Blood – A Critique of Christianity: Book Review

Anidjar, Gil. 2014. Blood: A Critique of Christianity. Religion, Culture, and Public Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

By: Sonja Luehrmann (Simon Fraser University)

I read most of this book in one of the contexts to which it speaks most deeply: during international air travel across North America, wondering how border guards and security officers might react if they were to inspect my bag and find a book whose title signalled a critical interrogation of Christianity combined with the idea of (shedding) blood. Over the winter of 2014/15, media commentary on terror attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, and Paris kept the question of the connection between religion and bloodshed on everyone’s mind, but it was Islam whose propensity for violence and potential for peace was under interrogation. As Gil Anidjar’s previous books remind us (2003; 2007), this intense dissection of Islam for violent properties is part of a long history of suspicion by western (post)Christians against significant religious others, from the blood libel – the myth that Jews slaughtered Christian children and used their blood in sinister rituals – to traditions of mocking the prophet Muhammad as a carnal and power-hungry impostor. In Blood, Anidjar turns the question around and examines Christianity for features that might explain such seemingly disparate violent histories as the Spanish inquisition, colonialism, the global spread of capitalism, and the war on terror.

The argument is complex, and based on virtuoso close readings in wide-ranging fields that include the historiography of the Middle Ages, early modern political theory, histories of science and technology, the Hebrew Bible, anthropological explorations of kinship, Homeric epos and its interpretations, nineteenth-century fiction, and early twentieth-century German-Jewish thought. Put in several nutshells, the argument goes like this: Blood was not always and is not universally considered a marker of kinship and belonging or exclusion (as in the phrase “my flesh and blood” or discussions of kinship as “consanguinity”). It is not used as such a marker in the Torah, and only in a limited sense in Greek myth or Roman law. If blood today is naturalized as a “biological” metaphor for kinship and nation (although the claim that relatives have “the same blood” has no backing in medicine or biology), this goes back to Christianity, and more specifically thirteenth-century Catholicism. The increased standardization of Eucharistic participation and the emergence of devotions related to the blood of Jesus triggered a distinction between communities of Christian blood (those nourished by the blood of Jesus) and non-Christian bloods. Diagnosing long-term consequences of this historical turning point, Anidjar argues against Benedict Anderson’s claim that the blood-consciousness of racists and organicist nationalists derives from the class-consciousness of the European aristocracy (“blue blood”). Instead, he traces it to a religiosity that emanated from the church’s need to affirm its authority over secular affairs through control of the sacraments, but was eagerly taken up by lower-class Christians. Much more certain of his lines of causality than Max Weber, he also discerns a deeply Christian essence in capitalist economics and their ways of conceptualizing power as “circulation” and “flow.”

 

The inspiration for this way of tracing historical phenomena to theology is acknowledged in the preface. The book, says the author, elaborates on “the following formulation, blatantly plagiarized from Carl Schmitt, which I offer here as a partial summary of the book that follows: All significant concepts of the history of the modern world are liquidated theological concepts” (viii, italics in the original). Blood, Anidjar argues, is “the element of Christianity (…). It is the way in which and upon which Christianity made its mark” (ix). Anidjar is convincing in showing the Christian imprint on the proliferating meanings of blood in Europe since the Middle Ages, drawing heavily on Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood (2007). But different from Schmitt, whose point in the essay on Political Theology is to trace how political concepts change along with theological trends, Anidjar’s analysis of the relationship between theology and politics is curiously deterministic and focused on a single moment of origin. Once medieval theology (which, as one reviewer has pointed out, is never analyzed in detail, but just referenced through secondary literature) has set in motion the elaborate reflection on and affective investment in the blood of Jesus, an unstoppable process seems to have begun. Without ever referring to much theology again (with the exception of some juicy quotes from a hymn by John Wesley), Anidjar proceeds to trace all blood metaphors used by writers, explorers, and scientists in centuries to come to the “Eucharistic nexus”. At times, he comes close to mirroring the logic of the blood libel in a doubly metonymical mode of reasoning, in which any mention of blood equals a propensity to shed it and at the same time indicates a link to Christianity. For example, toward the end of a thoughtful interpretation of the role of the sea as global circulatory system in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Anidjar notes that authorial sovereignty is “irrigated by the same ‘engine’ as political sovereignty,” which in turn is “linked – by blood – to the growth of anatomy”, which is Christian because medicine was part of missionary practice (231). Like all chains of free association, the nexus of blood, the Eucharist, and organicist metaphors of community is evocative. But its effect often relies on the emotional resonance of seemingly innocuous verbs such as flow, imbibe, circulate, and irrigate when they are connected to the organizing signifier, blood.

 

Anthropologists of kinship reading this book will appreciate Anidjar’s insistence that blood’s career as the imagined substance of relatedness “involves the becoming-fact of a figurative relation between part and whole” (129). Anidjar declares his debt to David Schneider (1968) and Claude Meillassoux (2001) for denaturalizing the notion of consanguinity as a basis of kinship. However, the French anthropologist explicitly criticizes people who assign too much significance to the church in the emergence of this idea, and links blood-kinship ideologies to aristocratic societies and the question of inheritance. The point that thinking of blood as the essence of kinship is neither natural nor without consequence is well taken, but Anidjar does not always engage counterarguments that locate the sources of this paradigm outside of theology.

 

So what is the book trying to say about Christianity? One noteworthy point is that Anidjar explicitly limits his analysis to western Christianity (vii), and later explains that he sees the Middle Ages as characterized by the “papal revolution” – the formalization of the political function of Catholic hierarchs as heads and guardians of a Christian community at the same time as the Eucharist was standardized as an obligation for all Christians (122, 340 n. 270). This raises the question, what happens to Eucharistic piety under a different division of secular and ecclesial power? Eastern Christianity never had a pope; perhaps more importantly, it did not develop the cult of the suffering of Christ in the same graphic detail as Catholic and Protestant traditions. However, it would be difficult to argue that the reluctance to wallow in the wounds of Christ made Orthodox Christians any less willing to shed the blood of non-Christian neighbors. An analysis of Christian blood in traditions that do not trace themselves back to papal authority would provide comparative grounds for engaging a question both Anidjar and Carl Schmitt leave open: what are the mechanisms by which particular theologemes inform political and economic behaviour?

 

Another potential question for anthropologists interested in Christianity is raised by the frame of the book. Consisting of an introduction focused on Walter Benjamin’s essay “Critique of Violence” and a conclusion engaging with Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, it offers a diagnosis of Christianity’s central problem that is somewhat independent of the rest of the text. As Jewish thinkers, both Benjamin and Freud point to Christianity as a system of thought whose agents see themselves as victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Christianity “puts the victim at the center of history” (11) and “turned the cult of the dead father into a worship of the murdering son as innocent” (251). This recalls Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of Christian morality as slave morality fuelled by ressentiment, and would indicate that Christians, even where they hold political power, might be predisposed to misrecognize themselves as weak, and lack ethical tools for recognizing and working with power. Anthropologists, like Nietzsche’s and Anidjar’s Christians, often prefer to adopt the perspective of the marginalized. But the question of what happens to the religion of the meek when its members hold political office and social influence comes up in studies of Pentecostalism (O’Neill 2009) and in situations of religious revival after more secular periods, as is occurring in the postsocialist world (Luehrmann 2011; Papkova 2011). An engagement with Anidjar’s diagnosis that Christian theology might predispose such groups to misrecognize their own power would provide an interesting starting point for an ethnographic exploration of what is “Christian” about Christian politics. For those of us who are not predisposed to seeing liquefied theology everywhere, those aspects of Blood that identify specific characteristics of Christian political theologies may prove the most stimulating.

 

References cited:

Anidjar, Gil. 2003. The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

—. 2007. Semites: Race, Religion, Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bynum, Carolyn Walker. 2007. Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Luehrmann, Sonja. 2011. Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Meillassoux, Claude. 2001. Mythes et limites de l’anthropologie: le sang et les mots. Paris: Page deux.

O’Neill, Kevin Lewis. 2009. City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Papkova, Irina. 2011. The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schneider, David. 1968. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

 

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