Power in the Blood
by Elias Blum
For those who are not familiar with the drill, you are expected to shout on the word ‘Power’. The ‘w’ is unpronounced, slurred straight through to a strong, well-trilled ‘r’.
There is Paarrrrr!!! Paarrrr!! Wonder-workin’ Paarrrr!!!!
In the Precious Blood of the Lamb!
There’s a dark secret behind this song. I’ve always been a Unitarian at heart, but I did for some time (about two years, I think, maybe longer) regularly attend a Baptist church. Not only do I know the full standard repertoire of Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin songs, but I also have a range of old blood-curdling, piano-stomping Baptist favourites engrained in my mind.
‘Power in the Blood’, ‘Are you Washed in the Blood?’, ‘Nothing but the Blood’ – each one of these sing-along favourites is a grisly invocation of Jesus’ blood sacrifice. According to the ideology of conservative evangelical Christianity, sin cannot go unpunished. The angry alpha-male war-god of Israel is too holy and too austerely just to permit forgiveness without inflicting pain. The debts incurred by Adam’s fall and by our own imperfection must be paid in full (never mind that Adam is supposed to have existed, in the biblical chronology, about 20,000 years after we domesticated the dog). Only the tortuous shedding of the perfect, sinless blood of his own son can appease the awful wrath of Jahweh. Only by mystically covering oneself with that blood, as the gateposts of the Hebrews in Egypt were once covered with the blood of the passover lamb, can one escape the eternal torment that this monstrous deity has prepared for us. The blood covering process, as far as I could ever tell, consisted mainly in believing that all this is true: ‘salvation by faith’, they called it. To plead the blood, one has to admit that one is a sinner (easy enough), and then try really, really hard to believe that this impossible nonsense is true, and that Jesus by his death on the cross ‘took on’ that sin, and paid with his blood the price of forgiveness.
It did not take me long to reject the whole evangelical system of sin, sacrifice and salvation. Its vision of god was deeply unflattering: an arbitrary, capricious, unforgiving, blood-thirsty monster. A god that was truly God, I thought, should be so much bigger and better than that. The more I thought about it, the more this partial, brutal god of evangelicalism seemed like exactly the sort of all-too-human deity that a frightened, beleaguered, warlike, bronze age society might invent. I soon reached the conclusion – shared with Dawkins et al – that the god of conservative evangelical Christianity was nothing more than an idol, fashioned not from gold or stone, but from myth, legend and the darker parts of the human imagination.
Not only is the evangelical system of salvation so obviously untrue, and so dishonouring to any God truly worthy of the name, it also distracts us from the real, human, historical Jesus and his teachings. In the understanding of progressive Christianity, Jesus was – whatever else he was and is – fully man, a man deeply but not uncritically inspired by the best aspects of his religious tradition, who took an ethical stand against injustice and exploitation, taught universal love and compassion, and exposed the hypocrisy of the priests, bankers, rulers and landowners who oppressed the people. His death was a sacrifice, at least in the sense that his principles brought him into conflict with the priestly, financial, political and military powers who conspired to kill him; he died not as a sacrifice for our sins, but as a martyr to his cause. He calls us not to be mere ‘worshippers’ of him, but to be followers of his cause.
The conservative evangelical view of Jesus obscures all this. Jesus the martyred prophet wholly absorbed by the idea of Jesus the sacrificial lamb. His message and his teachings are nothing; his death is everything. Jesus saves, according to evangelicalism, not by the way of life that he taught, but by the blood sacrifice of his death.
A consequence of the evangelical view is that one need not do anything; salvation is chiefly a matter of believing in and accepting for oneself the salvic magic of Jesus’ death. Its purpose is simply to rescue one from the hellfire that would otherwise await. Salvation as a process of personal and social change, of transformation and redemption, the purpose of which is to enable us to live well, to restore relationships and to heal and repair the world, is obscured if not altogether forgotten.
Another consequence of blood sacrifice is that it supports the fallacy of ‘redemptive violence’ – the idea that people must die and bleed in order to set things right, usually expressed in a ‘Left Behind’ longing for cataclysmic orgies of destruction and blood-letting.
Even when it stops short of actively wishing and hoping for the annihilation of the world, this blood-fixated way of thinking can have very harmful social and political consequences. A gruesome soteriology of blood sacrifice, where there is no redemption except ‘through the blood’, can easily produce a mindset in which deeply unpleasant attitudes can flourish, leading to the promotion of graceless, punitive policies, such as support for the death penalty and for mass incarceration. When combined with the idea that wealth is a sign of god’s favour, and that worldly success is evidence of spiritual blessing, this excuses the view that public welfare should be as ungenerous and as punitive as possible (“it’s their own fault they are poor, the lazy, dirty wastrels; they need to be taught a lesson”), that the rich and powerful should be fawned-upon and cosseted with tax cuts, and that foreign policy should be based mainly on bombing the living shit out of ‘evil do-ers’ and nicking all their oil.
As the words of the Rev. Dr. D. Wayne Love, front-man of the band Alabama 3 (satirically) put it:
There is power in the blood
Justice in the sword
When that call comes
I will be ready for war.
I will raise my sword upright
To the bright and shining light
Stained crimson red with the blood of the unredeemed
I will tear them limb from limb
I will slay their kith and kin
And their bodies I will bury in the deep
Because there’s power in the blood.
So the irony of conservative evangelical Christianity is that its fixation on the blood sacrifice of Jesus almost completely negates the teachings, the ethics and the call of the human Jesus – the martyred prophet, the radical rabbi, the one who came to preach good news to the poor and to liberate the oppressed.
This sometimes makes me almost wonder if Christianity is not, perhaps, the most cunning invention of ‘the Anti-Christ’, that is, of the Powers and Principalities who would deny the message of Jesus. By turning him into an idol to be worshipped, they managed to deny his radicalism. Maybe Paul of Tarsus, who never actually met Jesus, and who seems to have invented the whole system of substitutionary atonement, never really stopped persecuting the church; perhaps he just stopped trying to arrest its members, and instead turned to a tactic of subversion, transforming the church from a radical social movement for the living out of the teachings and Way of Jesus, and making it into an idolatrous, blood-curdling, salvation-cult.
The history is too murky, our sources too few, too corrupted, and too contradictory, to say for sure that Paul was a deliberate distorter of Jesus’ message. Despite all his faults, there is much good to be found in Paul’s writings, and his sincerity (even if based on partial understanding) ought not to be quite so easily dismissed. Nevertheless, it is probably true that Paul, not Jesus, was the chief founder of what became Christianity, and that Christianity as we know it has little in common with Jesus’ intentions. It is notable that Paul makes almost no references to the teachings of Jesus in his writings, and continual reference to the supposed consequences of his death and resurrection. Jesus the Man has disappeared, to be replaced by Jesus the Lamb.
The great task of progressive theology is to liberate the radical ethical call of Jesus from those who would imprison it in an unbelievable straightjacket of creedal dogma, or contaminate it with the myths, prejudices and blood-lust of past ages. We are called to preach and to practice a humane, social, ethical and rational Christianity, which challenges the complacent conscience, and sustains the wavering heart, but does not offend the enlightened mind.
The symbol of Unitarian Universalism is not the Bloody Cross of evangelicals, but the Flaming Chalice. As we know, the flame represents the Spirit, Life, Reason, Freedom; the chalice represents Love, Community, Fraternity, Solidarity. By this symbol we affirm our belief that grace extends to all, not just those who are ‘covered in the blood’. The power of grace is not in the gore of death, but in the Way, the Truth and the Life.
As we go into the week ahead, into our homes, our schools, our places of work or service, our city, our nation, and our world, let us follow the Way of bloodless grace, freely forgiving; let us seek the Truth of unadorned religion, manifest in good deeds, not far-fetched creeds; and let us continue to restore the Life – to protect the weak, to bind up the broken-hearted, to comfort the afflicted, and bring freedom, justice and peace to the world.