Inescapable Christianity – By Amy Hollywood

Amy Hollywood in the Blood Forum

Blood Cover
Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity, Columbia University Press, 2014, 464pp., $40

See the Blood: The Element of Christianity Forum page for all contributions.

In some rooms it would never occur to me to say that I am a Christian. To a lot of people, it goes without saying. In others I am compelled — I feel an urgent ethical and political demand — to insist that I am not. Who’s in which room? Who am I and who is with me? How does who is with me change who I am? Gil Anidjar wants to make Christianity a problem, and surely he succeeds. But I might be susceptible to his project since, for me, Christianity has always been a problem. (Christianity, on one reading, is nothing but a problem.) An American cradle Catholic with no faith and no practice; a degree-certified theologian who refuses the dichotomy between theist and atheist, together with all of the attempts to complicate it; a historian of Christianity who accepts the charge that Christianity refuses to believe it has a history — I can’t get outside of Christianity no matter how much I try. (And despite the fact that I’m not really a Christian.)

Anidjar’s point is that no one can, or at least no one who finds herself within the orbit of what the philosopher, Jacques Derrida — a philosopher whose work Anidjar has translated, anthologized, commented on, and with which he continues to work in Blood — calls mondialatinisation (globalization as concomitant with Latinization, itself understood in terms of Western Christianity). Today, who isn’t within Christianity’s orbit? Whose life isn’t determined by that horizon? And within this worldwide frame, certainly I benefit from my ties — blood ties? — to that tradition.

For alongside the critique of Christianity, the very substance of that critique, is blood, its liquidity spurting wildly, smearing distinctions between inside and outside even as it is the basis on which they are made. Blood in its fluidity, viscosity, and capacity for coagulation clots any attempt to draw a firm outline around Anidjar’s project: it is history and philosophy, anthropology and theology, political science and literary analysis, and it is not quite any of these things; it sniffs out the trail of blood, both literal and figurative, yet the trail obliterates the very distinction between nature and culture on which the rhetorical distinction depends; it is a polemic, a jeremiad even, and (rather than but) the footnotes speak of years of patient, detailed, bloody-minded scholarship.

There is too much in Blood to contain in any essay, then, so let me draw (out) one line of argument that runs through the book. Given my own proclivities, I will render the argument in historicist terms, despite Anidjar’s legitimate concerns about historicism. One of the most compelling results of Anidjar’s “analytics of blood” is his carefully documented assertion that there is nothing natural about blood, or about the assumption, commonplace in the late medieval and modern West, that hereditary ties are — whether literally or metaphorically remains impossible to discern — blood ties. In the text and its detailed footnotes, Anidjar shows that the Christian emphasis on “flesh and blood” is, precisely, Christian — even more pointedly, post-Biblically Christian, arguably Latin and Western Christian.

The Hebrew Bible writes of “flesh and bone.” The phrase “flesh and blood” appears in the New Testament, although only in the Pauline letters, yet blood is not understood as “the substance of the community.” For Paul, Anidjar argues, genealogy does not guarantee salvation; instead “Paul proclaims a new (kind of) genealogy and kinship, and he does so by diminishing the relevance of physical descent. Doing so, he inscribes that descent in blood, in the difference between bloods. One is henceforth justified by Christ’s blood, rather than by one’s ‘own’ (Romans 5:9).” Whereas the covenant between God and the Israelites was one of memory, written in the “flesh and bone” of the people, for early Christian followers of Paul, community is formed not by the past, but by the present and by the future inscribed within it, within a community brought together in and through Christ’s blood.

In a complicated argument in the second half of Blood, Anidjar shows that despite the persistence of scholarly claims that consanguinity is of vital importance to ancient Greek conceptions of heredity, “terminological studies do not include ‘blood’ as a technical term or concept worthy of interpretation or even documentation.” In fact, Anidjar argues, the claim that blood is at the heart of kinship is a product of modern scholarship, and while there is evidence that for Aristotle and others blood ties matter, they do so in specifically gendered ways; hence, brothers are linked by having been engendered in the same blood, but it is not clear that consanguinity flows into other modes of kinship. Anidjar’s central point is that for the Greeks, blood was primarily understood as food. It therefore mattered deeply, but on Anidjar’s reading, the ancients were ignorant “with regard to a ‘community of blood’ in any deep sense comparable with more recent uses and abuses of the term.”

These uses and abuses, then, are neither Greek nor Hebrew, nor even part of the earliest Christian tradition. Whence, then, do they emerge? Anidjar argues that Paul’s conception of a community formed in the present through participation in the saving blood of Christ became, over the course of the Latin Western Middle Ages, an inherited tradition, one in which Christian purity is passed down through blood.

In the first chapter of the book, “Nation (Jesus’ Kin),” Anidjar seems merely to juxtapose — and perhaps illicitly to identify — the community of those purified by Christ’s blood and the community, solidified in the Statutes of the Purity of the Blood proclaimed in 1449 in Toledo, Spain, of those who possess and hand down Christian blood through hereditary ties. Here the claim is made explicitly that Jewish blood is different from Christian blood and that its presence within the Christian community taints the purity of Christian blood. Anidjar is at pains to show that these kinds of assertions do not emerge only in Spain, but that they have much more broadly spread and older antecedents.

The argument is not nailed down (sorry) until the end of Chapter Two, “State (The Vampire State).” Here Anidjar draws on the work of Tomaz Mastnak. In his 2002 study, Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order, Mastnak points to a crucial shift in Western Christian ideas about killing, one vital to the shift in conceptions of the Christian community as a community of blood. From the fourth through the eleventh century, the Church had been averse to the shedding of blood (not the only way in which killing occurs, of course, but one of the primary linguistic means of naming the deed.) During this period, any killing of another human being, Christian or not, in warfare or outside its bounds, was sinful and required repentance. Over the course of the eleventh century, figures vital to the movement of church reform revolutionized the relationship between killing, murder, and war.

According to Mastnak, and following him Anidjar, it became no longer sinful to kill another human, but only to kill another Christian. Shortly after this, under Urban II “it became ‘not only permissible but eminently salutary to use arms,’” at least against “the infidel enemy.” This, Anidjar argues, is the beginning of the transformation of the Christian community that would lead to not only the Statues of Purity, but also the one-drop rule that is, Anidjar suggests, the life’s blood of American democracy.

 At the heart of Anidjar’s book lies political rage at the secular refusal to recognize that the question of the modern West is the Christian question.

Insisting, I think quite correctly, that Freud’s Moses and Monotheism is less about “the Jewish Question” than about the Christian one, Anidjar argues that Christianity loves death, murder, and its own innocence, but that most of all it loves blood:

Blood is that with which, and through which, Christianity becomes what it is. It flows through the familial and the social (kin and community, nation and race), the medical and the theological, the economic, the legal, and the political. After this red tide — the liquidation of our significant concepts — these distinctions are revealed for what they are: significant only to the extent that they articulate internal divisions. Blood is the name and the thing that does and undoes the significant concepts of the Christian world, the distinctions that divide Christianity from itself: theology from medicine, finance from politics, religion from race, and so forth. It is obvious that Christianity has no essence, therefore. It does however persist as the fluidity of its transformations and the fragility of the walls of its veins, the schizophrenic division of its organs, and the innocence of its actions. After the red tide, then, what remains is the particular, and peculiar, hematology — the hemophilia — that is Christianity.

There are other, equally viable readings of Christianity — even of Christianity and Blood. There were — and still are — Christians who, on the basis of Christ’s saving blood, continued to argue against killing other human beings, insisted no war was a just war, and held fast to a purity that belonged to God alone. Yet after Anidjar it will be very difficult, for me at least, any longer to see Christian blood as innocent.

For at the heart of Anidjar’s book lies political rage at the secular refusal to recognize that the question of the modern West — the question of democracy, capitalism, racism, globalization, xenophobia, of secularism itself — is the Christian question.

It seems truly striking after all that one should be able (somehow preposterously) to insist that Marx was a Jew (and an anti-Semite to book), to claim that Freud was too (that is, a proud “godless Jew” and/or an irreparably self-hating one), or indeed, that the twentieth century was “the Jewish century” but begin to sound like a fringe lunatic when recalling that Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, and with them the traditions of liberalism, the acceleration of capitalism, and much else of “our modernity” (Nazism included) may suffer from a lingering case of Christianity.

Christianity is not only this putatively secular legacy, but it is certainly at least that. Anidjar is right to insist that secularism as it emerges in the modern West flows from Christianity. Put another way, Christianity is the unconscious of the modern West, one whose symptoms, whose secrets, lie in plain sight. Like the purloined letter of Poe’s story, which is hidden precisely by being left in plain sight, the Christianity of secularism is, paradoxically, invisible, because it is there available for all who enter the room to see.

Non-Christians all know exactly who and what I am, a fact I, curiously, accept. Only among Christians do I insist, in a perhaps pointless political frenzy, “I am not one of you.” Or, conversely, “Look, look at these other Christians. Look at these other ways of being Christian. There isn’t one story, but multiple stories, multiples paths through which Christian blood flows.” Yet can we lay claim to these other Christianities without first acknowledging the blood on our hands?