Sermon: Your Brother’s Blood
Texts: Genesis 4:8-13; Habbakuk 2:11-12; Matthew 27:20-26
Date: April 7, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Our “Poured Out” worship series summons us to reflect this week on blood that is poured out in the biblical story. Feeling squeamish? Naturally. Blood is repellant, yet fascinating. It certainly takes up a lot of space in our Scriptures. I put “blood” into the Bible Gateway search engine out of curiosity and came up with 433 verses in the NRSV. It’s a complicated legacy in the Bible; broadly speaking, blood can either be a source of blessing (as when making a sacrifice to atone for sin) or curse (as when blood is spilled unjustly).
I can’t pretend to comprehend what-all blood meant to our forebears in faith. My lifelong liberal faith leaves me without a visceral grasp or appreciation of the blessing of blood spilled as an atoning sacrifice for sin, but I acknowledge that many of our Christian siblings in faith hold that notion dear. It is most certainly a prominent theme in scripture, both Hebrew and Christian scripture. That’s not what I want to address today.
First, I want to pursue the idea of blood that cries out from the ground or from the walls or from the hands long after a violent deed is done. The ancient story of Cain and Abel offers the fascinating image of the ground opening its mouth to receive Abel’s blood, spilled by Cain’s hand. It’s not a silent swallowing; Yahweh says “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” Blood was viewed by our Hebrew forebears as a pollutant on the earth; Numbers 35:33 says, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” The “expiation” there refers to a system of sanctioned revenge whereby the one who was proved a murderer would have their life taken to even things out and cleanse the land. Human beings are still big believers in revenge, even if they don’t think of it in quite the same way like a balancing of the scales of justice.
What fascinates me in the tradition is how blood spilled on the ground leaves a memory of it. One prophetic text in Hosea says of a rough period in Israel’s history, “Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.” [Hosea 4:2-3] The land mourns, and all who live in it languish. The ground opens its mouth to receive the blood that has been shed by evil deeds, but it does not swallow it silently and stoically; the land mourns, the blood of your brother cries out. Same goes for the stones and plaster of the walls, says Habbakuk: “The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork. ‘Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!’” [Habbakuk 2:11-12] The earth and the stuff of the earth remembers the foundational bloodshed and cries out.
Have you been in a place where the land whose mouth opened to receive bloodshed still mourns? The Tuesday Bible study folks explored this by recalling some of the memorial places we have visited where we have experienced a strong sense of grief: Omaha Beach, Pearl Harbor, Wounded Knee, New York’s 9/11 memorial, Hiroshima, Gettysburg, to name a few. Janet told us about a restless night in a motel near Gettysburg that used to be a hospital in Civil War days. She had a very uneasy, sleepless night there and was told by the innkeeper in the morning that the room she was (not) sleeping in had been the operating room in the hospital where many a soldier lost limbs or life. Talk about the walls crying out! This is a little on the “woo woo” side, I know, but there’s something to be said for the earth’s long memory, for earth’s protest and grief over blood spilled.
People can have a long memory as well about blood spilled, which unfortunately fuels cycles of revenge more often than not. We heard today one of the texts that has excused horrible violence against Jewish people for centuries. Matthew’s gospel is the only one that has this line about the people (read Jews) shouting out, “His blood be on us and on our children,” as they seem to take responsibility for demanding Jesus’ crucifixion. As one of my commentaries says, “These words were destined to be tragically misinterpreted by Christians of later centuries who continued to blame the Jewish people as a whole for the death of Jesus. Matthew, however, looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE as divine punishment for rejection of the Messiah. The people in Matthew’s story do not invoke guilt on all future generations, but on themselves and their children—i.e., the generation that experienced the devastation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Matthew is engaged in the anti-Jewish polemic of his time, and he offers his theological interpretation of a tragic event that already happened as part of his polemic. He does not wish for revenge or pronounce a sentence on all Jews forever.” Regrettably, Christians who have been all too eager to embrace anti-Semitism have interpreted this “blood libel” verse as an excuse for violence that eventually led up to the Holocaust. And once again anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world as people look for scapegoats and targets of hatred.
Pilate gets off easy in the gospels, even though it is perfectly clear that the Roman Empire was responsible for Jesus’ death; they were the only ones with the power and authority to carry out a death penalty. Crucifixion is a political act, an act of state-sponsored terrorism. Making Pilate look less guilty was what John Dominic Crossan calls “updating the enemy” in the gospel record—it was much more politically astute while writing a gospel to make the Jewish leaders look guilty than to blame the Empire while you are still living under the Empire’s repressive thumb.
Putting first century Palestinian politics aside, though, let’s delve into Pilate’s very human impulse to want to be regarded as innocent. He washes his hands in a public manner, saying loudly for all to hear, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” My scholarly sources say the handwashing was not a Roman tradition so much as it was Hebrew practice, a ritual of establishing one’s purity or innocence. Among the 433 verses mentioning blood there is a hand-washing ritual prescribed if a dead person has been found in the countryside and nobody knows whodunit. A heifer is offered as a sacrifice by breaking its neck in a stream. Then, “All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, and they shall declare: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.’ Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt.” [Deuteronomy 21:6-8] Perhaps the author of Matthew’s gospel had such a prescribed ritual in mind when he paints a picture of Pilate washing his hands.
Of course, Pilate and his government cronies were not innocent of Jesus’ blood. They were the ones who carried out his and countless other executions to maintain “The Peace of Rome.” But Pilate wants to look innocent, to feel innocent, to be held blameless. He wants to shift the blame onto someone else, he doesn’t want to lose any sleep over doing what he perceived had to be done. Since he’s just a governor, not an emperor, he could always shift the blame to Caesar and find his innocence in the classic “just following orders” gambit. However he arrives there, he is resolved to find himself innocent. Such a normal human impulse, right? Innocence is much more pleasurable than guilt.
I wonder if Pilate ever pondered the innocence or guilt of the colonializing, highly militarized Empire within which he worked? I wonder if the cruelty of using crucifixion as a method of controlling a potentially rebellious populace ever bothered him? We can’t know, of course. We do know that people are generally strongly motivated to perceive themselves as innocent even in a corrupt system. The question of personal accountability is a gnarly one when the society itself is engaged in oppressive practices, especially when the powers that be are manufacturing constant propaganda about how right and how great they are.
The question of personal accountability within a society that sins is still pretty gnarly. Some of us have been mulling over white supremacy during this Lenten season. Layla Saad, author of our main resource, the “Me and White Supremacy” workbook, is pretty effective at holding white people accountable for their/our participation in a social order constructed on white supremacy. I am sure we would all prefer to think of ourselves as personally innocent of racism, since as people of good will we reject consciously held prejudice. We would prefer, I expect, to think of our society as somehow post-racial and inclusive. So every time another black man is killed by the police, we have some grounds to claim, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”
At the same time such a claim feels disingenuous. We’re not quite innocent. And not quite guilty. None of us pulled the trigger, but we’re not innocent of white silence or white solidarity.
Or take the ongoing suffering of indigenous people in our nation, who as a body struggle with poverty, high rates of addiction, homelessness, and disease. It’s not our fault. Every time another indigenous woman turns up missing and presumed dead, we have grounds to claim “I am innocent of this woman’s blood.” Yet we’re not innocent of enjoying the benefits of white colonialism several generations after the conquest of the New World.
Are we innocent or guilty? It’s quite a psychological, soulful conundrum in these times. This is where I believe the biblical metaphor of the land mourning and languishing is very helpful in sorting things out. It’s like a Third Way between the extremes of claiming total innocence (“I am innocent of this man’s blood”) and claiming total guilt (“His blood be upon us an on our children!”). We can recognize that when our brother’s/sister’s blood is spilled unjustly, the effects of that trauma don’t disappear overnight. The blood of those who were killed or wounded in generations of slavery and displacement from land and culture is still, in a sense, crying out. The blood of victims of generations of grinding poverty in a rigged economy is crying out. The blood of the millions of finger-pricks of black and indigenous people suffering from diabetes because they live in urban food deserts or they are severed from indigenous food sources cries out.
This is the ground on which we walk on this shared earth. The land is mourning and languishing with blood spilled in former and current trauma. It’s not forgotten, it’s not easily cleansed. We feel it, don’t we? I think that’s why the language Jennifer offered up in our Lenten Suquamish land acknowledgement strikes such a chord: “We also acknowledge that our ancestors took this land from the indigenous people who lived here, and that we have not sufficiently atoned for that. We seek healing.” To say such a thing is a recognition that our brothers’ and sisters’ blood is still, in sense, crying out from the ground which opened its mouth receive it generations ago. It is a relief, really, to say it out loud; it feels truthful.
Healing from shared generational trauma is only an option if we recognize that healing is still needed. An apropos quote from Malcom X floated through my Facebook feed the other day. He said in a 1964 interview, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less healed the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” There has been some progress toward healing racial wounds, I hope, since 1964. But some of our white siblings aren’t yet to the point of admitting the knife is there, so there is more work to do. And of course there is work to do within ourselves and between ourselves as we wrestle with the long unconscious habits of mind and heart which maintain white supremacy.
Beloved, we are neither entirely innocent nor entirely guilty where ongoing racial trauma is concerned. We cannot wash our hands and claim innocence as Pilate did; we need not wallow in perpetual shame either. We can, I believe, seek healing and reconciliation as we dwell together on the earth that remembers what we would like to forget. The good news is that God offers grace to sinners, God works reconciliation between those who are estranged, God brings new life and death is defeated. We are not alone on this earth that mourns and languishes; God is working in us and through to make all things new. May there be healing within and between us, that we may be good ancestors to those who will walk this land after us. May the languishing land itself be healed and restored as we continue learning to love one another in peace.