Blood: A Critique of Christianity

Article by   December 2014
Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. xvii + 441pp. $36.99/₤24.99

Gil Anidjar's book is, as the subtitle indicates, a critique of Christianity: not some aspect of Christianity, or an inquiry into some part of Christian history, but a critique of Christianity as such. This is an ambitious project. One is unlikely to see a major university press publish "a critique of Islam" or "a critique of Hinduism," in part because identifying the essence of a major "religion" so that one can praise or critique it has rightly fallen into bad odor with most academics. Anidjar, however, claims that "it has seemed necessary, in order to ask about Christianity, about 'the essence of Christianity,' as Feuerbach had it, to open a different kind of investigation into blood" (p.256). At the same time, however, Anidjar is clever enough to know that essentialism is a no-no, so he claims not to be making claims about Christianity's essence but rather "the 'extreme solidity,' the 'great force of inertia'" (p.247) of Christianity, terms he borrows from Foucault's analysis of the prison system.

The impression that the author wants to leave with the reader is that Christianity is the source of the bloody technologies underlying racism, nationalism, capitalism, and other modern ills. That such phenomena are usually considered "secular" only means that the West has not been sufficiently de-Christianized. Anidjar quotes Norman Brown: "we must not be misled by the flat antinomy of the sacred and the secular, and interpret as 'secularization' what is only a metamorphosis of the sacred" (p.198). Brown, of course, is right. But rather than conclude that people shed blood for all sorts of things - thus putting secular violence on the same level as so-called religious violence - Anidjar concludes that secular violence can be traced back to the pernicious influence of Christianity. Modernity for Anidjar is never the rejection of Christianity or - as in Charles Taylor, for example--the corruption of Christianity. Modernity - or, more precisely, whatever is bad about modernity--is always the consequence of Christianity and its peculiar relationship with blood.

Anidjar presents no linear genealogy of the meaning of blood in Christianity, but jumps back and forth in time.  At times it appears that Paul is to blame for establishing the difference between good blood and bad blood (pp.51-3). Elsewhere the turning point is located in Christian Roman antiquity (p.57); elsewhere the 11th century Investiture Controversy (pp.131-3); elsewhere "from the 12th century at least, Christians developed a passion for blood" (p.69). What is clear is that the blame does not rest with the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, or anyone but Christians. Anidjar grants that blood is "massively important" in the Old Testament for sacrifice, covenant, and community building (p.46), and he grants that the OT "does make some difference between Hebrew and Gentile" (p.49), but he makes a great deal of the fact that the OT never uses the phrase "flesh and blood," using "flesh and bone" instead. There is no difference between bloods in the Old Testament, according to Anidjar. As for the Greeks, despite Aristotle's claim that "Every family is ruled by the eldest, and therefore in the colonies of the family the kingly form of government prevailed because they were of the same blood" (p.88, Anidjar's italics), Anidjar claims that the Greeks distinguished themselves from others on the basis of language, not blood. The Romans, Anidjar admits, had consanguinitas as a marker of kinship. But it is only with Tertullian--"the blood of Christians is seed"--that there come to be "different bloods" (p.57). Anidjar does not pause to note the irony: Tertullian's dictum was made in response to the Romans' public torture of Christians to death.

Despite the scattered nature of the indictment, the main culprit for Anidjar appears to be the medieval practice of the Eucharist: the sharing of the blood of Christ leads to the exclusion of others on the basis of blood. The Inquisition, therefore, is not the exception but the rule of medieval Christianity, the outworking of the logic of the Eucharist. Whereas Giorgio Agamben traces modern racism to Greek and Roman ideologies of blood and soil, for Anidjar, nation, class, and race were "established by the Eucharist in its theologico-political and bio-political implications" (p.75). The Eucharist fits awkwardly in Anidjar's analysis of blood, however, because the cup was withheld from the laity for most of the period that Anidjar emphasizes. He notes "the remarkable absence of blood, in the Middle Ages and since, from most reflections and explicit representations of the body politic" (p.32). Undeterred, Anidjar declares that the Christian community was "ever more thirsting for blood when deprived of it" (p.124) and concludes "Absent or present, at any rate, blood comes to define the community of Christians, old and new" (p.124).

Such arguments from absence are unlikely to inspire trust that the reader is being guided by a steady hand. I am convinced that there are unhealthy pathologies in Christian use of blood language, and that those pathologies need to be criticized from within and from without Christianity. There is much of interest in the book, and Anidjar has identified many of those pathologies and episodes in Christian history. To give one example, I think he is quite right to finger the Investiture Controversy as a significant turning point, after which--for a long period--a previous reluctance to shed blood became a reluctance to shed Christian blood, while Crusades to shed Muslim blood were encouraged (pp.131-3). 

If the book contained a detailed examination of Christian action and propaganda in that period, or a detailed examination of Christian theology and practice of the Eucharist in some defined time and place, or a detailed examination of anything at all, it would have a better chance of convincing those who are not already convinced of the pernicious nature of Christianity. But the book is little else than a collection of assertions and insinuations. The fact that the book's quarry is Christianity as such dooms it to be so. Any attempt to compose a coherent argument that would amount to a critique of Christianity as a whole would require the kind of patient collection of evidence that would inevitably sink such a critique in a sea of qualifications. Anidjar exhibits none of that sort of patience here. As a result, the book is almost entirely a pastiche of small phrases and quotes from the work of other scholars, with all the detail, nuance, and ambiguity excised. 

If one wants a deep critical examination of the negative aspects of medieval Eucharistic practice and theory based on original research, one can turn to Miri Rubin, Caroline Walker Bynum, Sarah Beckwith, and a host of others. Such scholars are inclined to note the good with the bad when the evidence requires it. Anidjar, on the other hand, tends to raise contrary evidence only to dismiss it without argument or simply to change the subject.

The book ends as Anidjar echoes Freud's analysis of the Christ story. Christ is the murderer who kills the Father and puts himself in the Father's place. Christianity turns the cult of the dead Father into the worship of the murdering Son as innocent. Christianity means "murder, yes, but without guilt, only innocence. Forever" (p.251). This indictment will convince the already convinced, which is why no argument is necessary or offered. Anidjar mentions René Girard's argument that "Christianity offers a new kind of promise, perhaps even the fulfillment of an old promise or covenant, the promise of the end of murder as the foundation of human society" (p.249), but does not bother to mount a counter-argument. Anyone who has made it this far in the book has no need of arguments.

Many readers will not make it far into the book because of the author's prose style, and I can't bring myself to blame them. Quite apart from the content of the book, I found the writing immensely off-putting: coy, precious, self-indulgent, opaque.  One example out of hundreds possible will have to suffice:
Have I not called this a book?  Is it not one after all?  To the extent that my opinion matters (having been exposed, just like anybody by now, to an inordinate number of opinions, I am less and less persuaded I should have or add any, much less that I am capable or in fact entitled to an opinion of my own), I will merely assert that I did not wish for this to be a book... Early on, at any rate, the growing number of meandering pages now lying ahead impressed themselves upon me (no, seriously) as plausible candidates for a gathered volume, though I would have preferred otherwise. Like much else, the uptake is hardly mine--my fear is that I am but "full of goodwill, a devoted local government worker who has not earned the right to responsibility"--which is why worn caveats blissfully apply, regarding propriety, property, and indeed responsibility, the legal and financial kind in particular (going public, with block if not stock quotes).  That being said, I beg you, please, delicate and obsolete monster, mon lecteur, ma soeur, copyleft and rearrange at will. (p.xii)

I am tempted to take him up on this offer, rearrange all the sentences in the book in random order, and see if the book reads any differently. But I think I have already spent enough time with it.

William T. Cavanaugh is Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University. His recent works include, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Eerdmans, 2011) and The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (OUP, 2009)
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