Thought for the Day by Adriaan van Klinken (All Hallows’)
Circumcision of the heart
In response to the HIV epidemic in Africa, male circumcision has been adopted as an effective method of prevention. It is understood to reduce the risk of HIV infection and transmission, because it removes tissue in the foreskin that is particularly vulnerable to the virus. But not everyone is in full support of this strategy. Some religious leaders have expressed their concern that circumcision, just like condoms, don’t do anything to address the ‘sexual immorality’ that they believe is causing the spread of HIV.
I once attended a youth service in a Pentecostal church in Lusaka, Zambia, where the youth pastor raised the subject. Halfway through his sermon, he shouted: ‘What we need is a new generation of circumcised men!’ He didn’t mean this literally, but metaphorically. He supported this with biblical texts (such as in Deuteronomy) that speak about a ‘circumcision of the heart’. From this, he derived a long list of sexual do’s and, mostly, don’ts – no sex before marriage, no sex outside marriage, no sex with anyone of the same gender, etc.
This pastor stands in a long tradition of a Christian struggle against ‘sexual immorality’ and the ‘desire of the flesh’, for instance reflected in the reading from Ephesians, and in Methodist preacher John Wesley’s famous 1733 sermon about the ‘Circumcision of the Heart’.
However, when the term is first used in Deuteronomy, it is not about sex at all. It is about God’s covenant with the people of Israel after they had been freed from slavery in Egypt and brought into the promised land. Male circumcision was the physical inscription of this covenant, and it needed to be accompanied by a ‘circumcision of the heart’. Thus, such circumcision is about the radical commitment to love and serve God with all our heart and soul. It is about loyalty to God and to God’s vision for life.
Perhaps Christians have been far too occupied with questions of sexual im/morality narrowly defined. Doing so, we lost sight of what it truly means to be ‘circumcised’, that is, to devote our lives to God’s promised land of freedom, justice and peace.