Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Book Reviews

Power in the Blood

The often violent and divisive effects of “Christian hematology.”

Brad East

Stained-glass window depicting the sacrifice of Isaac; robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo.

Christian religion is covered in blood. Wherever you look, you’re bound to see red. By the fourth chapter of the Bible, the blood of Abel has already stained the ground, crying out to God for vengeance. Four chapters from the end, the Word of God rides a white horse, wearing a robe dipped in blood. From Genesis to the Apocalypse, a crimson thread ties the fragments of Scripture into a florid whole.

All too often the blood is human, innocent, and shed as the result of violence. Just as often, however, nonhuman animals are the objects of a more cultivated but no less violent form of slaughter. God’s people are bloody, but the principal reason is divine worship, divinely prescribed. “Under the law almost everything is purified with blood,” explains one early Christian sermon, “and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Sacrifice is—not always, but prototypically—a bloodletting, and the blood daubed or sprinkled by a priest is not, in the words of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, “matter out of place.” It acts, rather, as a detergent: It purifies, cleanses, heals. The blood of sacrifice is sticky: It rejoins what is separated. That stickiness is social as much as it is—just because it is—cultic; it restores the alienated to life with God and neighbor alike. The rationale is found in the Torah: “The life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life.”

The New Testament presupposes and elaborates on this cultic tradition. It identifies Jesus as a sacrifice whose atonement for sins is accomplished through the shedding of his blood. Jesus himself says, “I came that they may have life,” and given where the Torah says life is found, he follows the logic to a eucharistic end: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” Not for nothing was the early church accused of cannibalism. At every celebration of the Mass, though the liturgy proclaims it a bloodless sacrifice, the baptized conclude their prayers with ruddy lips, having drunk the very lifeblood of Christ.

Does the foregoing sound bizarre? It should. Indeed, that’s the stated goal of a new book by Eugene F. Rogers. He wants to make blood strange again. Like Gil Anidjar, Rogers is worried about blood; unlike Anidjar, he thinks that blood means more than bloodshed, or at least that it can.

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