Circumcision, you say? Why not go one further and cut your whole **** off!


animal with scissors

Note: this post assumes that most biblical translations are correct. That said, the KJV interprets Galatians 5:12 without specifying anything to be “cut off” except “themselves” (i.e., those who insist on circumcision). Either way, Paul’s choice of words here reflects the subject in question. For further reading on why Paul may or may not be telling his opponents to emasculate themselves, see this document and this article. If the translations that point to emasculation are wrong, then so is my post (at least from a literary standpoint). But maybe I can still contribute to the ongoing debate. Happy reading.

A Defense of Shocking Satire

“No dark sarcasm in the classroom!” – Pink Floyd

Within the community of believers (I shun the term “Christianity” because of its vast connotations), I’ve noticed a crippling and unwarranted dread of satire. Perhaps I’m imagining things, but I don’t think I am. Yes, we should detest Swift’s modest proposal of cannibalism just as we should detest C.S. Lewis’ “Saracen’s Head” on a pedestal. But we should also detest what these things deride. That is what satire is all about.

That being said, I once wrote a bit of chilling satire for one of my lit classes. That night, in a dream, the Holy Spirit rebuked me by dropping me in the disturbing scenario I had created in my poem. The next morning, I asked him whether he thought his manner of instruction wasn’t too extreme. “Isn’t yours?” he replied. Suffice it to say, I’ve never written anything like it since. So, I am aware of lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

But perhaps a central question remains: is shocking satire ever appropriate for those of us who aspire to whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy? Well, let’s take a look at what Paul (the man I just paraphrased) has to say when he feels like being sarcastic:

“As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12, NIV). This is an apostle of Christ saying in no uncertain terms, “I wish those bunch of hypocrites would just go ahead and cut their Johnsons off!” Or if we’re going with the KJV translation, at the very least he is saying, “I wish they would cut themselves off from you just as they demand you cut away [fill in the blank] from your own flesh.”

Many people, Christians and non, are probably familiar with the above passage. I paraphrase the verse to show that 1) it could be a good example of sharp, grotesque satire in scripture and 2) an example of good satire, period. While I’ve read the passage many times, it dawned on me that Paul’s language would be seen as inappropriate if used today among Church-folk in the way that he used it then.

But is it inappropriate? Or is it exactly what needs to be said?

If you know me, you’ve probably guessed my opinion—the nasty image is not only proper but excellent. But if we want to find out why the verse’s grotesque flavor is justified given the circumstances of Paul’s letter, then we need to answer for ourselves two questions:

  1. What makes it satire?
  2. What makes it good (appropriate, effective, and memorable)?

Because of the way my brain works, I find it helpful to work from big ideas to smaller ones (and back to big again) when analyzing a text, so I’ll start by looking at the passage in a bit of context (or as much context as a non-historian can offer). Does Paul really wish that the men insisting on circumcision would cut off their private parts? Or is he using vivid, graphic imagery to make a point?

If Paul is anything like me (and I admit that’s a far-fetched assumption), then I’d say it’s probably a bit of both. 🙂

But really, what is the point of such a crude image? Let’s not kid ourselves: the image conveyed in Paul’s words is nothing you or I would ever want to see played out (though I can only speak for myself). Still, we can discern that Paul felt this specific imagery was necessary to convey just how frustrated he was with teachers working against the message he had fought for—a message I believe was at the heart of his ministry: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).

By the time Paul writes this letter, he has laid a lot of foundational work with the church in Galatia.[1] But now, other teachers have come along and are insisting on ancient ordinances that, to Paul, just don’t matter. Not only do these ordinances not matter, they are direct threats to the message of grace he tirelessly promotes.  If you disagree with this, I can only stress again the passage quoted above, “The only thing that counts…” Take this exegesis with all the salt you need.

Perhaps we can at least agree that Paul is frustrated with these teachers (“Hey, teachers! Leave those kids alone!”). Knowing this, let’s take a punch at the first question we began with: what makes the passage satirical? Most definitions of the word “satire” focus on elements like irony and sarcasm, but another element and one that applies here is exaggeration. Also, in order for satire to be satire, it has to be directed at a person or a group of people and it must be a form of written or verbal criticism. Let’s see if Paul’s wish fits the satirical model:

  1. The idea of “going the whole way” exaggerates circumcision itself.
  2. Paul exaggerates his annoyance with the circumcision debate by suggesting these teachers “cut themselves off” (and thus end the debate).
  3. He is calling these men out—rebuking them—for demanding holiness through outward practices.
  4. And since we can only hope Paul didn’t really want his adversaries to mutilate themselves any more than he really believed sorcery was the problem when he asked the Galatians who had “bewitched” them (it was Lord Voldemort!), we could assume he is also being sarcastic (even though he says “really”).

But it also turns out that Paul is being ironical. In his letters, purity and abstinence come up a few times. And while he insists that marriage is better than burning with passion, he also wishes we could be unmarried like him (note: I do not share his wish, but I do abstain from any guilt in not sharing it). 🙂

Now, here’s the irony as I see it: Paul knows that those who demand circumcision as a requirement of the Law and as a requirement for salvation are doing so because, among other things, they want to pursue holiness (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here). “But,” thinks Paul, “if they really want to be holy, why don’t they just turn themselves into eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom?” Of course, he knows they’ll never do this—they will go on procreating with their wives, as they should.

And so Paul draws attention to what Christ taught: holiness begins with the heart and its orientation first toward God and second toward humanity. The outward actions that manifest as a result of this orientation are true, holy actions. Hence, the weird but prophetic metaphor of a circumcised heart that runs throughout scripture, including the “old” Law: “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deut. 30:6).

Interesting that love toward God is the end-goal of this weird circumcision of the heart, just as faith expressing itself through love is the end-goal of Paul’s message to the Galatians. Really, any message that persuades people to deviate from the simplicity found in loving God and loving people deserves to be satirized.

But we still haven’t answered our question: is there ever a time for grotesque satire in literature? In film? In art, music, television? On Sunday morning from the pulpit? Well, I guess it all depends on the context. Let me put it this way: if I had invested my life and career in making sure people took hold of a single truth, only to find other teachers disrupting and confusing what I had taught—I’d tell those teachers to go do a lot more than castrate themselves. And since I’m creative, I’d probably do it in an underhanded way, like insert it into one of my YouTube videos or put it in a blog post and plaster it all over Facebook.

But then, I’m no saint. 😉

What’s the point here? Paul used crude satire in his language to express his frustration and to call out his opponents for their ignorant practices. What’s more, Paul’s frustration with people turning from the faith that expresses itself through love is the same frustration Yahweh exhibits throughout the Old Testament every time his people drift from his commandments. So, if you were to ask me, I’d tell you that shocking satire does have its place whenever people need a good jolt.

I’ve already mentioned the dream in which the Holy Spirit rebuked me—I needed to experience a bit of my own shocking satire so that I could be freed from a wrong way of thinking. Would it have been better if I had discerned correctly to begin with and had never needed the rebuke? Yes! And if the people of God had kept his commands, the Prophets would’ve been out of a job….

Like many of the hard-to-digest images in scripture and like many similar images in literature outside of the Bible, the image Paul uses is brazen, crude, and inappropriate for young audiences. And yet, it’s there, plain as the paper it’s printed on. But it’s more than just “there.”

  1. It is appropriate for its intended audience because, for Paul, the circumcision debate was supposed to have been settled at the Jerusalem council and by this point he was fed up with its resurgence.
  2. It is effective to stir up critical thought and point people toward what matters: faith expressing itself through love.
  3. It is memorable because it outlasts its context, stirs us up, and compels us to push the limits of any “religious” barriers that enclose our modes of discourse while reminding us to shed any prejudices we might harbor toward the grittier side of literary expression.

Above all, it is good-old-fashioned satire. And it’s in your Bible.

***

Something not quite right? Let me know: leave a polite, intelligent comment and I’ll refer readers to you.

[1] I think at least this much can be gleaned from the letter without digging too far into outside historical material

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A New Way of Being


“If you want to see what it looks like for God’s renewed people in Christ to be ‘royal,’ to be ‘rulers’ in the sense indicated by the vocation to be a ‘royal priesthood,’ don’t look at the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Roman emperors first became Christian. That raises questions and challenges at other levels, but to begin there would be to miss the point. Look, instead, at what the church was doing in the first two or three centuries, while being persecuted and harried by the authorities—and announcing to the whole world that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah of Israel, was its rightful Lord. That is what it means to be ‘rulers’ in the sense we’re discussing here: to be agents of that King’s reign, the reign of the Prince of Peace, the one through whom tyranny itself (not to mention any individual tyrants) was overthrown with the destruction of its most vital weapon—namely, death—and the one through whom therefore was brought to birth a new world in which order and freedom at last meet.” – N. T. Wright, After You Believe

————

Some of you will like what I am about to say; many of you will not; a few of you may quit reading it halfway through. I realize that, in sharing my heart on these matters, it is possible that I am setting myself up to be pitied by some and ridiculed by others. Even so, I ask that you consider what follows with an inquiring mind. Do not take my word for anything I write, but seek the scriptures and Holy Spirit regarding the things I am putting forth. If Holy Spirit leads you to different conclusions, then I am eager to hear from you. I should add that I have not read the Bible cover to cover (as many people older and wiser than I am have done) and on that basis I question my capacity to make a case for anything written in it. Yet, as you can see, I do not question it so far as to stop writing….

In Christ we find a new way of being that challenges us to put to death the old human (Rom. 6) and to become bearers of His image. At present, I cannot see the need for any revelation, doctrine, or prophecy that does not point me toward this goal. Anything beyond this—beyond eagerly awaiting by faith and “through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope” (Gal. 5:5, NIV)—is irrelevant to those who wish to establish Christ’s kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. If the “only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6), then I get the feeling that I may have spent the past twenty years or more being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14). If this is not true for you, then I simply ask that you bear with me a while longer.

Through Christ, “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed” to each of us (Acts 13.38), but this extension of grace should not be misunderstood. While it provides us with a direct link to the Father, it does not allow us to justify our sin, mistreatment of others, verbal abuse, or manipulation (e.g., threatening someone if they act contrary to our wishes). Should we “go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Rom. 6:1). Rather, the promise and the purpose of being baptized into the life of Christ is that “we too may live a new life” (6:4). Put another way, in Christ we find a way of being that does not allow us to excuse behaviors that lead to sin, the most common being “jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions” (Gal. 5:20). Among these, I have seen fits of rage and selfish ambition justified under the pretense of respecting leadership. Do I plead guilty to this kind of behavior? Without question. But I hope I never again justify these behaviors in myself or in another. And if you justify these things because of all the good you or another person have done, then you oppose the renewing power of Christ and his holy spirit.

Now, you who are led by the Spirit and therefore not under the law (Gal. 5:18), consider first what it means to be led by the Spirit of Him who raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 8:11). Why are you not under the law? What does this mean? Surely it implies that legalism is old-fashioned and that it is much more fulfilling to be yourself, to do what comes naturally, and to justify wrong-doing because, hey, nobody’s perfect. Right?

Not quite. If we live in such a way as to produce the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control)[1], then the extrinsic authority of the law has now become the intrinsic nature of our human hearts (Jer. 31:33). Remember Peter’s advice: live as free people without using your freedom as an excuse for sin, but commit your lives in everything you do to serving Christ and each other (1 Pet. 2:16-17). It sounds wonderful and seems simple, but I believe it may need some explanation. So allow me, in my limited capacity, to point us toward what I believe is a good starting place for attaining this kind of freedom in Christ.

If we are not daily turning from behaviors that come naturally to us and instead choosing to adopt those of Christ’s indwelling Spirit,[2] then our minds are not being renewed and our claims to being Spirit-filled and Spirit-led are fruitless, as are our claims to both freedom and order.

So, what does being led by the Spirit really look like? To pick the most clear-cut image out of scripture, it looks like a son of man praying by night in the Garden of Gethsemane, renouncing his hopes and desires in favor of his Father’s perfect will.[3] Perhaps it is safe to say that being led by the Spirit means first adopting the self-denying character of Christ until our behavior becomes indistinguishable from his own. While this may sound simple, we need to understand in detail what being Christ-like really means for us here and now.

For those of us who desire to be like Christ, it might help if we understand a thing or two about his character. To sum it up (and so do it poor justice), the character of Christ is one of humility and servitude[4] tempered with a dash of zeal for the Father.[5] Looking at Saul of Tarsus, we might see that he was a zealot in the tradition of Elijah, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar before him.[6] But when he met the Son of God on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:5), that zeal was redirected toward a new way of being—the zealot for Yahweh’s kingdom must, according to the new covenant,[7] be a servant of Christ[8] and a living vessel for the “truth that leads to godliness” (Titus 1:1). In other words, our vision of reigning in the Kingdom of God means nothing if we do not embrace our role as servants of the firstborn Son and look to him as the “foundation already laid” (1 Cor. 3:11).

In my time, I have seen the idea of ruling in Christ’s kingdom misunderstood on three different fronts: 1) there are people who believe their success and prosperity to be the main demonstrations of their kingdom authority; 2) these same people often subscribe to a harmful misconception of son-ship by submitting to a spiritual father[9] or to an apostle as their primary source of revelation (please note my emphasis), which in effect has caused some to either turn away from the “champion who initiates and perfects” their faith (Heb. 12:2, NLT) or to relegate him to a second-tier position in their lives;[10] and 3) some believe it is the church’s present responsibility to judge the world rather than to await Christ’s judgment, which is set for an appointed time (Acts 17:31). This last idea is especially dangerous, as it fills people with a false sense of omniscience while causing them to reach toward the kind of power that Christ attained only after he defeated the one who held the power of death (Heb. 2:14). Truly, if we do have this kind of power (thus implying that we are as perfect as Christ rather than being made perfect through Him[11]), then why would we ever need a high priest who “always lives to intercede” for us? (Heb. 7:25). If you are as qualified to judge as you think you are, then it stands to reason that you no longer need Christ to intercede on your behalf.

Referring to the three issues listed above, the first usually shows up among people who become so enamored with the idea of “ruling and reigning” that they are oblivious to the cost that comes with this kind of power (e.g., crucifixion).[12] As to the second issue, I find that it sometimes produces unadulterated devotion to a single church leader at the expense of ostracizing those who do not share this devotion (even though they are followers of Christ). At its core, this turning away from fellow believers in the name of “loyalty” is nothing more than idolatry and is in direct conflict with Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians when he says, “So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

Finally, if any question remains as to how we should function as agents of Christ’s authority and power, Paul at least clarifies what we are not to do: “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” (4:4-5). I do not know how to make this scripture any clearer than it already is; it speaks for itself without any help from me. If Paul is correct (and if I am not taking his words out of context), then we should judge nothing until the Lord comes.[13] So, where exactly does that leave us?

Despite what some may think, I am not suggesting that we should all just lead ourselves, picking and choosing how we want to submit to authority. Rather, I am pointing us toward what I think could be a more perfect plan to bind us together in a spirit of faithfulness and so protect us from the abuse of power. Among people who are preparing for the kingdom of heaven, the reality of what unity and faithfulness should look like is summed up in Philippians 2:

“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (2:1-4)

Paul has just defined kingdom order. As we know, factions arise among us when our convictions drift so far apart that they become irreconcilable. The question remains: why are our convictions diverging in the first place? Perhaps multiple reasons exist, but I want to suggest the possibility that either you or I (or both of us) have taken our eyes off of Christ.[14] In Philippians 2:1-4, the first factor in the equation is unity with Christ. This is the essential element because it is only when we are united in Christ that our convictions become identical. Being united in Christ means understanding his nature and character, and working with all of our hearts to emulate that character by way of a vital gift from heaven—the Holy Spirit, who is our living witness of the resurrected Son and the assurance of everlasting life.[15] Once we are united with Christ by his Spirit, the other components begin to lock into place: we become like-minded, we have the same love (and convictions), we unite in spirit and purpose (we share a vision that is universal because it is the vision of Christ rather than the vision of a single church or individual), and we begin to relate to one another in a spirit of humility. As easy as this last part sounds, it is often the most difficult to grasp. Humility is not second nature to me; I hope it is to you.

Based on the previous scripture, then, the key to unity is humility. Unfortunately, many believers think of unity as something inorganic that must be imposed by the hierarchy lined out in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11. However, what Paul may be saying in 1 Corinthians 12:28 is that Yahshua appointed the apostles—as messengers of the good news and as prototypes for the new way of being—before he appointed anyone else in the church. Put simply, they came first in a chronological sequence and were entrusted with one task: to cultivate a body wherein the working “parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25).[16] Also, Ephesians 4:11 is often preached to justify the five-fold ministry (and perhaps rightly so) while the ultimate purpose of this order is overlooked: “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (4:12).

Is Paul suggesting that the means lead to an end or, more specifically, to the realization of a meaningful hope that transcends all other agendas? I think so. If the ministry is not building up believers in the knowledge of the Son of God—that is, if we are not being led toward a revelation of who Christ is and how we are to reflect him to the world—then we are wasting our time as unfaithful stewards of the gospel. Further, if equilibrium in the body of Christ is not evident, then the body-parts are not functioning according to Yahweh’s plan. So, how do we become this fully-functional body of Christ? Read 1 Corinthians 13, and then get back to me.

As for the good news, it is simply this: that Yahweh, God of all creation, has made a new covenant with humanity through the resurrection of His son, who having ascended into heaven has left us His indwelling Spirit, who is—in us, through us, and for us—the promise of life eternal and the assurance that we will live, in bodily form,[17] with the true King of heaven and earth. Any message or gospel that deviates from this essential truth is not the message of the kingdom.[18] Moreover, any ministry that does not concern itself with winning people to Christ does not share in the interests of heaven, for “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). I do not care how many people I get to come to my church, and I hope I am not among those who care how many people leave my church to go somewhere else—if I can lead people to a revelation of who Yahshua (Jesus) is and what this new way of being means for them, then I will have fulfilled my God-given mandate as a follower of the firstborn Son.

~ Thank you for reading, and may you be blessed as you choose to walk in the love of Christ. ~

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Works Cited

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Print.


[1] See Galatians 5:22-23.

[2] Galatians 5 and Romans 6 are two great signposts for this; I reference them because they are the ones with which I am most familiar.

[3] See Luke 22:42.

[4] See Philippians 2:6-11.

[5] See John 2:17.

[6] See Numbers 25, 1 Kings 18:40, Galatians 1:13, Philippians 3:4-6, and  N. T. Wright’s “Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Galatians 1:17)”.

[7] The new covenant is summed up nicely in Jeremiah 31:33-34 and in John 3:16.

[8] See Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 3:5, and 4:1.

[9] This is remarkable to me when I consider John 20:17, where Yahshua (Jesus) refers to his disciples not as sons but as brothers. See also Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:1-7.

[10] Note that I am not discrediting the concept of spiritual fathers and sons, nor am I suggesting that we should not submit our lives to the instruction of people who exceed our knowledge in the faith. In 1 Corinthians 4:15, Paul writes, “for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel,” and in verse 17 he calls Timothy his son. Also, in 1 Timothy 1:2, Paul refers to Timothy as his “true son in the faith”.

[11] See Philippians 3:12 and Colossians 1:28.

[12] See Matthew 20:20-24.

[13] In John’s Gospel, Yahshua says, “I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me” (8:15-16). Even though he is qualified to judge (because he is the only one who can stand with the Father), he instead chooses to wait because the time for judgment has not yet come.

[14] See Hebrews 12:2.

[15] See John 14:15-21 and Ephesians 1:13-14.

[16] If you want a summary of what the early apostles were like, what they endured, and what their responsibilities entailed, then refer to 1 Corinthians 3 and 4. Primarily, they are the servants of Christ through whom we come to believe (1 Cor. 3:5).

[17] See 1 Corinthians 15:12-58.

[18] See Galatians 1:6-7, 1 John 2:22-29, 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 2:8, and Titus 1:2. See also “Gnosticism” in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, E-J, Vol. 2. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993. 404-406. Print.