In my youth, I used to hear people say, when looking upon the abused and destitute of this world: “There but for the grace of god go I.” Which always sounded to me like another way of saying: “There and by the curse of god go they.” The concept of omniscient omnipotence, whether of the all-knowing, all-powerful invisible super-parent or the all-seeing, all-controlling totalitarian state, carries with it the implication of responsibility for all the good and evil that happens on earth — or the utter indifference to both. I always thought that the latter alternative made the most logical sense, given the evidence that I could see. And whenever I heard people say: “God helps those who help themselves,” I immediately understood the message to the working-class: “God says you’re on your own.” So I never thought much about “gods” from about the time I learned to read and think for myself.
For example: my Lutheran mother gave me a bible on December 25, 1959, and encouraged me to read it. Only twelve years old at the time, I never got further than Chapter 17 of the Book of Genesis. I found it incredible that a ninety-nine year old man would “fall down on his face” – twice – before the awful specter of an invisible something-or-other that promised to add a syllable to his name, making him A-bra-ham instead of just A-bram. Not only that, but the awful invisible specter granted the old guy and his descendants eternal title to some land on condition that he slice some skin off the end of his penis and off the penises of his sons (which his ninety-year-old wife would soon present to him), and their male children’s penises, and the penises of all their male slaves, and so on and so forth. I think I counted something like eight or nine references to circumcision just in that one little chapter.
It occurred to me to wonder why the awful invisible specter would create males with foreskins on their penises only to then insist that they slice them off. I asked my mother but she found the whole subject embarrassing. Many years later when I had to visit a military hospital in Vietnam (to have one of my fingers x-rayed for a possible fracture) I passed by the ward where the circumcision and hemorrhoid patients recuperated from their surgeries. Some of the poor guys couldn’t stand up and some of them couldn’t sit down. I thought about that bible that my mother had given me and tried as best I could not to burst out laughing and crying at the same time.
Looking back, I can see now that as a junior high school student, I probably put aside the bible and religion as sources of reliable information about the time my mother gave me another book to read: Language in Action, by S. I. Hayakawa. Mom had gotten the book from a well-educated friend and probably wanted to discuss it with him, but as a working widow who never graduated from high school, mom no doubt wanted to practice on me first. She had a pronounced tendency to do that sort of thing with her oldest son. I sure miss my mom. Anyway, Hayakawa’s book introduced me to Alfred Korzybski, general semantics, and a bibliography of many fine books that I went on to acquire and read throughout the years that followed. I learned to ask: “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?” I also learned that “No word ever means the same thing twice.” In short, I found asking questions more interesting than uncritically accepting “answers” handed down through the generations that to me sounded like utter – and often, barbaric – nonsense.
Which brings me back to the lesson in Free Thinking which I learned from that early bizarre encounter with Theological Circumcision filtered through the viewpoint of general semantics. I wondered: “Does god have a foreskin on his penis?” I posed this philosophical question because I had heard people say that “god made man in his own image,” and therefore, I reasoned, if man has a foreskin on his penis then so does god. But god had commanded a very old man lying face down on the ground to slice the foreskin off his penis. But that would then make the old man something other than the image of god. On the other hand, if god did not have a foreskin on his penis, then he screwed up when he created an old man who did. This led me to suspect that god only commanded the old man to mutilate his own genitalia (and those of subsequent generations of males) as a means of absolving god for getting that “spitting image” creation thing wrong – generation after generation after generation.
At any rate, moving on to the practical political ramifications of Theological Circumcision, it only makes sense for Christian Americans to admit that since Muslims also slice off the foreskins of their male children and trace their ancestry back to the same ninety-nine-year-old man who fell down on his face and got a syllable added to his name for mutilating his own genitalia, then the Muslims have the same title to the land of Palestine as do the Jews or any other males for that matter – including Australian aborigines — who have had the foreskins of their penises circumcised. It says so right there in the Old Testament of the Christian bible. And who can argue with something as authoritative as that?
Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran, writer and poet, occupies the Asian Desk for The Contrary Perspective.