Recently, my colleague (I’ll call him Ben) participated in his grandson’s bris—the circumcision ritual within Jewish tradition. The circumcision was performed by a mohel–someone who is trained on removing the foreskin of an eight-day-old, male child.
Neither Ben nor his wife is Jewish. Their son converted to Judaism when he married a Jewish woman whose family celebrates the birth ritual with a host of traditions. One of those traditions dictates that the immediate family members, upon news of the baby’s imminent birth, gather together in, or around the vicinity of, the new family’s home in order to welcome the child into the world.
So Ben rushed to his son and daughter-in-law’s home a couple of states away shortly after the baby boy’s birth, staying until after the circumcision ceremony where Ben had the official role of conferring on the newborn his Jewish name.
Ben doesn’t believe in circumcising infants—not even under the rubric of a religious ritual. Why do people partake in a ritual begun by desert people three thousand years ago? Does that really have anything to do with us today? But, he noted, “I was complicit in the performance of something that I am against.”
Why is it that in the name of religion, we perpetuate practices and ways of being in the world that we would not tolerate in other aspects of our lives?
Chelsea Shields, a young Mormon woman, addresses the question of accepting things in our religious lives that we shun in areas of our lives we label secular. She speaks eloquently in this Ted Talk:
Chelsea specifically discusses gender inequality within her faith tradition, noting that for three decades she gave her church a “pass” when it came to gender discrimination. Women are barred from the priesthood, excluded from many leadership positions within the church, and expected to marry and bear children. In spite of her disagreement with church doctrine and policy, Chelsea remains within her faith tradition because she loves her community, for one, and wants to effect change within the tradition, noting that those who tip the scales towards justice within an institution are never the ones in charge.
Chelsea asks a poignant question: “How do we respect someone’s religious beliefs while still holding them accountable for the harm or damage that those beliefs may cause others?”
This is an interesting question. I believe Chelsea is saying that religious people merit respect, but this carte blanche we (both individually and collectively) give those who use religion as an impenetrable shield and then absolve themselves from responsibility and accountability for any damage, is problematic.
Chelsea admits she doesn’t put up with gender discrimination (such as she experiences within the Mormon Church) in the secular world. Her question concerns people and institutions perpetuating injustice in the name of God and/or tradition—unjust practices we would not tolerate anywhere else but under the rubric of religion. Is religion our sacred cow?
Ben and Chelsea both critique particular religious rituals and practices, albeit from different perspectives. Ben is an outsider to his children’s faith tradition, yet gave tacit approval to an ancient ritual, participating in a ceremony that caused pain and suffering to an eight-day-old infant. Chelsea has insider status within Mormonism, striving these days to reform practices in her church that cause harm and damage to countless women. For years, though, she upheld and defended those practices as right and good BECAUSE they came from a religious perspective.
Culture is fluid. What we consider to be good and proper at any given historical juncture is often tossed aside years later and labelled bad and improper. Many religious people in 19th century America, steeped in their Christian tradition, were anti-abolitionist, firmly believing slavery to be ordained by God and therefore a practice to uphold.
“Genesis 9:18–29 has been popularly understood to mean that Ham was cursed and this understanding has often been used to justify oppression of African people, the descendants of Ham. In this view Ham offended his father, Noah, and because of this his descendants are also cursed, and Ham is presented as the father of African people” (American Bible Society website).
Abolitionists often had to hide or run for their lives because they dared to go against the grain of established religion and tradition. To go against the institution of slavery was to go against the will of God. Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes, and most people today are at least ideologically opposed to the institution of slavery.
Why does it take us so long to bring about justice in our world? Why do we put up with disrespect and cruelty, often looking the other way—especially if there is a religious argument swirling around the injustice? There are many examples, but today I’m thinking about the cruel and inhumane agricultural business. We know sentient beings (pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens) suffer horrible lives and deaths while bred and exploited in captivity, yet just like we supported the institution of slavery, we continue to support the barbaric agricultural business.
The first Biblical creation story has been used to justify human domination of the natural world. “God said to them [male and female], ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1: 28). The word “dominion” often is understood to mean, “I can do whatever I please with creation. It’s mine.”
How do we interact with religious people convinced they are right, yet caught up in the destructive cultural mores and habits of their time? How do we convey respect? Furthermore, how do any of us ever begin to see and understand differently—more justly? When we do, yet encounter resistance—even hostility—to the enactment of policies and laws that breathe justice, how do we not die a little daily?
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.