Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I don't really want to talk about this, but...

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Chicago. I used some of my continuing education time to take a preaching and pastoral class back at my seminary.

Besides learning a lot about wedding and funeral sermons, I also got to visit with some dear friends and walk around my old neighborhood—the Hyde Park community around the University of Chicago. I walked near 58th and Ellis—near the medical school—and I saw him. As I had done several times a week during the three years I lived there, I crossed the street early so I would not have to talk to him, or risk making eye contact or getting handed one of his pamphlets.

With his white hair and white beard, this jolly middle-aged man could pass for Santa Claus. But he’s not. In my mind, I think of him as the Circumcision Guy. For at least five years, he has been on that corner in front of the hospital almost every day with his picket signs protesting circumcision. He describes it as genital mutilation. Apparently the U of C Hospitals circumcise about 80 percent of newborn boys, when the national average in about half.

You might be wondering, “Why is Paul blogging about this?”

This weekend, the assigned 2nd Lesson is from Galatians 2:15-21 and is part of a larger controversy about circumcision. It’s actually not about circumcision, but is about whether one must follow the Jewish Torah in order to be Christian. Circumcision is just the most visible sign of the law. I love this passage from Galatians because it so clearly talks about grace and the idea that Christ lives in us, but it’s difficult to have a complete exegetical discussion about Galatians without talking about circumcision. I don’t feel comfortable doing that in a sermon, lest a little kid asks their parent after church, “Mommy, what’s circumcision?” I figure the blog is a better forum for this conversation. I’ll likely focus on the Gospel text from Luke for this Sunday.

Just before Sunday’s lesson begins, in verse 11 Paul describes a conflict with Cephas, where Cephas kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. In Chicago, I crossed the street early to avoid talking to a representative of a very different, but equally fervent circumcision faction.

These pro-circumcision folks (sometimes called Judaizers, but I think that term seems a bit politically charged these days) have infiltrated the community of Galatian Jesus-followers. The argue that one has to follow Jewish law in order to become Christian. Paul does not tolerate this preaching at all. “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” he asks in 3:1.

What we learn from this Galatian situation is that there is only one message that can be tolerated—God’s grace. We don’t need to be circumcised, avoid pork, or do anything to receive God’s grace. This is very good news. I pray that I could be as ardent and passionate in sharing this message as the Circumcision Guy is about his.


  1. Hi Paul, It's me, the "circumcision guy", though I would rather be known as the "foreskin guy". My name is Dan Strandjord and you may well have met my cousin, Jonathon Strandjord, who is the Director of Theological Education for the ELCA. I was raised Lutheran. Next time you are in Chicago, come talk to me. I promise not to shout at you. p.s. My 7th year of protesting will begin next week.

  2. Dan, I understand that you feel the need to protest circumcision. I don't agree as I do not feel that one HAS to be circumcised, but should be.
    And Pastor Paul, I cannot believe you crossed the street but then again you are always surprising me. I never for one minute believe that you are not as fervent and passionate as Dan in his beliefs, that Grace is the answer.

  3. Dan, thanks for your comments. Accept my apologies for thinking of you as the "circumsion guy." In recent years, Lutherans haven't always been the best at talking about things that make us uncomfortable, foreskin included.

  4. Jackie, I have no problem with an adult deciding to have their own body cut. What I object to is cutting the body of a child. No national or international medical organization in the world recommends infant circumcision. No other country in the world circumcises the majority of their infant boys without claiming religion as the justification. Western Christianity has always rejected circumcision. The circumcision rate in the U.S. is now about 55% (Texas was 49% in 2008). The U of Chicago circumcises 80%. The majority of hospitals in Chicago cut less than 33%. What makes you believe that a person should be circumcised?

  5. Christianity and Circumcision: A Call to Christian Action

  6. Dan, I am happy we are having this conversation, even tho it isn't one that I expected to be involved with, at least until I responded to your earlier statement. So pleased to get to know you even if it is in cyberspace. I cannot match you with facts, figures, data and the like, so let's just say that with my faith, my lifetime of learning, working at a medical school in OB/GYN for eight years, I have always believed and even more so now believe that SHOULD is the correct response over HAVE to have done. Peace.

  7. Jackie,
    ACOG (American College of OBs and GYNs) does not recommend infant circumcision.
    No national or international medical organization in the world recommends it. Ask yourself why, after 140 years of American doctors performing male circumcisions, that no professional medical organization in the world endorses it. Most medical organizations discourage it. The Dutch national medical organization just came out last month with a policy saying that even religious circumcisions should stop. I would be happy to email you a PDF of their official English translation of the policy statement.

    Female circumcision was practiced by American doctors for over 100 years. Look up "Orificial Surgery Society" which started in 1890 (it was based here in Chicago). Now, if anyone does any cutting on the healthy, normal, genitals of females under age 18, they go to jail. This is a basic Human Rights issue.

    Every mammal, male and female, is normally born with a foreskin. It is not a design defect. Does it really make sense that the only healthy, normal, newborn animal in the world in need of immediate surgical correction is the human male, especially if he is born in America? Please look at for links to the circumcision policy statements of medical organizations around the world.

    As for Paster Paul, his reaction to my protest is quite typical of circumcised men. What man wants to know he is missing something good from his penis? Circumcised men usually try to ignore me and turn their head away when they pass by. Intact men come up to me (most of them are foreign born students here at the U of Chicago) and tell me they cannot understand why Americans cut their boys. Americans often think that a circumcised penis is a "normal" penis. It is not "normal", it is "common" here in the U.S.

    Jewish circumcision was a blood sacrifice to God. The Old Testament is full of blood sacrifices to God. Christianity did away with blood sacrifices saying that Jesus shed blood and died so that no one else should have to suffer. Christians baptize and include little girls in this new covenent which is that faith in Jesus Christ will bring us salvation.

    Americans have been raised with the belief that circumcision is good and even necessary. It is difficult to question beliefs that are so ingrained in our culture. However, circumcision is not ingrained in Christianity and not recommended by medical science. It is time to respect our natural bodies. Who are we to question/challenge God's design?

  8. Even though you are Lutheran, you will find some valuable information at
    The Protestant reformation did not change the Roman Catholic teachings on circumcision.