The belief that there is “power in the blood” is common to many—dare I say all—Christian traditions. The phrase, particularly prevalent in some traditions’ Lenten hymnody, refers, of course, to the power of Jesus’ blood on the cross: the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion is the source of our salvation. It goes along with images of being “washed” in his blood (washed in the blood of the lamb), cleansed in the “precious fountain,” made clean in “the healing stream from Calvary.” It’s all a little gruesome, if you ask me, but this idea has a long, long reach in the Christian tradition.
This fall, as I've said before, I'm teaching one of my favorite courses, Soteriology, which always prompts great discussion. Since reading Cur Deus Homo a few weeks ago, this week, we turned to another book, Cross Examinations, and engaged different feminist and womanist interpretations of the cross—and their critique of Anselm, particularly his “satisfaction” theory of atonement.
One of those chapters was written by Mary Streufert, who describes the concept of “maternal sacrifice,” arguing that “physical sacrifice doesn’t always involve death.” She suggests that instead of always talking about sacrifice in terms of “death for life,” we should promote “life for life” sacrifice: “Women who gestate, birth, and nurse babies are giving life for life.” [Her chapter is found on pages 63-75 of the book]. Among other things, this allows us to think about Jesus’ life—not just his death—as sacrificial, and also as a locus of salvation.
All of a sudden, as I sat there in class, listening to the great student discussion around me, I was struck by the idea of “the power in the blood”—but this time, not the power in Jesus’ blood, but the power in women’s blood: menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth. And I couldn't help but think about how ironic it is, that far from being celebrated as powerful and salvific, women’s blood—without which, let us not forget, life could not exist—historically has been considered defiling and polluting in many different religious traditions, including Christianity. The very blood that makes life possible, the very blood out of which all life comes, is used to segregate, marginalize, and isolate women with the accusation that this bleeding renders a woman unfit for participation in a religious community and unclean before God. [In this light, the story of the hemorrhaging woman whom Jesus heals in Luke 8 seems all the more miraculous and transformative, as with one touch, Jesus not only heals her body but also restores her to her place in community]. Why is it that the power in women’s blood is seen as power to harm, not heal?
And lest we think this this whole issue of death for life vs. life for life doesn't matter in the real world, consider that still today, a central part of the justifying rhetoric around violence and war is the heroic language of “sacrifice” that is used to describe the death of soldiers: “he [or she—but still, overwhelmingly “he” in this context] gave his life to protect you and your country;” “he died so you might live and be free.” In this way, we both validate and glorify death, arguing that it is by these hundreds and thousands of deaths that truth, freedom and democracy triumph over evil and injustice. You and I—indeed the whole nation—are protected and preserved [go ahead, say it—“saved”] by the heroic, voluntary, self-sacrificing acts of these brave men and women.
Now, to be clear: I’m not arguing against the bravery of soldiers, or challenging their dedication; nor am I belittling the service and genuine heroism of our veterans—my uncle, a proud World War II vet would never speak to me again! However, I won’t lie: much of this rhetoric makes me uncomfortable—and it should make you uncomfortable, too. I’m sure you can hear it: this imagery mirrors unnervingly much of the traditional language the church has used to describe the death of Jesus, arguing that our life is dependent on the blood he spilled on the cross; and salvation is found in that blood. Here’s the problem [or at least one of them]: When the most important thing Jesus did was die, doesn't that suggest that the most important thing Christians can do is die, too? If the core aspect of salvation is found in a death, doesn't that suggest that death continues to be salvific in some way today? I hate how that makes Christianity seem like a religion of death, when really it's all about life, and life abundant. That's what Jesus' ministry was all about, and that's who God is.
So, at the very least, as a way to think differently about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and a way to think differently about “blood” in general, I’d like to suggest that there is as much power in blood that gives life as there is in blood that brings death. In other words, there is more than one way to “bleed,” and more than one way to offer one’s blood for the life of another. One doesn't purify while the other pollutes: instead, they both can stand as symbols for passionate love, and a willingness to suffer for the sake of the beloved.
Women are more than mothers, and not all those who bleed bear children, but even so, perhaps this bleeding can serve as a reminder of Christ’s great love for humanity—his whole ministry of life-giving love, and yes, his bleeding for our sake—and in this way, we can begin to see the power in the blood of life, not just in the blood of death.