Last Saturday night, I enjoyed an in-depth conversation with my neighbor and his friend as they braaied some steaks. My neighbor is my peer: 31 years old, married, a father, a committed Christian.
I listened as my two companions shared fascinating insights into the relationship of Christianity and culture in the traditional southern African setting. They spoke of conversations they used to have with other peers in their Christian fellowship in their university days. They used to debate--and the debate still rages--an issue which also occupied the mind of the early church: circumcision vs. uncircumcision.
The two largest language groups in South Africa, the amaXhosa and the amaZulu, are known to have different traditions regarding circumcision; Xhosa boys become men through circumcision in their late teen years, Zulus do not practice circumcision. In reality, the situation is considerably more complex than that, as various communities often classified as Xhosa, the amaMpondo, for example, traditionally did not circumcise. Today, that situation has changed, as there has been an epidemic of young men dying through botched circumcision rites in Pondoland, and at ages far younger than Xhosa tradition would recommend. In the end, therefore, the practice of circumcision in South Africa reveals my friends' point: there is no pure culture; culture is dynamic.
Having established this background, my friends moved to describe the aforementioned debates. On one occasion, one of their peers claimed that circumcision was essential to his Christian life because it established his credibility when preaching in the rural locations. The traditional people would not welcome the message of a male who was uncircumcised. Something about his argument, however, did not sit well with my neighbor.
"Are you saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ is limited?" Countering his peer's logic, my neighbor had told the following story.
"There was once this Zulu guy who was spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ through all these Xhosa villages. He used to get up and preach and say to the people, 'I am not circumcised', and the people loved him. That shows that the most important thing is the anointing [of the Holy Spirit], not culture."
That the Zulu preacher repeatedly emphasized that he was "not circumcised" illustrates the strength of the attachment of his Xhosa audience to this cultural practice. Indeed, because their belief in the power that circumcision bestows was so strong, it was necessary for the preacher to ascribe the power so obviously at work in him to another source.
It is interesting to read the South African context of circumcision alongside the biblical record of the same. In the book of Galatians, for example, circumcision is tied to blessings and curses. Certain people within the churches of Galatia were insisting that uncircumcised Gentile converts must be circumcised to avoid the curse of disobedience to the commandments of Jewish Law, of which circumcision, of course, was one. That curse, as described at length in the final chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, included the entire nation; the transgressions of one to the law led to the curse for many. That curse entailed loss of land to enemies, disease, plague, death.
A similar dynamic seems to be at play in Xhosa traditions. Although the Old Testament law consistently forbade Israel to consult the spirits of the dead whereas many African traditions are based on such communication, in both disobedience of one member to spiritual authority puts the entire community at risk of death, of the curse.
In light of this, we might not understand the so-called "Judaizers" among the early Christians so much as callous, unwelcoming traditionalists but as zealous members of the covenant community, concerned above all for the survival of the whole people of God. According to their understanding, circumcision and law-obedience was the way of avoiding the curse; the uncircumcision of certain members put the entire community at risk.
In light of Christ, however, we understand that understanding to be limited. Though he was obedient to the law, circumcised, he was also cursed according to it: hung on a tree (Gal. 3:13; Dt. 21:23). Yet, in his name, by his gospel, by his Spirit, came "love, joy, and peace" (Gal. 5:22). From the cursed one came blessing.
As Christ, so the Zulu preacher who came in his name. From him came blessing outside the dictates of the law. If blessing could come outside the traditions, then the traditions--and the powers who presided over them--were not so powerful as previously thought. They might continue to bless and curse those who continued to fear them. But for those who welcomed Christ, only the curse was lost; "from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace", blessing upon blessing (Jn. 1:16).