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.

Rogers teaches religion at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Anidjar, at Columbia University. Both agree that blood-talk goes awry in a thousand ways. In 2014, Anidjar catalogued many of them in his book Blood: A Critique of Christianity. Blood Theology, already years in the making, is not a direct reply to Anidjar, but it functions as a corrective nonetheless. Anidjar’s work ties blood to Christianity and Christianity to the supposedly secular West. Anidjar argues that a kind of hemophilia underlies major institutions and intellectual legacies of European and North American cultures, its origins either unknown or disowned. Neither ignorance nor simple renunciation is adequate, however. For such a response merely reproduces the power of the blood in unwitting forms, not least by bringing “religious” concerns to bear on what is claimed to be anything but. Accordingly, Anidjar supplies a genealogy intended to awaken us from our slumbers and to guard us from what he sees as violent and divisive effects of Christian “hematology,” which extend to such disagreeable inventions as race, the nation-state, and capitalism.

Rogers disputes some of the details, but not the overall critique. His disagreement is twofold. First, accounts like Anidjar’s tell a one-sided story, because the symbolics of blood are far more labile than the rigid hermeneutics of violence would suggest. Second, blood-talk isn’t going anywhere. And perhaps theology is uniquely suited to reimagine it.

Rogers proposes the Last Supper as a paradigm. Hours before his crucifixion, Jesus refuses the terms set by his impending betrayal, torture, and execution. He uses the occasion instead to feed his friends. What will presently be taken from him by force he now gives freely, seated at table with a zealot soon to turn traitor and disciples who will flee at the first sign of trouble. Rogers renders this creative turnabout with help from the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler. Ideas full of dangerous power can be neither ignored nor destroyed: To do so only amplifies their appeal. Far better instead “to mobilize the signifier in the service of an alternative production,” as Butler puts it. That, in Rogers’s view, is what Jesus does at the Last Supper: You want my blood; here it is, in this cup of friendship. There is power in the blood, the all-too-real blood of human bodies and what the scholar of ancient Judaism Mira Balberg calls the “discursive blood” of social bodies. Rogers aims to channel that power in ways that give life rather than take it. Reading Jesus through Butlerian eyes, Rogers’s goal is simply stated: to queer Christian blood-talk.

Blood Theology is an exercise in theological therapy, then, for our collective (national and ecclesial) bewitchment by blood. The result, as with all of Rogers’s work, is a marvel. Difficult to classify, as much social anthropology as systematic theology, the book is not only a major achievement but a pleasure to read. Few theologians successfully master other disciplines; even fewer write with style. Rogers does both. The combination makes for something unique in the field.

The range of topics and interlocutors canvassed by Rogers is vast and sometimes scattershot, but a handful of ideas and tropes order and unite the book. One is that blood is a discourse that we argue in and with. Hence the necessity of reclaiming and repurposing it. We will either do it well or do it poorly. That isn’t to say, however, that all is blood:

Blood does not explain everything. But it explains aspects at the margins that otherwise escape us. The point is not life or death, death bloody or unbloody. The point is that blood discourse governs all those cases as the language in which Christians argue them. The topic is not blood biological or symbolic, but any kind of blood invested with meaning, any type of blood that funds dispute.

Blood seeps in, as Rogers observes, where you least expect it. Jews and Christians “read in” blood to the binding of Isaac, although the text never mentions it. Or take the way the canonical Gospels describe the Passion: You won’t find reference to blood until Jesus is already dead, when the soldier pierces his side and out flows blood and water. Crucifixion kills by asphyxiation, not bloodletting. But the Christian imagination informed by the canonical texts, which speak more often of Christ’s blood than of his death or his cross, pictures Golgotha as an infinite font that never ceases to river forth into the future. As such, it is commensurate with human need, which is to say, with the weight of human sin.

Only sin? Far more, Rogers writes. If, in Christ, God became human, then he also became an animal. More precisely, a primate. In the eleventh century, St. Anselm of Canterbury asked why God became human; Rogers asks why God became simian. Many Christians today, especially evangelicals, cannot countenance this query. That’s why modern creationists advert to blood-talk when they reject evolution, appealing to the words of the King James Version, in which St. Paul tells the philosophers of Athens that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men.” If the children of Adam share blood with nonhuman animals, there are implications both racist (are some would-be humans less human than others?) and antichrist (no Adam, no Second Adam; no human sin to atone for, no savior to make atonement).

Rogers thinks the blood-haunted creationists are right in their instincts but wrong in their conclusions. The redemption wrought by Christ is infinite in scope. Its cosmic reach includes all our fellow creatures, including those we evolved from and those whose blood makes us kin. God became a creature so that creation might become divine. Every creature that exists is a word uttered by the Word; all blood belongs to God, and since Christ is God incarnate, “all blood is his.” Cur Deus homo? Answer: “The Logos became blood—not just in Mary, not just in human beings, not just in higher animals, but in all things intelligible—so that blood, in all things, might coagulate to embody the Logos and take part in its divinity.”

This is the transgressive power in the blood. But transgression supposes a boundary and so does blood, not only in churches but in all societies: It marks out in unmistakable color who is in and who is out. It redlines. The social body bleeds at the margins when borders are crossed. And sacrifice is frequently called upon to repair those wounds—the social mobilization of war, for example, or the scapegoating of an internal other.

Rogers’s approach here is delicate. He wants to transfigure blood in such a way that it neither fortifies unjust divisions nor enlists victims for redemptive suffering. So he argues, first, that the fundamental impulse of Christian blood-talk—which is just another name for Christian God-talk—is of divine blood crossing boundaries precisely in order to redraw them. Such redrawing is not a kind of metaphysical gerrymandering, whereby new insiders make new outsiders. God empties himself into creatureliness, vulnerability, mutability, and death, only to take them, transformed, into himself. The boundaries are redrawn around God, the living triune society. Because the circumference is infinite, there are no outsiders.

Second, Rogers rejects what he calls “vulgar Anselmian” theories of the Atonement, in which God the Father requires his Son to pay the infinite debt incurred by Adam’s progeny, a debt payable only through bloodshed. Instead, God works in all things in accord with the principle articulated by Joseph, speaking to his brothers (who sold him into slavery and told their father he died): “You meant evil…but God meant it for good.” Rogers thinks here of a contemporary form of martyrdom that can be traced in the police violence that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. When innocent bodies fall to the ground and their blood in the earth cries out for justice, “can we rightly see the pattern of Jesus—not to make their deaths any less lamentable, but to shape a lament on Good Friday?” Not, he clarifies, to make victims that peace may come. “But sometimes God can make a Last Supper move, rescripting a violent death…by social practices involving blood (protest chants, eucharistic wine). If there is a social rebirth, there is also a social reuse of blood.”

Blood Theology is an exercise in that reparative project of “social reuse”: of blood taken and given, of blood lost and found, of blood reclaimed and renamed. It is a worthy and largely successful exercise, though such an enormous effort will always come up short in spots. The tentative or provocative nature of some of Rogers’s discussions sometimes leaves the reader—or at any rate, left me—feeling incomplete or ambivalent, wanting more not only in detail but in direction. Moreover, I was disappointed by the book’s politics. Not that they are wrong. But they are predictable. Readers know in advance that, like Rogers, they already believe the right things about evolution, atonement, war, animals, sex, and race. Given the novelty and sheer strangeness of the book’s topic, I was prepared for an equally strange opinion or unexpected conclusion about one of these or some other controversial subject, perhaps one that would question rather than confirm readers’ views.

The closest the book comes to that sort of unexpected twist is in a chapter on “the gender of blood.” Rogers situates blood’s “masculinity”—drenched by, and therefore popularly associated with, the machines of war, the priest’s blade, the policeman’s gun, the pit master’s fire—in opposition to its overlooked female symbolics. Drawing on feminist scholarship, he usefully makes much of menstruation as an alternative social and theological imaginary for construing blood’s properties and potentialities. A sacrifice without death, a regenerative precondition of life: Menstrual blood figures both creation and new creation. Given the Virgin Birth and premodern theories of conception, Rogers asks in earnest a question posed by theologians and mystics before him: Was the saving blood of Christ the menstrual blood of Mary?

Another recent book provides fodder for further reflection along these lines. In Mom Genes, science journalist Abigail Tucker explains how, long after gestation and birth, a child’s fetal cells remain inside the mother, circulating through blood vessels and embedding themselves in various organs. These cells have healing powers; they can literally help to rebuild a failing heart. “In a particularly famous case,” Tucker writes, “doctors discovered that a son’s lingering cells had rebuilt an entire lobe of one woman’s ruined liver.” Why famous? Because “the mother in question had no children. Her son had never been born but was living on, after an abortion, inside her.”

I wonder what Rogers would make of this. An aborted son whose blood gives life long after he’s gone: Such a figure cries out for christological reflection. The wider social context is no less potent, given that the pro-life movement in the United States is deeply entangled with evangelical and Catholic Christianity. Protestors often call abortion a holocaust, a term taken from the Greek translation of Leviticus for the offering of an animal that is burnt without remainder. Other opponents describe abortion in terms of human sacrifice, likening it to the practices of the Aztecs or the followers of Moloch. Even when the procedure is mostly free of blood, they “read it in” anyway.

Here is a chapter yet to be written in Christian blood theology. That in itself is a testament to the unruly brilliance of Rogers’s book. That he need not be the one who writes the next chapter—that he has set the terms by which others may take up the work—is all the more impressive.