* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

God Told You to Cut Off What Part of My Anatomy Exactly?: Circumcision and the Need to Belong in Genesis 17

Nearly everyone has done something at some point in time to be a part of a special group of people.  A person might shop at particular stores, wear a particular style of clothing, take up particular hobbies, listen to particular music, or hang out in particular places because of a desire to be identified as part of a subculture.  People join fraternities or sororities in college, or they may join a fraternal organization later on in life, because on some level they want a place to belong.  There is, I believe, a deep-seated need to seek out and discover one's place in the grand scheme of things, and there are many benefits that come from being a part of a larger group.  Gang culture wouldn't be so compelling otherwise.

One factor that sometimes accompanies belonging to a group is the clear distinction that one does not belong to a different group.  One only needs to belong to one fraternity, and there is a certain amount of pride that accompanies wearing those particular Greek letters.  Likewise, if one is a Crip, then one cannot also be a Blood.  One might avoid wearing red altogether, not just because blue clothing signifies where one belongs, but also because it clearly identifies who the "better" people are.

So competition kicks in on some level when we are finding our group.  There is some "survival" value to this competition.  If one identifies with people who work in a particular industry, one may be more or less likely to have consistent employment.  Belonging to a "better" group could lead to opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be available.  At the most basic level, actual survival may even be on the line.  This was at least the case thousands of years ago, although most people didn't have much of a choice about the tribe to which they belonged.

Many groups have initiation rites that members must undergo.  This "proves" the candidate's level of commitment to the group on a certain level, but more importantly it solidifies a personal sense of belonging with a powerful experience.  Christians may be baptized into the church fellowship, Freemasons may undergo a series of initiations into different levels of the group's hierarchy, and a white nationalist may shave his head and get a swastika tattoo.  So, some of the initiation procedures into a group leave a mark by which other people can identify a person, but many times the rites leave a much deeper mark on the psyche of the individual, allowing them to claim with some certainty, "I am ___________."

In Genesis 17, God supposedly tells Abraham that the mark by which his people will be known involves the removal of foreskin.  Circumcision has meant different things to different cultures.  In ancient Egypt, it was simply a rite of passage into adulthood, granting a young man the ability to learn mysteries that were not accessible to children.  The initiated would then learn stories, rites, and prayers intrinsic to the religion of the culture at the time.  For the Jewish people in biblical times, circumcision was a demonstration of obedience to God, which ultimately meant obedience to religious and community leaders.

In fact, the uncircumcised were literally cut off from the spiritual practices of the community.  In no uncertain terms, they knew they were not a part of the in-crowd.  Of course, this practice of enforcing identity with the group went beyond any hazing on a college campus.  Circumcision was seen as a matter of purity.  To be uncircumcised was to be impure.  Not just excluded from a group of people, but excluded from favor with the divine.  In other words, it was a very effective tool for control.

By now, many people have heard stories or seen movies about how difficult it is to extract oneself from a group.  Whether it's the mob or a street gang or a cult, leaving is not easy.  Even if one is allowed to break off ties easily, there is a void that some may find unbearable.  A person who has broken off from a group no longer has a place of belonging, no longer fits anywhere, no longer has the same easy of identity.  And the more intense the rites of inclusions, the deeper the void may feel.

It is not at all uncommon to want to belong somewhere, to want a place where one is accepted as part of the group.  That feels safe.  It satisfies a deep-seated need.  I don't know of many groups, however, that do not in some way look down upon others who do not belong, whether they be people who belong somewhere else or people who don't seem to belong anywhere.  It becomes one more Us vs. Them.  "We belong to the chosen people." Therefore everyone else is obviously not chosen, or essentially worthless.  So, identifying with one group automatically tells us which other groups we can ignore, abuse, or generally devalue.

The trick might be to recognize one's place in the world based on one's capability and passion rather than what kind of initiation one is willing to undergo.  Not that everyone has a choice about what is done to their body, especially as a young child, but we do all have choices later on in life about the kinds of associations we make.  We ultimately get to choose where we belong.  Recognizing oneself as a unique human being who still shares an incredible wealth of characteristics with the totality of the human race can put things in a much healthier perspective than the idea of being part of a chosen few.  People wind up doing things that would otherwise be unthinkable, all because of their affiliation with a particular group.  Things like committing violence against other people when there could be countless other ways of handling an issue.

The bottom line is that wanting to belong is natural, but rites and marks that set one group apart also identify the outsiders.  And "outsiders" is a strange word to use for the people with whom we share this planet.  It's time that we stop looking for ways to belong by blindly following what other people tell us is right.  We have a place in reality, every last one of us, and that place is determined by what we are willing and able to create, not by what we are willing to endure.  No group is better than any other group.  We are people.  We are all people.  Foreskins or not. 

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