‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ – Lady Macbeth
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas addresses the problem of the vials of Christ’s blood so plentifully held in reliquaries across Europe. If Christ ascended bodily to heaven, he asks, then where did all this blood come from? Was it left behind when he rose, ascending to heaven bloodless and dessicated as a Eucharistic wafer? No, Aquinas says: rather, ‘the blood preserved as relics in some churches did not flow from Christ’s side, but is said to have flowed miraculously from some image of Christ when struck’. It was not enough, it seems, for Christ to die for our sins once: if we are to have his blood the violence must be visited upon him over and again.
Elsewhere Aquinas considers the ways in which the Eucharistic blood of Christ might be corrupted. What is to be done, he asks, if the blood of Christ is poisoned by a person seeking to murder the priest (like an overzealous employee with a risk assessment form, Aquinas’ concern here is not why somebody might want to poison a priest but the question of how procedure might properly be followed if such a circumstance were to arise)? What if it is spilt on an altar cloth or on the ground? Aquinas’ answer is straightforward, if surprising: if an insect falls into the chalice after the wine has been consecrated ‘the insect should be caught carefully and washed throughout, then burned, and the ablution, together with the ashes, thrown into the sacrarium. If it be discovered that the wine has been poisoned … it ought to be kept in a suitable vessel with the relics’. The sacredness of Christ’s body is made permanent precisely insofar as it has been violated.
Anidjar argues that the blood of Christ shed for us was not, as Girard thought, the end of violence but merely its new beginning in a world in which the confession of sin both brings to consciousness the violence upon which every society is founded and immediately washes it away in the purifying blood of Christ. This atonement, as the Calvinists know, is universal in theory but limited in practice. Christ, Anidjar says, ‘is the difference between innocence and guilt as the basis of human society, the difference across humanity between the old and guilty (humans) and the new and innocent (Christians).’ Where Constantine and Augustine hesitated on the threshold of baptism for fear of wasting their one chance at forgiveness, eventually the Church realised that the blood of Christ is all-but inexhaustible; to gloss St Jerome, he that is once washed white in Christ need never wash again.
Yet this remarkable and inexhaustible power of the blood of Christ is, as Aquinas knew so well, exceptionally vulnerable to corruption. Just one drop of black bile (for the Middle Ages, both blood’s opposite and its product) is enough to poison the chalice. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Christianity itself has come to seem impure, tainted with the wrong sort of blood. But although we have locked its putrefying corpse away in the reliquary of our past, its tell-tale heart continues to beat beneath our floorboards, blood seeping beneath the door of the crypt. We continue to be haunted by it, left, like Lady Macbeth, wringing our hands because we cannot scrub away that damned spot; we did not know that the old man had so much blood in him.
What Aquinas half-knew continues to be true: there is no way to keep the purity of our blood safe from corruption. But this has not stopped us from trying, from clinging to the dream that there is some blood which will wash us clean, or some way to wash ourselves clean of blood itself. Theologians trace back lines of descent to some purer form of Christianity free of the tain of the impure blood, be it the corrupting influence of secularism and multiculturalism or the degeneration into avarice and empire. Philosophers seek to uncover in their pedigree a pure enlightened vision of a world free from the corruption of bloody embodiment as such, or (as Dan Barber argues) a pure Aryan secularism without the congenital disorder of Semitic religion.
There are many ways to trace bloodlines and all of them are fictions. We can no more reckon with the totality of our ancestry than we can escape it. Our blood is tainted; nothing we hold sacred is pure; and both Christianity and blood persist precisely because they are not solid but liquid, flowing, constantly remaking themselves. Yet even Anidjar cannot resist the temptation to make genealogies, to trace lineages. In Christianity, he says: ‘the distinction between law-instituting violence and law-preserving violence is transformed into law-abolishing violence, and then into violence-denying love. Instead of collective guilt, collective innocence. Such is the Christian dispensation.’ This is true but it is not the whole truth; to ask whether it conceals more than it reveals is to ask what we are doing when we trace the lines of our blood. What does it mean to talk about Christianity as though it is a single line of pedigree, however miscegenous, however scandalous its ancestors? Is the blood of Christianity one blood or many? Is Christianity even always blood at all?
Anidjar leaves us, regardless, with blood on our hands, in our veins, and on our lips. However we understand ourselves in relation to Christianity and to blood we are none of us pure, none of us innocent. We are left not quite without God but without a God who will stand in judgement upon us and declare our guilt or innocence. We are left with the world as it currently is, governed by blood and by law, confronted with Christianity and the issue of its blood: nation, state, and capital. There is to be no divine judgement except, as Benjamin says, as a command with which to wrestle, the starting point for a disputation in which we must take upon ourselves the responsibility for our decisions. What kind of blood might begin to flow in our veins and across the lines which define and distinguish us if we began to treat things as sacred because of what they are in themselves and not insofar as we have done violence to them?