Power in the (Menstrual) Blood

The belief that there is “power in the blood” is common to many—dare I say all—Christian traditions.  The phrase, particularly prevalent in some traditions’ Lenten hymnody, refers, of course, to the power of Jesus’ blood on the cross:  the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion is the source of our salvation.  It goes along with images of being “washed” in his blood (washed in the blood of the lamb), cleansed in the “precious fountain,” made clean in “the healing stream from Calvary.”  It’s all a little gruesome, if you ask me, but this idea has a long, long reach in the Christian tradition.

This fall, as I’ve said before, I’m teaching one of my favorite courses, Soteriology, which always prompts great discussion.  Since reading Cur Deus Homo a few weeks ago, this week, we turned to another book, Cross Examinations, and engaged different feminist and womanist interpretations of the cross—and their critique of Anselm, particularly his “satisfaction” theory of atonement.
One of those chapters was written by Mary Streufert, who describes the concept of “maternal sacrifice,” arguing that “physical sacrifice doesn’t always involve death.” She suggests that instead of always talking about sacrifice in terms of “death for life,” we should promote “life for life” sacrifice:  “Women who gestate, birth, and nurse babies are giving life for life.”  [Her chapter is found on pages 63-75 of the book].  Among other things, this allows us to think about Jesus’ life—not just his death—as sacrificial, and also as a locus of salvation.

All of a sudden, as I sat there in class, listening to the great student discussion around me, I was struck by the idea of “the power in the blood”—but this time, not the power in Jesus’ blood, but the power in women’s blood:  menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth.  And I couldn’t help but think about how ironic it is, that far from being celebrated as powerful and salvific, women’s blood—without which, let us not forget, life could not exist—historically has been considered defiling and polluting in many different religious traditions, including Christianity.  The very blood that makes life possible, the very blood out of which all life comes, is used to segregate, marginalize, and isolate women with the accusation that this bleeding renders a woman unfit for participation in a religious community and unclean before God. [In this light, the story of the hemorrhaging woman  whom Jesus heals in Luke 8 seems all the more miraculous and transformative, as with one touch, Jesus not only heals her body but also restores her to her place in community]. Why is it that the power in women’s blood is seen as power to harm, not heal?
And lest we think this this whole issue of death for life vs. life for life doesn’t matter in the real world, consider that still today, a central part of the justifying rhetoric around violence and war is the heroic language of “sacrifice” that is used to describe the death of soldiers:  “he [or she—but still, overwhelmingly “he” in this context] gave his life to protect you and your country;” “he died so you might live and be free.”  In this way, we both validate and glorify death, arguing that it is by these hundreds and thousands of deaths that truth, freedom and democracy triumph over evil and injustice. You and I—indeed the whole nation—are protected and preserved [go ahead, say it—“saved”] by the heroic, voluntary, self-sacrificing acts of these brave men and women. 

Now, to be clear:  I’m not arguing against the bravery of soldiers, or challenging their dedication; nor am I belittling the service and genuine heroism of our veterans—my uncle, a proud World War II vet would never speak to me again!   However, I won’t lie:  much of this rhetoric makes me uncomfortable—and it should make you uncomfortable, too.  I’m sure you can hear it:  this imagery mirrors unnervingly much of the traditional language the church has used to describe the death of Jesus, arguing that our life is dependent on the blood he spilled on the cross; and salvation is found in that blood.  Here’s the problem [or at least one of them]:  When the most important thing Jesus did was die, doesn’t that suggest that the most important thing Christians can do is die, too?  If the core aspect of salvation is found in a death, doesn’t that suggest that death continues to be salvific in some way today?  I hate how that makes Christianity seem like a religion of death, when really it’s all about life, and life abundant.  That’s what Jesus’ ministry was all about, and that’s who God is.

So, at the very least, as a way to think differently about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and a way to think differently about “blood” in general, I’d like to suggest that there is as much power in blood that gives life as there is in blood that brings death.  In other words, there is more than one way to “bleed,” and more than one way to offer one’s blood for the life of another. One doesn’t purify while the other pollutes:  instead, they both can stand as symbols for passionate love, and a willingness to suffer for the sake of the beloved.

Women are more than mothers, and not all those who bleed bear children, but even so, perhaps this bleeding can serve as a reminder of Christ’s great love for humanity—his whole ministry of life-giving love, and yes, his bleeding for our sake—and in this way, we can begin to see the power in the blood of life, not just in the blood of death.

3 thoughts on “Power in the (Menstrual) Blood

  1. Dr. Largen, long time, no see! This is James Smith writing from Boone, NC.

    Very interesting topic here, and I think your critique is a valid one that I had never really considered before. I want to add a little to the discussion, particularly to your question, “When the most important thing Jesus did was die, doesn't that suggest that the most important thing Christians can do is die, too?” I think a large part of the traditional Christian witness has been “Yes.” Christianity evolved as a religion of martyrdom–as is abundantly clear in the book of Revelation and even in the accounts of some of the early Church Fathers who often wrote about death almost as if it was something gleeful. When the apostles are tortured, they rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer (Acts 5:41). Paul writes, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you (Philippians 1:21-24).”

    I guess my point is it would be very difficult to reshape something that's this deeply ingrained in the DNA (shameless pun intended) of Christianity. I guess the biggest problem that I think you would run into is that while it's true that Christianity is a religion “all about life, and life abundant,” it is life in terms of resurrection. And in order for resurrection to take place, there has to be death first. Now obviously this can be interpreted in other ways and not as narrowly as maybe we sometimes emphasize when we focus only on death. Christ can put to death the old Adam and sin and bring resurrection out of that just as much as we can die and experience resurrection in the more literal sense.

    Anyway, sorry, if this is rambling on a bit. Again, I very much enjoyed the critique (as you can see, it made me think quite a bit!). Just wondering what your response would be.

    Miss you!


  2. Dr. Largen, I absolutely adore this post. I have spent a lot of time thinking theologically about childbirth since my son was born two years ago, but have never made the atonement connection. I most often think of childbirth as following in Jesus' footsteps of sacrifice on behalf of the beloved. Emerging mothers walk their own “road to Jerusalem,” walking toward something they fear and know will be gruesome in order for new life to break forth (and indeed, new identity for themselves). My personal experience of birth was nothing like the positive, deeply moving spiritual experience I'd expected, but was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life because I really did experience death and resurrection in the same experience. My labor was long and I suffered greatly, I blacked out from the pain at one point. In that sense, there was a kind of “death” that occurred. But, when I “awoke” from the haze of the night, there was total relief and newness of life and identity in light of what had happened. Resurrection came in the morning.

    My only question for the idea of there being “power in the (menstrual) blood” would be where do women who have suffered the blood of miscarriage fit into this theological framework? What is the word for them?

    Laura Haupt


  3. Hi, James & Laura–Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. It's interesting that you both pointed to [different] aspects of suffering and even “death” and the spiritual connections between those physical experiences and our Christian faith. And certainly, as Christians we ARE called to put ourselves at risk, in love, for the sake of our neighbor and in service to the gospel. [I'm remembering an old sermon of John Spangler's where he talked about putting ourselves physically in the way of harm to protect our neighbor–and, of course, Jesus' own standing with the woman caught in adultery against the murderous mob applies here, too.] My larger problem is when death is the ONLY way we talk about what Jesus has done for us, and what we are called to do for others. Laura reminds us that life DOESN'T always come from death, and what do we do when the blood we shed [both literally and metaphorically] doesn't lead to life? So, for me, I want to have more ways of thinking about the whole picture of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and see all the ways he models not only sacrifice but also restoration, healing, and wholeness: there are many different ways to model Jesus' life-giving love–dying isn't either the only way, or the best way. [Somehow related here is an interesting story I heard on NPR yesterday that included a bit about the conflict between Greece and Turkey: after an earthquake in Turkey, the Greek foreign minister organized a blood drive to support the Turkish people injured by the quake. That's a whole other way of seeing “power in the blood,” isn't it?] Ultimately, I guess, one way to think about this is to say that there was only one death that led to resurrection for the whole world–no other deaths are necessary, and thus, human death isn't a privileged path of discipleship. Jesus calls us to life, not death; and Laura, I think all we can say to the woman who miscarries is that Jesus is present in that death and holds her and her grief in his love. Now I'm rambling!! Kristin


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