Tuesday, May 26, 2009

One Last Way of Thinking about “Blood”

Well, I’ve been looking at the doxology in Revelation 1:5-6, which reads:

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,
and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father,
to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

So far, we’ve seen 3 different ways of looking at the word “blood” in terms of God’s great act of redeeming humanity- Anselm’s “substitutionary atonement,” Irenaeus’ incarnational theology, and Girard’s understanding of scapegoating (see the past 3 blog notes for more information).

Here is one last way of thinking about “blood” when we see references to it, such as in this doxology of Revelation 1. It is not unrelated to the previous ways of thinking about “blood,” but it is somewhat different.

Walter Wink argues that the two great and competing myths in our world today are “the myth of redemptive violence” and “the myth of redemptive suffering.” (We’re using ‘myth’ in its classic sense, as a great explanatory story behind the way we approach our world.) The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the subtext of virtually every Hollywood action film that has been produced. The hero is typically a normal enough guy, trying to live in peace and do the right thing. The villain strikes out and attempts to talk it out or normal attempts at enforcing the law fall short. Then, in a moment best articulated by Popeye (“I’ve had all I can stand, and I can’t stands no more!”) the hero pulls out the big gunnery and begins to blow the villain away. We leave the theater joyful, because the hero “saves” the day (significant word there) by overcoming the villain’s violence with greater violence.

If this myth were only a plot for Hollywood, there would be no significant problem beyond little boys that get all aggressive with each other at the bus stop following every new release. But, the myth does not stop at Hollywood. It is the unstated rationale behind wars and the industry that sustains war. The idea is that if the right person/country has the greater active or potential for violence in hand, he can use that violence (or the threat of it) to overcome lesser violence. Again, Wink calls this the myth of redemptive violence, because we think of it as having a good ending. Tragedy and unredemptive violence would be if the villains of the world could not be defeated.

On the other hand, Wink says that the cross is an example of “redemptive suffering,” where Jesus could have called 12 legions angels to come to his rescue (Matthew 26:53) but did not. He was an innocent victim, who overcame the violence of Rome by bearing it. His suffering itself is the redemptive act of God, not his greater act of violence. And this myth shows up in Jesus’ teaching as well- such as when he argues against the law of retaliation (“an eye for an eye”) and for “turning the other cheek.”

Contrary to our popular mythology, which sees suffering as a sign of weakness and waits anxiously for that “I can’t stands it no more” moment, the cross points to a different way where suffering itself is redemptive. And it is not a suffering to appease God’s anger and demand for satisfaction (similar to Anselm’s theory). It is suffering because Rome and other villains in the world are violent and they speak the language of violence to legitimate themselves. The cross is the ultimate answer to that violence. And that is why discipleship- following Jesus by taking up the cross- is the “narrow way” that is unpopular and often lonely.

Obviously, many Christians and churches have tried to transform the cross back into the myth of redemptive violence by subordinating the suffering Christ to the angry, Rambo-like Jesus who comes back on a white horse and kicks booty. The Christ of the cross- who suffered, died and was buried- becomes just a temporary picture of Christ, who really tried not to have to resort to violence, but- in the end- the lamb comes back as the roaring lion, etc. In my mind, that is one of the most shameful anti-Christian acts of subverting the true gospel message out there today.


  1. According to God there is only one way to think about any human male's life taken by bloodshed. He says there is always the pre existing constant requirement to give him an account AFTER any human male's life is taken by bloodshed. For this reason there cannot be a direct benefit for anyone solely by Jesus having been crucified. Gen. 9:5 NIV.
    Theodore A. Jones

  2. Mr. Jones,
    I cannot accept your comment's premise, "According to God there is only one way to think about..." In fact, there are several ways to think about how one accounts for shedding human blood. There were provisions for people's guilt to be taken away by sacrifices; there was a clause that allowed the guilty- even murderers- to grab the handles of the mercy seat on the altar in the tabernacle; there was the law of retaliation that exacted an equal in payment for a sin (eye for eye, etc.)- all of which were words of God according to different books of the Bible. And when Jesus displaces the law of retaliation, the Christian tradition calls his preaching authoritative- moreso than the words given to Noah.
    So, while there is plenty of room for discussion and difference about what, exactly, the Scriptures require in the case of bloodshed, we have to listen to many voices and not just select one as "the" voice of God. That's why I've tried to show at least 4 genuine and faithful ways of understanding "blood" in the Christian tradition.


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