I’m bothered by the image of Christ’s blood. Which, as a minister means I struggle every Sunday at the communion table, lifting the body and *gulp* blood of Christ. Coming from a lower liturgical tradition, I’m usually able to substitute the word “salvation, ” as in the “cup of salvation.” Or, sometimes I just leave out the word, deciding instead on “he took the cup and blessed it, saying ‘this cup is a new covenant, poured out for you, for the forgiveness of sins.'”
Of course, what I can side-step in the words of institution, I struggle with more in scripture. It’s difficult when images of Christ’s blood emerge, and this weeks text from 1 Peter, with it’s imagery of “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.” Can’t there be biblical whiteout? Can’t we live without these texts?
One of the reasons I struggle so much with the “blood” of Christ is that I’m not very familiar with real life blood. Bo Saunders wrote about this at Homebrewed Christianity prior to Good Friday this year in an attempt to critique Christian fascination with Penal Substitution. In the post he writes:
We live in a sanitized and sterilized culture (to paraphrase Cornell West) where most people have no connection to the meat on their table. They pick it up at the grocery store in plastic wrapped styrofoam containers. I say this as an avid hunter descended from farmers. We live in a horrifically violent culture (both domestic and military) but so few of us are familiar with blood. We outsource our violence.
This is why a penal substitutionary view of the cross is so attractive /acceptable for so many. The vicarious nature of god pouring out ‘his’ wrath on Jesus results in a pornographic delight that can be seen in depictions like that famous scene in The Passion and in many of our contemporary worship songs.
In Animal Sacrifice, Ira Glass begins the episode by talking to Jonathan Klawans, a scholar at Boston University, about animal sacrifice in the Jewish tradition. Ira asks the simple question: why don’t Jewish people sacrifice animals anymore? The answer to this question is simple, that Deuteronomy directs the people to only sacrifice animals at the temple, which was destroyed around 70C.E. Since that time animal sacrifices have been illegal in the Jewish faith.
The conversation goes on the the relationship of the person with the goat, something that is hard to grasp in a world in which we’re so seldom in contact with animals. Klawans writes:
One of the points that’s often emphasized, even in the biblical tradition– and also in later rabbinic tradition– about sacrifice is that a proper sacrifice is something that one owns. You can’t go steal an animal and sacrifice it to God. And we also have to remember even if we think of animals as property, ancients– one has to imagine the domesticated life of people, shepherds, living with their animals, who know their animals. A proper sacrifice has to be unblemished.To have an unblemished goat, one has to really care for that goat, from the time that the goat is born, to ensure that that goat will not become blemished in some way.
So you have a relationship with that goat. When you inspect it for blemishes– which is Bible speak for any kind of nick, or bruise, or anything– the goat looks you in the eye. And when you give this animal that you personally know to God, God isn’t some abstract being. He is someone, someone who takes delight when you bring something to him, who you have this very literal interaction with.
All of this conversation about animal sacrifice get’s back to my problem with the image of blood in scripture: we have no relationship with it. I’m not saying that we need to suffer to understand salvation, or that suffering gains us salvation. Rather, what I am saying is that Christ, as the incarnation, represents God coming into the world, to be with the world, and in particular, to align himself with those who are suffering. Jesus walks though the world associating with outcasts, with those cast off. Jesus is familiar with the suffering of the world; he spends his life standing with the suffering.
What would it mean for us to be witness to the suffering of the world? If we were present at the cross, would we be so comfortable announcing the blood of Christ as some cosmic price paid? How would it move us to see the pain? Would we be able to draw on some form of metaphysical justice, wrath paid for abstract sins and not concrete material injustice?
What would it be like to see the blood spilled around the world, in factories where hundreds of girls loose their lives, or in foreign countries where western powers periodically wage war for resources? What would it be like to go into our cities, into failing school systems or the overcrowded prison system and see that blood spilled? What would it be like to see the blood spilled on the execution table when an experimental concoction of drugs meant to induce painless death leaves a death-row inmate in serious pain for almost an hour?
If we witnessed that blood on a daily basis, maybe we’d be a little more squeamish about the blood of Christ. Because the cross, as far as I can tell, speaks more to the failure of humanity to live out its’ life in the image of God than it does to the satisfaction of a wrathful God. The cross should make us outraged, that we can do that to one another. Instead we’ve pushed the blood of a suffering world further into the margins, and out of our view. We talk only about the symbolic blood of a man 2000 years ago, and nothing of the real blood shed daily by those who have been outcast in our own world.