Circumcision Versus Baptism: Joined to the Law or Joined to Christ

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom 6:12–13).

The Greek term for body (σῶμα) is a permeable identity within an environment so that it is the capacity to act and be acted upon by an environment. The body can be attached to either sin (Paul uses the phrase, “body of sin”) or to the body of Christ, indicating that the body mediates and is permeated by the environment of which it is a part. The issue is, which is the constituting environment? As Paul employs the term in Romans 6, the body can re-environ itself in Christ, and set aside sin (and the law). The body joined to Christ in his death and resurrection becomes one with Him, no longer subject to sin in the environment of the law.

We might imagine the problem is the body or the flesh. The flesh opposes the spirit, and so we need to get rid of the flesh, maybe cut it off, as symbolically and literally carried out in circumcision; a sort of shedding of the body. Paul explains that this is not a battle that can be won in this manner, and in fact this oppositional antagonism is the problem. The resolution reveals what that problem is in the first place. Paul pictures it as being constituted in the environment of either law or grace: “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Sin thrives in the environment of the law – but why?

Where law reigns, or where law is the constituting factor, there is a deadly split or antagonism. As Romans 7 describes, the body or the I has the ability to objectify or split the self (to reflect on the self), which is most often experienced in the negative capacity for self-estrangement or self-alienation. We become our own worst enemies in acts or thoughts that are inherently self-punishing or in which the “body of sin” or the “body of death” is pitted against us. The ego (or I) views its own body, which is its self, as an alien force which has been colonized by that which is not the self. Paul describes it as two laws working at cross purposes within him: “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:22–23). Is Paul’s problem that he cannot align himself with the law of his mind due to the law of his body, or is Paul’s problem the law per se and the manner in which this law has overwritten his life and identity? Is it just a matter of getting the law straight?

Paul argues that there is a deception that works through the law. Part of what it must mean to be deceived in the most fundamental sense, is to be deceived about reality. Not reality in the abstract, but the reality of the human body, or the reality of embodiment. The law would negate, cut off, or override the body, which is the problem constituting, in Paul’s description, the “body of sin” or the “body of death.” This negating, obscuring, or overriding is the dynamic of deception at work in sin. The naked and ashamed would clothe themselves in the law, but this clothing obscures reality. The human body, inclusive of thought and language, is the ground of reality as we have it, but part of the deception is that we do not have access to the reality of ourselves and the world as we are written over or inscribed into a deception.

This deception is directly experienced as a futile desire or an exponential covetousness, which Paul links to death: “I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (7:7-8). This desire is shaped by the particular environment, the command, permeating the body, such that particular cultures, particular religions, or particular legal constraints, do no so much curtail desire as deceptively direct it. Particular systems consistently churn out characteristic forms of desire.

As I have described it (here), the violence of “Christian” pedophiles, sexual abusers, and whore-mongers – or to state it differently the characteristic forms of perversion found in Roman Catholicism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism, respectively – on Walter Benjamin’s scale of violence (per his “Critique of Violence”) amounts to “law-maintaining” violence. That is, these systems consistently churn out characteristic forms of sexual transgression as part of the necessity of maintaining the status quo of these forms of belief and their institutional structures.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is obvious that systems structure desire, through law or doctrine, in such a way that the transgression supports the desire. Fundamentalism gives us a steady flow of Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts, and evangelicalism churns out its endless Bill Hybels, in the same way that Roman Catholicism seems to manufacture pedophiles. By not coming to grips with the characteristic nature of sin these systems reconstitute it.

It is precisely the forbidden object which shapes the desire. The object of desire is that which is relinquished or lost and this loss is definitive of the identity. This identity produces a split within the body such that the law of the mind (be it that of Roman Catholicism or of fundamentalism) is established through the transgression of the flesh.  The law always has its transgressive support – doing a particular form of evil so as to produce a particular form of the good. This is Paul’s definition of sin – which indicates that these forms of faith may perpetuate, rather than identify and dispel, sin.

Circumcision literalizes the loss, in that the desire that is supposedly cut away (with the foreskin), becomes definitive. Circumcision would excise, cut off, or mark the alienating force. It is aimed at bringing the body and mind and the spirit and the flesh, into alignment by getting lust and desire under control. It is meant to bring about a correspondence, putting the body under control of the ethical principle of the law. But being written over with the law, marked in the flesh, does not resolve the problem, according to Paul, but it accentuates and even aggravates it. The symbolic is paid for by the cutting of(f), the removal of the desire of the body, but this accentuates the antagonistic dialectic between the mind and body, which is an obscuring of the reality that both are of the body.

The body of sin is one that disowns the empirical bearer of the “mind” or the “soul.” Being written over with a particular sign (the law) is to be interpolated into the law, with the body serving as the literal place of inscription. The sign is the means of achieving the signified. The letter is the means to the spirit. The name contains the reality. Language, symbolization, signs, convey truth, by virtue of their mark. There is an equation of logos with Logos, or trues with Truth, or doctrines with God. The presumption is that the one who possesses the law, or the one written over with it, is at an advantage, but Paul’s point is this presumption is itself the problem. It is not simply the Jewish problem but the problem of Adam and all who are his descendants.

 As Paul describes his experience in Romans 7, there is the “I” and the not “I” and sin taking advantage of this split privileges the “not I.” As Paul states it, ‘it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me’ (Rom. 7.20).  This “body of sin” or “body of death” (Romans 7.24) may be perceived or experienced as the physical body getting out of hand or out of control, but the reality is that it is the self in its experience of the self that is out of control.

Or is it the case that I only know myself in and through this antagonistic relationship with myself. Who am I apart from this struggle? This is the entry point into the attachment to binaries, antinomies, dualisms, and dialectic. The sorting out of the I and not I is at the base every knowledge of good and evil. Every circumcision/uncircumcision, law versus no law, Jew versus Greek, slave versus free, male versus female, is a sorting out of myself. A discerning of who I am. I am at stake in the dialectic as it constitutes who I am. The law being worked out, into which I would interpolate myself in my striving, is the means of being a self, or at least that is the delusion of sin.

This negative understanding can be, and needs to be, extrapolated from the solution of baptism. “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Paul pictures the “body of sin” as being reduced to the “nothing” from whence it came (Rom. 6.6) through a reversal of the power it exercises.  His description is of “the body of death” or (its parallel in 6.6) “the body of sin” put to death in Christ for those who have died in Christian baptism.  Baptism is the ontological alternative to the body of death as the Subject of baptism, instead of being joined to loss, negation and death, is joined to the “body of Christ.” Where in sin, the Subject can only be joined to death and death drive, Paul pictures a Subject “joined” to Christ with a “likeness” or ontological certainty on the order of Christ’s incarnation.  

The Violence of the Law Which Killed Christ

The depiction of Matthew is that the violent would take the kingdom of God by force (Matt. 11:12). This verse marks the transition from Jesus to John the Baptist, which in John is accompanied with the comment that “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). According to Paul, the period of violence, in which the kingdom would be violently manipulated through the “hostility” of the law is exposed and defeated by the one who “is our peace” (Eph. 2:14).  As John the Baptist explains upon seeing Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Here is the victim of violence who takes away the violence of the world; the Lamb who absorbs and defeats the violence. The explanation comes in verse 18: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18). Jesus is the full explanation or message or exegesis of God. The difference between Jesus and the law defines his message: the law does not take away violence and sin, but in John’s depiction violent men will kill Jesus following their understanding of the dictates of the law. In this killing and being killed is the problem and solution of sin.

As Walter Benjamin depicts the law, it is established through violence and enforced through violence and apart from violence there would be no law.[1] This may seem an unlikely statement, but Benjamin demonstrates the law obscures its inherent violence.

In the notion of natural law (a body of unchanging moral principles), the end point of the law is to establish justice and morality, and violence is a justified means to this end. The violence cannot be posited as part of the goal (as an end) but is presumed to be the means to an end.  For example, the Jews invade the promised land and commit genocide so that their nation and law might be established. White people came to the Americas and obliterated the populations of brown and red people who are excluded by this founding of the law. The law is being inaugurated from out of this originary violence. The question does not arise in natural law whether violence “could be a moral means even to just ends” but violence is taken as a raw datum – a fact of nature or a necessary means. The deployment of violent means to just ends is “no greater problem than perceived in a man’s right to move his body in the direction of a desired goal.” The way you get from point A to point B is the movement of violence. Violence is a “raw material” or means “the use of which is in no way problematical unless force is misused for unjust ends.”

Though Benjamin sees this as a problem predating the modern, he references Darwinian evolution as “rekindling” the presumed naturalness of violence in the modern age. Darwin’s biology, he maintains, “regards violence as the only original means, besides natural selection, appropriate to all the vital ends of nature.” It is a short step from the popular notion of natural history “to the still cruder one of legal philosophy, which holds that the violence that is, almost alone, appropriate to natural ends is thereby also legal.” Just as peace is established through war so too final justice calls for final solutions. And of course, the holocaust (the final solution of the Nazis) looms around Benjamin’s text in our backward-looking perspective.

On the other hand, positive law or those laws created by and passed down through human institutions, presume that violence is a product of history. Violence is certainly part of the means in positive law, but the violence is thought to be a regulative violence. This “limited” violence is judged legal according to its application and who applies it. Where natural law judges in terms of ends, positive law is focused on means. The presumption is that just means will automatically bring about just ends. Where in natural law, the ends justify the means, in positive law, the means justifies the end. The paradox or blindness is created in the two sides of the law, in which in neither instance is the role of violence ultimately questioned.

The inherent injustice is rendered visible when natural law and positive law are set side by side. The understanding that the inauguration of law is through an originary law-making violence exposes the true nature of law-preserving violence. For example, the United States constitutes itself as a legal entity only in denying or deconstituting subjection to the British monarch. If the United States had lost the Revolutionary War, the entire notion of independence would have been illegal. Perhaps the chief perpetrator of the crimes against the monarchy, George Washington, would have been declared the chief criminal, and executed according to the law (law-preserving). To constitute a state is to simultaneously defy the law, and to imagine a people not yet formed as the constituting entity. The violence will have been legal only in the case of victory.

This founding violence is not disconnected from law-preserving violence, as it is always possible for violence to get out of hand. The laws of the state must be enforced for the state to continue to exist. The law founds and preserves the state through the same violence, so that law enforcement is foundational both at the beginning and in the continuation of the state. Benjamin’s point is that what seems to be two forms of violence (law founding and law enforcement) cannot be separated. The law is always in the process of being constituted and legitimated through violence.

 The modern police force demonstrates the overlap in that, though they are thought to be about law enforcement, certain situations call for discretionary judgements which, like the founding violence of the law, will have been made legitimate (in hindsight) because the police embody the law. Just as a king is not able to break the law (he is the embodiment of the law), unless his rule is overturned, so too the police retain a semblance of this original embodiment, if not in theory at least in practice. They are always in the business of establishing the law, and in establishing it making it legitimate.

When the police rob and terrorize citizens, as happened over a long period in Baltimore, it becomes very difficult to bring the law to bear upon the law. In Baltimore, as in the Nation as a whole, this was largely due to the fact that police brutality was focused on the black population. “The fact that the legal order not only countenanced but sustained slavery, segregation, and discrimination for most of our Nation’s history-and the fact that the police were bound to uphold that order-set a pattern for police behavior and attitudes toward minority communities that has persisted until the present day.”[2] The black population bears similarities to the Jewish population in Nazi Germany or the Native American population in the period of discovery and settlement. The force of the law makes its primary mark in excluding those who fall outside of the law’s protection.

In the New Testament, Ephesians brings out the inherent hostility of the Jewish law in the portrayal of antagonism of Jews toward Gentiles. Christ “broke down the barrier of the diving wall” as he “abolished the enmity, which is the Law” (Eph. 2:14-15). The Jewish law was built upon exclusion of Gentiles, as this exclusion was definitive of what it meant to be a Jew. The markers of the law in sabbath keeping, in the food laws, and in circumcision, marked out the Jews. The Jews were marked in the flesh, they were marked through special time, and they were marked by special food. Gentiles did not fall within but stood outside of Jewish law. Roman law functioned in a similar manner through the special mark of crucifixion. Roman citizens were those protected from crucifixion and those who could be put on crosses were not counted as citizens.

This explains who killed Christ (the law enforcers) and why. The sabbath law, the laws of cleanliness and restricted association (no Samaritans or Gentiles allowed), the rules governing the sacredness of the Temple, and the laws against blasphemy are all going to be leveraged by the Jews to kill Christ. As Jesus explains, this is a fulfillment of their law: “But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘They hated Me without a cause’” (John 15:25). Their use of the law blinds them to their violence.

The Psalm Jesus is referencing directly links the action of the persecutors to a lie: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (Ps. 69.4). As the Psalm describes, those doing the persecuting have a murderous zeal for the temple which consumes their victim (69:9). It is their zeal for the sacrificial system rather than a true understanding of God’s desire that has them persecute and oppress this messianic figure. The prayer of the Psalm is answered in Christ as “their own table before them [has] become a snare” and “their sacrificial feasts [have] become a trap” (v. 22). The Jews would destroy the true Temple and the true embodiment of the law to preserve their law. In the end, the Jews forsake their own religion and national messianic hopes by proclaiming, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). In order to fulfill their zeal for the law by killing Jesus, they forsake their law and religion.

 The Romans, in the person of Pilate, would mock Jewish pretensions to independent nationalism by declaring Jesus the Jewish King and then having him beaten and crowned with thorns. The crown of thorns, the royal robes, the declaration of Jesus as King of the Jews, may be Pilates means of deriding all things Jewish. The Romans are going to do their part in destroying the Temple, as Pilate is concerned to quell an insurrection by enforcing Roman justice, despite his own declaration that Jesus is innocent (John 19:4). He is afraid of uncontrolled violence should insurrection occur.

When the Jews appear before Pilate, he tells them to judge him according to their own law (John 18:31). They later indicate that this is precisely what they have done: “The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God’” (John 19:7). This frightens Pilate, as this is to usurp not only Jewish law but the foundation of Roman law, embodied in the son of God – Caesar. Roman law and Jewish law converge then, in the necessity of killing Jesus. The Jewish high priest speaks for both Jews and Romans in proclaiming, “it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish” (John 11:50).

In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction, the supposed universal condition of law is established by the particulars of exception. The very root of human polity is structured around a necessary exclusion of one form of life, bare life (homo sacer). It is only where bare life is structured and ordered in the city that it can be said to be “good life.” The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built.[3] Homo sacer is stripped of legal status and falls outside the political community and is among those continually and unconditionally exposed to the potential of being killed. This power of death, deciding who dies outside the city, establishes the life of the city.

Jesus dies outside of the city, beyond law and religion, reduced on the cross to bare life. Christ as the exception, however, forever exposes the basis upon which inclusion and law are constructed.

“For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph. 2:14-16).

Jewish law, Roman law, and the universal violence of law are defeated, for he has abolished the enmity of the law, he has broken down the hostility of the law, and he Himself is our peace. Law-founding and law-preserving combine to destroy the One who embodies the true law of love but, as indicated in the Temple incident, out of this destruction Christ raises up the true Temple of peace.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1 19-3-1926 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England 1996) this single article can be accessed at What may be less obvious is how the United States “War on Terror” or even the “War on Drugs” implies and justifies holocaust like violence as a justified means toward a just end. For a goal as illusive as a pure race, the destruction of all terrorists, the end of the drug trade, all out and continual violence is seemingly justified.

[2] Hubert Williams and Patrick V. Murphy, “The Evolving Strategy of Police: A Minority View” in Perspectives on Policing, (Published by the U. S. Department of Justice, no. 13, January  1990).

[3] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 18.