Commentary: Lessons from New Zealand Circumcisions
Given 28-Mar-20; 12 minutes
A review of circumcision as practiced in the past century by the Ephraimite nation of New Zealand leads to some interesting observations about the pervasive power of governments in socialized environments—their abilities and indeed their proclivities to abridge the rights of their citizens’ practice of religion, even in matters which are clearly in the purview of private choice.
Before we go there, though, I shall review a few basics of circumcision as outlined in the Pentateuch. Genesis 17:4-14 introduces us to circumcision, and it is in the context of God’s covenant with Abraham:
Genesis 17:9-10 (The Amplified Bible) As for … [your part of the agreement], you shall … faithfully obey [the terms of] My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is [the sign of] My covenant, which you shall keep … between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.
In verse 12, God establishes the proper time for circumcision as the eighth day after birth. In verse 14, He clarifies the importance of circumcision, saying that the uncircumcised Israelite shall be “cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” This was, for an Israelite, a very serious matter.
This passage describes what I call “Abrahamic Covenant circumcision.” Its central thrust is that circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. It does not have to be performed on the 8th day—though it should be in normal circumstances; after all, Abraham himself was 99 years old when he was circumcised, as we read in verse 24; Timothy was an adult when Paul circumcised him. The Scriptures tell of lots of Israelites who received circumcision after the eighth day. But, in all these cases, people recognized circumcision’s connection with the Abrahamic Covenant.
There are other categories of circumcision. Two of them, neonatal circumcisions and circumcisions for medical reasons, are shadows of the circumcision God establishes for His people in Genesis 17. The same is true of the third category of non-Covenant circumcision, that is, the rite-of-passage circumcisions associated with puberty. The Muslims, Tongans, Samoans and others almost universally practice this type of circumcision. Importantly: They are all performed outside the knowledge of the Abrahamic Covenant and are only shadows of the type of circumcision God ordained for Israelites in Genesis 17.
With that background, let us look briefly at the history of neonatal circumcision in New Zealand in the last century. Remember, generally speaking, these are shadow circumcisions because the parents do not recognize any connection between circumcision of their sons and the Abrahamic Covenant.
In New Zealand in the 1940s, about 85% of the men and boys were circumcised, probably the highest rate of any Israelite nation. Neonatal circumcision there reached its apex in 1945, when about 950 out of every 1,000 boys were circumcised. However, the number fell to only 3 boys in 1,000 in 1995. This statistically insignificant figure was the lowest rate in any Israelite country at the time. In 50 years, we've seen a change from 950 boys out of 1,000 to 3.
What brought about this decided turnaround? To understand, we need to talk about what medical historians call “the circumcision century.”
In the later 1800s, many religious groups—these are Protestant groups, Catholic groups—contended that circumcision forfended adolescent boys from falling prey to habits of self-abuse. They argued that neonatal circumcision would go a long way to eliminating this evil. Whether this connection is real or not is not my subject. The point is this: Perception became reality. Many religious people accepted this idea, which, catching fire, resulted in a surge in neonatal circumcisions. Circumcision became “the thing to do” until well after World War II. It is no wonder, then, that in the first half of the 1900s, in order to eliminate a moral evil, Catholic hospitals in many countries (not just in New Zealand, but in other countries as well, including America) mandated circumcision as part of their maternity policy. (With secularization and the resulting liberalizing of the Catholic Church, this policy became defunct by the 1960s.) Many Protestant groups bought into the idea as well. To this day, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church strongly advocates infant circumcision for exactly this reason.
Against this backdrop of these strongly held religious convictions, there is the historical fact that New Zealand became a socialist state with the forming of the First Labour Government in 1935. Healthcare became socialized, at least incipiently, with the Social Security Act of 1938. The central government owned and operated not only the public schools and the post office, but built, owned and ran the electrical grid, the railways, the telephone system, hospitals—you name it. New Zealand’s medical system has been socialized for decades.
As a personal note, when I lived there in the early 70s, you had to buy a license to own a radio receiver—not a transmitter, like a ham radio operator, but a receiver. It was that controlled. I remember seeing “the government loaf,” as they called it, a horribly insubstantial loaf of white bread. It tasted absolutely awful; it was baked in local bakeries to government specifications and subsidized by the government. It is very cheap—and tasted like it. The government adopted the redistributionist policy of what it termed the “family benefit,” whereby parents received monthly checks from the government, the size of which were based on the number of children they had. Practically everyone in society, brethren, was on the doll. So, when I say this was a socialized society, I think you understand what I am saying.
What happened was this: As long as the leaders of New Zealand accepted the idea that circumcised boys were less likely to fall into habits of self-abuse as adolescents, they used their leverage of the government-controlled and government-funded health facilities then in existence to enforce policies of neonatal circumcision. It was the thing to do, and the government paid for it. Historians have discovered a number of letters between government officials and hospital staff indicating that this level of cooperation—indeed, collusion—actually took place. Neonatal circumcision became a de facto public health policy, supported by religious ideas current at the time. Few complained due to the currency (popularity) of the religious belief.
But over the years, as the leadership of New Zealand became more secularized after the Second World War, it came to consider the supposed connection between circumcision and self-abuse to be a folk belief, a wives tale rooted in religious superstition. So, behind the scenes, without seeking public comment, this increasingly secularized bureaucracy used its control of the medical system to reverse policies, making it more and more difficult for parents to secure circumcision for their sons. Eventually, neonatal circumcision was fully defunded. The state not longer paid for it, and in a matter of a few decades—a couple of generations or so, neonatal circumcision virtually died out among the Ephraimite population of New Zealand.
The story behind the vast turnaround in the prevalence of circumcision in New Zealand is the story of the power of a welfare state to change policies sub-rosa, without asking for or accepting any public comment. There was no public referendum, you understand. There was no public discussion. These socialist leaders arising after the 1940s were secularists who used the power of the state to end long-standing practices based on people’s religious values. Looked at this way, we understand the socialist-inspired and executed attack on neonatal circumcision in New Zealand to be a clandestine and effective attack upon religion. This kind of thing is widespread among peoples under the sway of socialist governments.
I doubt if God is pleased to see leaders among Israel so turn their people away from even a shadow of “Abrahamic Covenant circumcision.” The low number of neonatal circumcisions in New Zealand today—again, about 3 out of 1,000—is one indicator of just how thoroughly national Israel has forgotten—abandoned—Abraham’s covenant with God.
In the fall of 2018, a number of news feeds mentioned how some Silicon Valley billionaires were building bunkers buried deep in the countryside of New Zealand. The idea was to use these as places of safety should America experience a nuclear, biological or chemical attack. The tech moguls would just direct their pilots to fly them down south.
Well, the billionaires might want to study God’s covenants more than their contracts. Given the level of displeasure God may feel with New Zealanders’ abandonment of religious values, they may be better off directing the pilots to fly “me home to West Virginia,” to paraphrase John Denver. There, 91% of the men and boys are circumcised, the highest rate in the nation—for that matter, in any Israelite nation, higher even than in the State of Israel.
But, West Virginia’s is a story for another day. God-willing, in my next commentary, I shall look at the remarkably different circumcision rates in the United States, rates which make America truly exceptional among the Israelite nations.