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blood 2I am a fairly regular blood donor—which is sort of amazing given my squeamishness and dislike of needles. I find that if I look away and think happy thoughts, everything is fine.

I often donate at the Blood Center, rather than mobile sites. I see the regular and committed donors. I’d say they are typically nerdy and sensible looking folk—but also admirably methodical, sitting for long periods of time for special sorts of donations and then upon completion, immediately scheduling their next donation.

I’ve read that consistent blood donors are overwhelmingly “religious”—whatever that might mean. I wouldn’t claim any great mystical importance to my donating. It is a simple and practical thing to do.

As I donate I often look at the big posters on the wall. They are standard motivational posters. They proclaim “courage” and “hope” and “thankfulness.” There are anecdotes from recipients, telling how their child’s life was saved by blood donors.blood 1

They celebrate blood, the liquid of life. There is nothing gory or repulsive. Blood is a gift, beautiful stuff, that when shared brings life to others.

I’ve wondered why Christianity can’t say the same thing about Jesus’s blood.

In the next couple of weeks, we will hear a lot about blood, Jesus’s in particular. It begins to feel relentless, and so often is expressed in clumsy and crude ways. Yet apparently it has great effect. It sells. Ask that guy at the gym who wears a t-shirt spotted with fake blood stains, drawings of the biggest thorns ever imagined, gnarly hands pierced by enormous nails, and bold olde English type declaring “His Pain, Your Gain.” People seem attracted by the gore of crucifixions. They intuitively seem to “get” blood.

In the last couple of decades there have been many voices critical of all this blood talk, part of a larger effort to reframe the atonement—what did Jesus’s death accomplish and how did it do that? More than a few critics have said that our fascination with Jesus’s blood makes God into a seething father, a bloodthirsty deity who must be appeased by blood, the blood of his own child. The social repercussions of this bad theology—child abuse, spouse abuse, “redemptive” violence—are appalling.

blood 4I have empathy with those who want to rid atonement discussions of violence and wrath. I too want to do away with the gore and the sadism and the morbid fascination with how crucifixion kills its victims. I am most definitely okay with getting rid of an angry god who cools off only when his bloodlust is quenched.

Yet I am reluctant to do away with the blood.

Jesus’s blood seems important. Is that because blood is so primal or honest or basic? Maybe. I have been impressed by thoughtful butchers and hunters who report a sense of holiness and gratitude and respect when they are covered in the warm blood of another creature. Does this further my aim of retaining a place for Jesus’s blood, or does it only slip back toward the gore and bloodthirstiness?

Better, I think, to hope that this connection to blood, this hesitancy to expunge it from the narrative of Jesus, has something to do with being formed by the words and images of the Bible.

It has often been observed that the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels are very restrained and modest. There is little there that feels ghoulish and grisly. The shame of the cross is emphasized much more than the pain or blood.

white robe blood

What do you think? Yuck or cute?

People far more knowledgeable than I say that even in the books of Deuteronomy and Hebrews, the blood of sacrifice is about cleansing, not appeasing. Blood makes clean. That is helpful. It feels like it is moving us toward the posters in the Blood Center, where blood is a gift that does good things. I’m half-embarrassed to admit I’ve always had an odd attraction to that New Testament image of robes being made white by washing them in blood.

Several years ago, I arranged a discussion about the atonement for Perspectives. Among the participants was George Hunsinger, one of my favorite theologians. Lots of helpful things were said, but I especially remember George saying
we are severed from our Jewish roots. There is a lot of gentile thinking in contemporary objections to the cross as simply a manifestation of divine violence…“Blood,” “sacrifice,” “expiation,” “access,” “substitution,” “participation”–all are priestly terms…Our severing from our Jewish roots makes it almost impossible to understand the importance of the priestly role in the atonement. Thoughtless statements like “God does not need blood” are anti-Judaic, anti-apostolic, and anti-Eucharistic.

Jesus: the original blood donor. It doesn’t sound quite right—a little too glib and more importantly, not quite accurate. Still, the posters at the Blood Center push me to think that blood need not be gruesome. It can be a gift of life.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


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