Monday, January 2, 2017

Video Review: "The Most Common Abuse in the American Church," posted by Little Images

by David Balashinsky

Little Images is a website and Facebook page that states that its missions is "Equipping the Church to treat children with dignity as bearers of God's image."  It further explains on its homepage that Little Images is about "Protecting babies from cutting by producing media, messaging Christians, writing letters, publishing articles, and providing research support."  Its cover photo (on its Facebook page) includes a picture of a smiling infant boy accompanied by this rhetorical question in a bold yet appealingly understated font:  "Why not keep God's design for your son intact?"

Little Images produced a video in which it sets forth numerous reasons why male genital mutilation goes against Christian theology and Christian ethics.  And it cites, in support of its thesis, a number of Christian philosophers and church leaders from Augustine of Hippo to Pope Pius the XIIth.

The video is well produced, polished, and powerful in its simplicity.   And yet I have several basic objections to it.

First, I believe that it seeks to obtain the right result but for the wrong reason. The right not to have one's body mutilated precedes religion. That right is more basic and more fundamental than any particular religious creed. If you ground the right not to be mutilated on a particular religious doctrine, then that right is not absolute and applies only to the followers of that particular religion. But religious beliefs and doctrines differ. That holds even in the case of exegesis when different denominations within a given religion differ over the interpretation of shared religious texts. And these interpretations also change over time. If, in one century, genital mutilation is considered unorthodox, what is to prevent its becoming orthodox in the next? Basic human rights should not be based upon so ephemeral and shaky a foundation as religious scripture or else they will have no permanence. 

Moreover, if the right not to be subjected to genital mutilation is based only on a particular religious doctrine, then any opposing religious doctrine that supports genital mutilation necessarily has just as much validity.  Thus, although the laudable objective of this video is to discourage genital mutilation, because its argument rests ultimately on "the word of God," its underlying thesis can be used for precisely the opposite purpose.  In other words, the premise of this video - that MGM is wrong not in and of itself but only because it is displeasing to God - can be turned to the advantage of any other religious group that seeks to defend and justify MGM on the grounds that it "is pleasing to God." I am unwilling that defenders of genital mutilation (of any religion) should have handed to them on a silver platter such a justification as that and that, I am afraid, is precisely what this video - as an unintended consequence, to be sure - may do.

My second objection is precisely the same objection that I have to the argument that a religious exemption should be added to laws banning MGM. As a Jewish male, that makes me feel like my rights don't matter as much as the rights of Christians. If I were an infant again, why should I not be protected against genital mutilation just as much as any other infant? What this video implies to me is that protecting non-Christian infants from genital mutilation is not quite as important - at least not as important to the creator of the Little Images video - and not as central to this cause as protecting Christian infants from genital mutilation. That makes me extremely uncomfortable. To understand this, look at pictures of the Bay Area Intactivists protests in front of the Northern California chapter of the ACLU. No one can look at a picture of Brian Levitt demonstrating against the NCACLU's support for MGM on the grounds of "religious freedom" and not be moved. Mr. Levitt is pictured holding up a sign that reads, "ACLU - Why won't you protect my Jewish body?" That is exactly how I feel personally and that is precisely my objection to the position of the ACLU. Although well–intentioned, the Little Images video, at least to some extent, makes me feel the same way. I object to the implicit exclusion of my right and the right of all non-Christian children to be free from genital mutilation. Moreover, I, as a Jewish man, am working to protect all children from genital mutilation: children of all sexes (including intersex), all nationalities, and all religions. I am not focusing my efforts on protecting only "my" people and I see no reason why Christians should focus their efforts on protecting only "theirs."

When Congress banned FGM in 1996, it specifically stated in text accompanying the statute that the finding of Congress was that the law did not infringe on the legitimate practice of religion. Congress recognized that the right not to be subjected to genital mutilation is absolute, hence more basic and of greater weight than the right of one's parents to exercise their religious beliefs when doing so entails the ritual genital mutilation of their children. What was so perverse and, I believe, unconstitutional about the language of this law is that it exempted 50% of the population - males - from this protection. The creator of this video, in contrast, has taken precisely the opposite tack, namely, that genital mutilation is wrong not in spite of religion but because of it. But, like the 1996 FGM law, this approach limits the protection of infants to only a certain segment of the population; it aims to protect some infants but not others. Here the distinction is based not upon sex but upon religion. It is almost as though the creator of this video is making a strategic calculation that not all children can be saved from genital mutilation and so she or he is concentrating her or his efforts on creating a figurative Christian sanctuary in which only Christian children may be protected from genital mutilation. Meanwhile, the doors of this sanctuary are effectively being slammed shut in the faces of non-Christian children. Although surely not its intent (at least, I hope not), that, at any rate, is how many non-Christians (and, perhaps, Christians, too) are likely to interpret this video.

I understand the urge to appeal to a particular audience - to tailor the message, so to speak - in order to increase the likelihood that one's target audience will be more receptive to one's message, but doing so comes, I believe, at the risk of what may ultimately prove to be a great cost to this movement. And this ties in with my first objection. Namely, that by appealing narrowly and specifically to Christians on the basis of Christian doctrine, the maker of this video is in effect conceding that genital autonomy is not a basic human right. But until the right not to be subjected to genital mutilation is recognized universally and absolutely as a basic human right without any exception whatsoever, the world will be condemned to live with it.


  1. As a non-Christian, I have other criticisms of the video. It speaks as if all Christians are of one mind (eg about abortion). It paraphrases some early writers rather loosely. And it fails to focus where it could most sharply focus (and thereby answer much of your criticism), on people who think that genital cutting is part of Christianity. St Paul is very clear, and he wrote it in the Greek Scriptures ("New Testament") which is an integral part of the Christian Bible, which the Christians they are addressing believe is God's word. It fails to give those relevant texts, notably, "...if you become circumcised, Christ is no value to you." (Gal 5:2)

  2. Thanks for your review of the video.

    Our goal is to stop the genital cuttting of children. Universal principles are important, but to the Christian, nothing precedes faith. To argue otherwise would be to produce a video that speaks to atheists.

    There are indeed certain progressive Christians that are not opposed to abortion, but this is not true of universal Christian teaching. Just as there are certain Christians opposed to, say, the Trinity, but that's not Christian teaching. Theologically progressive Christians are a less important target for a video like this because they tend to evaluate decisions like this from secular viewpoints.

    I'm also curious as to which writers Hugh believes are paraphrased loosely. The video includes translated German, Latin, and Italian quotes, and they're perfectly fine. Perhaps he is thinking of similar but different statements. In additions, the video is clear that Christians do not circumcise, and Galatians 5 is directly mentioned. Galatians 5:2 is an issue for another comment.

    But back to the main point: arguing that genital integrity is a human right is the goal. It is the ultimate, pure answer to our problem here, as it transcends worldviews and faiths. It is universal.

    But until that point can be reached, we are interested in stopping millions of circumcisions that could not be stopped with that argument. Intactivism has not reached American Christians very effectively for many decades, partly because it expects them to think outside of the Christian worldview. But the Christian worldview itself has plenty of reasons not to circumcise, chiefly God's wisdom in design (whether we speak of a creationist or evolutionist Christian). This is a simple, straightforward, effective argument with people of Christian faith.

    Then the next generation will be more receptive to the right to genital integrity argument, as we have already seen evidence of – and there will be much less circumcision trauma among them, because we were able to speak to their parents in ways that made sense to them.

    1. {Part 2 of my reply}

      I am also not convinced that, in our increasingly secular society, every person who self-identifies as Christian places faith before reason and Christian doctrine before universally accepted notions of basic human rights. I simply do not believe that the majority of American Christians are fundamentalists and literalists. Thus, while I understand that you are tailoring your approach for Christians, I wonder whether that segment of American Christians who might be persuaded by your video on theological grounds isn't in fact much smaller than you might suppose. I would hazard the guess - I don't pretend to know this as fact - that the majority of self-identified Christians who subject their infants to genital mutilation do not do so because they believe it to be pleasing to God or sanctioned necessarily by the New Testament. I think they do it for the reasons that most Americans - of any religion or no religion - do it: because it is a cultural norm and because the medical profession pushes it. After all, my parents were both atheists and I was subjected to genital mutilation. I'm sure that if we could ask them, the reasons that my parents would give for having subjected me to this would coincide far more than they would differ from the reasons that Christian American parents give for subjecting their sons to genital mutilation. In other words, I think that it is a stretch to suppose that most Christians who subject their children to MGM do so for reasons having anything whatsoever to do with their Christianity. Precisely for that reason they are probably unlikely to be moved by Christian theological arguments against genital mutilation. After all, how many Christians in the United States who call themselves Christian really follow Christ's teachings? Jesus exhorted his followers to turn the other cheek, and Christians are by far the overwhelming majority religion here in the United States. Yet there are more guns per capita and more deaths by gun violence by far in the United States than any other nation on Earth. Are all these acts of violence by Christians really evidence that they are strictly following Jesus's precept not to engage in violence even when in self defense? What about loving thy neighbor? Just under half the electorate (by about 3 million, actually) recently voted for a candidate who built his entire campaign on explicitly un-Christian policies and principles. At the end of the day, Christians - like everyone else of every other religion who is not an ascetic and strictly orthodox - tend to find a way for their religious beliefs to accommodate their lifestyle choices, their political beliefs, and their narrow self-interest. So getting American Christians to turn away from genital mutilation simply because it conflicts with the letter and the spirit of the teachings of Jesus may prove to be a very heavy lift indeed. Genital mutilation is only one of numerous things that American Christians do that conflict with Christianity. I do not want to throw cold water on your efforts but if American Christians cannot be persuaded to forswear the many other things that they do that are not sanctioned by the New Testament, why do you suppose you will have any better luck getting them to abandon genital mutilation? As George Bernard Shaw said, "Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it." Religion may in some ways be a powerful force for good: even I, an atheist, can concede that much. But if religion and especially - since this is what we are speaking about here - Christianity has yet to conquer war, violence, racial hatred, profiteering, sexual abuse and exploitation and the many other abominations that humans commit against one another (and animals), why do imagine that it will fare any better against genital mutilation?

    2. {Part 1 of my reply}

      All good points, Peter, and persuasively argued.

      But what of the efforts by Jews to stop other Jews from subjecting their infants to genital mutilation? Or of Muslims to stop other Muslims from subjecting their sons and daughters to genital mutilation? From the point of view of pure numbers, worldwide, vastly more Muslims than Christians are subjected to MGM. (Muslims, of course, are a minority here and Jews, being about 1.4% of the population of the United States barely register a blip on the radar.) But, to repeat, if "the word of God" is to be the sole authority on this topic, all that religious Jews or Muslims in the United States who insist on perpetuating MGM (and FGM) have to do is point to scripture for their justification. If you can invoke scripture to oppose genital mutilation, they are equally entitled to invoke scripture to defend it. And they will have every right to point to videos such as this and claim, "Christians aren't against circumcision per se; they are only against circumcising Christians. Why is it okay for them to practice their religion in their way but not okay for us to practice our religion in our way?" Hence my concern that an approach such as this that is tailored to a particular religion and that opposes MGM on religious grounds can backfire because it can be used to undermine the more fundamental principle that no one has the right to impose her or his religious beliefs on another human being when doing so harms that other human being, including when that other human being is one's child. That is the danger that I see in this approach, even if it is just a halfway step toward the ultimate goal of eliminating MGM completely.

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  4. {Part 3 of my reply}

    A final point: Christian doctrine notwithstanding, we live under the laws of an explicitly secular constitution. The Supreme Court has found numerous times that the First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion is not an unlimited right. If it were, ritual sacrifice would find a safe harbor within the First Amendment. Thus, even for Christians for whom faith precedes all else, the constitution and the laws of the United States say otherwise. We are a nation of laws and a person's religious beliefs do not exempt him or her from having to follow those laws, particularly when those laws exist to protect other people, including children. As it happens, the constitution already embodies numerous well established principles of universal human rights. For this reason as well as all the others that I have given, I maintain that, both strategically and philosophically, the most compelling case against genital mutilation rests on a foundation of common law, constitutional guarantees of equal protection, due process and civil rights, and universal human rights as articulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Like most advances in human civilization, genital mutilation will end not because of religion but in spite of it.