompany your activities, like halos or shadows. The meaning of life is not going through your mind in addition to living itself. Living itself is the vehicle of the thought of life."

In sum, he says, "Meaning dwells in the midst of our life" (quotes above all come from Wittgenstein's Form of Life, Continuum, London 2012, pp. 61-62). In other words meaning is utterly commingled with the living of a life and what it is to live a life of meaning is always-already to be in a complex world of practices, a network of relationships and a history which mark us (we may even say scar us?) in all kinds of ways. This is as true for the atheist and humanist as it is for any religious person. In short you cannot cut meaning off from life and its practices nor life and its practices off from meaning in the same way you can cut off a foreskin.

Which thought returns me now to the matter of circumcision. What I want you to see - actually need you to see for the wider well-being of our world - is that it is not the case that there is circumcision here and its meaning there. The two are bound together in a phenomenally complex, embodied way.

The court in Cologne and our secular culture as a whole (I don't want this to be a finger pointing at Germany as it's a wider problem of liberal culture) could last month make the decision they did because they don't understand this primordial truth about what it is to be human. They think that true human meaning lies outside a lived life of practices and that this rationally accessible universally "true" world of meaning which they believe they have seen allows them to pontificate and say that circumcision:

'. . . "even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent". It ruled the child's body would be "permanently and irreparably changed", and that this alteration went "against the interests of a child to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong". The doctor was acquitted, the court said, because he had acted "subjectively and with a clear conscience" and because carrying out the procedure had not been punishable at the time.'


But this is to be throwing very large stones in a glass house because although one may be for or against circumcision for all kinds of reasons we must not fail to see that everyone is inside a world of embodied physical practices and networks of relationships and a history to which none of us ever gave formal consent and which, assuming that male circumcision does cause considerable bodily harm (which is not at all clear by the way - indeed I should say that I was circumcised for secular "health" reasons and can report zero problems or issues on my part), could also be said to harm us. Here's one example of what I mean that immediately springs immediately to my mind.

Many of us have come to feel (we would say that we "know") that drinking Coca-Cola or eating McDonald's' foods permanently and irreparably changes a child's body/brain chemistry in many ways and causes them (and adults) considerable bodily harm. However, many (quite probably the majority) in our culture would disagree with this and say that, on balance, the harm these products cause is outweighed by the overall pleasure and benefits it ultimately brings to a person and to contemporary society. Why else would these kinds of companies be deemed acceptable as sponsors of the Olympic Games - supposedly a centre piece of our modern, globalised neo-liberal culture?

Let me ask, are children in our culture generally required to be old enough to offer up consent before they eat and drink these products? No, because we live in a culture that, God help us, has developed a network of relationships and a history that finds meaning and worth in these products. About this most people have no choice.

Now I have to say that from within the form of life I live by it seems to me that there is a far better case for  banning Coca-Cola and McDonald's than there is for banning circumcision.

Introducing the example of Coca-Cola and McDonald's also helps us to see something about the other point made in the German court's judgement, namely that circumcision is "against the interests of a child to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong". Well, could it not be said that being forced to conform to the practices of a culture which, thanks to relentless advertising from birth teaches our children that its OK to drink Coca-Cola and eat McDonald's is, looked at another way, against the interests of a child to decide for himself later on to what kind of society he or she wishes to belong"?

The utter stupidity of the Cologne judgement lies in the court's members clear belief that, somehow, their culture (their network of relationships which includes those with companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald's) allows them to stand outside the world of their own practices and occupy a God-like view from nowhere and so gain a neutral, ethically pure and true knowledge which, at a certain age (is it 18 or 21?), a person is supposedly suddenly able access and to be able, in consequence to choose appropriately and, with perfect clarity, their religion and/or the kind of society they wish to live in and will "naturally" choose, say, against Judaism (and, therefore, circumcision) and for free market secular capitalism (and, therefore, Coca-Cola and McDonald's). Nonsense, utter, and very dangerous, nonsense.

Now I happen to think that there is much about Judaism, Islam and neo-liberal capitalism that I really dislike and would very much like to see changed - that I think *should* be changed. But then there is also much about my own Christian and Socialist traditions that I really don't like and would very like to see changed, indeed, that I think *should* be changed.

It seems to me that it is clear that there is a need for great changes and reforms to be made within Judaism, Christianity and Islam - and indeed within all religious traditions and philosophies including those particularly valued by present day secular capitalist cultures. But we will not bring about a healthy change in either ourselves or others if, without a second thought, we try to do this by imposing on others our own, potentially harmful practices via either the legislative hammer or the sheer brute force of neo-liberal capitalism.

I have great faith that the nation of Germany as a whole will overturn the decision of the Cologne court and will return to more reasoned and constructive dialogical ways of proceeding that will help us all, together, discern how we might best gift our children with healthy, meaningful and independent lives.


Yewtree said…
I think there is a difference between a circumcised penis and an uncircumcised one, in terms of sensitivity of the glans. But as a circumcision cannot be undone, few people have a basis for comparison (apart from men who have been circumcised in adulthood).

I do like your points about embodied practices and social context.

I definitely think that female circumcision (otherwise known as female genital mutilation, which is a more accurate term) should be banned, as it really is extremely harmful, but banning it is only the first step. It is illegal in the UK, but it still goes on, and people send their daughters to countries where it is not illegal to get it done. So the solution is re-education from within the cultures where it is practiced - but banning is a valuable first step.

I hope that the recent court-case in Germany has at least opened up the possibility of discussion on this, as I do think that male circumcision is harmful - though less harmful than female genital mutilation, which causes vaginal infections, total loss of sexual pleasure, and so on.

I do not think that just imposing a ban on such a deeply entrenched practice would even have any effect. It would just drive it underground and make the procedure less hygienic.