Would you be whiter, much whiter than snow? There’s power in the blood, power in the blood; Sin stains are lost in its life giving flow. There’s wonderful power in the blood.
-There is Power in the Blood, Lewis E. Jones (1899)
Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
-Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, Robert Lowry (1876)
The pleas to be made white as snow by being plunged in Christ’s blood have always been odd to me. As a young girl raised in a black Southern Baptist church, this inquisitiveness was mostly over the odd logic: “How would being washed in blood make you white?” It seemed like a particularly messy, but foundational, articulation of how redemption occurred and the work it performed. The plunging, washing, and cleansing of the believer in the shed blood of Christ is a particularly macabre image that serves as a site of multiple convergences of power. In liturgical repetitions of this theo-logic, we are able to see how religious, racial, and state formations coalesce through the theo-aesthetic reproduction of sovereignty and governmentality, anxieties about purity, and anti-blackness. Here, I attempt to sketch some thoughts about the context in which these hymns emerged, their continued use and re-appropriation today, and how they continue to be used in repeating Christian religious formation as anti-black formation in service to the management of populations and territories by an expanding anti-black state.
Bloodlines, Baptism, and Blackness
It has always surprised me how vigorously unthought the anti-black dimensions of modern Christian theological obsessions with purity, blood, and sovereignty are (and if anyone has resources they can point me to I would gladly read them). Many have discussed the gendered nature of Christian concerns with purity and blood, but few have drawn the lines between this concern for white women’s purity and the policing of intimacy, sociality, and sexuality that correspond to late 18th and 19th century anxieties about the black body as a carrier of all kinds of impurities and imbalances. In this moment in US history, the black body is a particularly fecund figure around which to construct liturgical performances of redemptive logic. Conceptions of blackness are being tied to a growing scientific and medicalized production of knowledge about the body that works in tandem with discourses of sex and sexuality to produce concepts of population and their government (See Bernasconi and McWhorter on Foucault). Ideas of black disease (and white dis-ease with the black body), debility, and depravity coalesce around the potent symbol of blackness as impurity and perversion on multiple levels. This potency of blackness as impurity is precisely why it is ripe for use within logics of redemption. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only offer only one example of how these anxieties about blackness are articulated in this historical moment.
On July 14, 1792, Philosopher, Physician, Abolitionist, and Founding Father, Benjamin Rush, delivered a paper to the American Philosophical Society entitled: “Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition That the Black Color (As It Is Called) of the Negroes Is Derived from the Leprosy.” In the paper, Rush offers proof that black skin is a form of leprosy. Clearly given the sustained presence of black people throughout history, Rush must argue that leprosy has endured for generations in black people because it is “the most durable in its descent to posterity and the most indestructible in its nature of any disease we are acquainted with.” Rush clarifies that the condition of leprosy that blacks currently suffer from is no longer greatly infectious through contact. However, Rush immediately follows this assertion with instances in which the infection of white skin with blackness has occurred through sexual intercourse between black men and white women:
A white woman in North Carolina not only acquired a dark color, but several features of a negro, by marrying and living with a black husband. A similar instance of a change in the color of features of a woman in Buck’s county Pennsylvania has been observed and from a similar cause. In both these cases, the women bore children by their black husbands.
In these statements by Rush we see a union of concerns for purity and governmentality (and, a bit further on, their Christian teleology) within the medicalizing discourse about blackness. By outlining the political, medical, ethical, and theological guides for how whites ought to respond to encounters with blacks Rush is able to posit how the management of racial encounters ought to be determined by incitations of certain contact with blackness while maintaining prohibitions against sexual intimacy for fear of reproducing the disease of black skin. It is particularly interesting how Rush ties these assertions about blackness as debility together within a white, Christian, abolitionist framework. Because his framework understands black skin as diseased, he finds possibility for undoing black slavery and recognizing the shared humanity that lies underneath, as it were, the surface of blackness.
In his final statements, Rush articulates 3 reflections that follow from his observations on blackness as a form of leprosy. His first reflection is that “all claims of superiority of the whites over the blacks, on account of color, are founded alike in ignorance and inhumanity.” Because blackness is a diseased skin condition, Rush argues, whites should be sympathetic to the black condition instead of tyrannical. Second, Rush cautions that his understanding of blackness as disease “should teach white people the necessity of keeping up that prejudices against such connections [aka: SEX] with them, as would tend to infect posterity with any portion of their disorder.” Thus, blackness as a diseased skin condition is both able to awaken white sympathy toward black bodies as in need of curative techniques, even as the same concept maintains race as a production of governmentality that requires the policing of sexual intimacy.* Third, Rush, argues that his understanding of blackness as a derivation of leprosy requires the union and extension of scientific and humanist resources in the production of knowledges that would find a cure for the black condition. He ends this final reflection with an anecdote about a black man who began to turn white naturally, and how this natural instance of the cure occurring should not deter science and humanism from searching for artificial ways of facilitating the cure either. Finally, Rush offers 5 examples of how the cure might be facilitated in black bodies (all of which, I won’t list in depth here).
Rush’s instances of therapeutic techniques for managing the black body range from labor—because the places in the black body (like the hands and the “trunk”) that most encounter pressure, constriction, and labor have been observed to be lighter—to skin bleaching. Rush observes how “the palms of the hands of negro women who spend their lives at a washing tub, are generally as fair as the palms of the hands in labouring white people.” He proposes bloodletting as a technique that “has been observed to lessen the black color in negroes.” He points to instances, “though of a more temporary in nature,” where a change in black skin has occured through “the influence of fear.” And he relies upon secondhand knowledge by way of other Drs. who were able to “discharge the color in the black wool of a negro by infusing it in the oxygenated muriatic [aka hydrochloric] acid,” and his friend, Thomas Harrison (a Philadelphian and Abolitionist*), who once saw a black boy whose hand and cheek had turned white because of his consumption of unripened peaches and the juices “falling, and resting, upon those parts of his body.” In concluding his paper, Rush ties his vision together through a Christian teleological vision:
To encourage attempts to cure this disease of the skin in negroes, let us recollect that by succeeding in them, we shall produce a large portion of happiness in the world. We shall in the first place destroy one of the arguments in favor of enslaving the negroes, for their color has been supposed by the ignorant to mark them as objects of divine judgments, and by the learned to qualify them for labor in hot, and unwholsome[sic] climates.
Secondly, We shall add greatly to their happiness, for however well they appear to be Satisfied with their color, there are many proofs of their preferring that of the white people.
Thirdly, We shall render the belief of the whole human race being descended from one pair, easy, and universal, and thereby not only add weight to the Christian revelation, but remove a material obstacle to the exercise of that universal benevolence which is inculcated by it.
Thus, in these closing statements, Rush’s teleological vision of his work come to the fore. His medical observations, ethical invocations, and incitements of certain forms of contact or sympathy with blackness even while prohibiting sexual encounters with blackness (for fear of the skin condition passed along through the blood, tainting white people and reproducing the disease) comes to be clearly realized within an all encompassing Christian telos. Rush’s teleology locates the cure of blackness as the vehicle through which freedom and final happiness will flow into the unity of whiteness. This happiness being most perfectly accomplished through the removal of material obstacles to the extension of Christian sovereign benevolence or, governmentality. Blackness, then, and the anxieties and sympathies it conjures in Rush’s work and in the larger society, is a consolidation of impurity as the possibility of total purity. It is the sedimentation of blackness as the problem (IT is the debility, not the person who, through no fault of their own, acquired the condition) that must be cured, and the invention of therapies that operate to instantiate the biopolitical.
Unity in Christ: Durable Bloodlines, Durable Blackness
It is true that the hymns of this time are not the first to utilize themes of Christ’s blood as cleansing and redemptive, as a substance that purifies and makes white. What I am really attempting to get at here is how the emergence of hymns during this period and their liturgical durability or continuation into the present reproduces anti-blackness through the uninterrogated lineages of theo-aesthetic productions and the logics they carry. It is also often the case that sin, in these hymns, is said to have left a “crimson” stain. There is no explicit mention of blackness in these songs, some may argue. Still, my point here is not that anti-blackness is explicit in these hymns. Rather, I am arguing that the anxieties around bloodlines, purity, and debility and the production of white US sovereignty through the wedding of governmentality to a Christian teleology coalesce around blackness as debility—as a condition in need of techniques of the cure. A stain of the skin in need of purification. A body in need of redemption.
And these hymns’ use in the present moment is a theological articulation that repeats the anxieties and sympathies that orbit around blackness in order to produce properly Christian and properly modern subjects. The continued desire for the cure, the therapy that will remove the guilt of slavery, that will liberate the body from its imprisonment in the chains of sin, continues to cultivate religious formation. Thus the liturgical imagination is redeploys concepts of Christian sovereignty that are most perfectly united in whiteness and require the imagining of blackness as debility—as a site of an enduring stain that needs to be washed away—in order for their purification of the psyche to be accomplished. Thus a certain marriage between Christ’s blood as redemptive and whiteness is made here. So too is a bond between Christ’s blood and blackness made as blackness becomes the material sign of sin’s enduring and debilitating effects. Thus the potency and durability of Christ’s sacrifice (his blood being effective throughout all of history and across time and space) must be read through an understanding of blackness as an enduring stain (effective throughout all of history and across time and space) that needs to be cleaned. And the holding together of sin and salvation through the underlying anxieties about sexuality and blackness, is precisely the means through which these hymns (and the theo-logics they represent) gain their affective force and envision the possibility of rehabilitation, reconciliation, and redemption.*
For example, in “Come To Calvary’s Holy Mountain” (Performed in 2010 so beautifully by this white* men’s choir #howfitting), the hymn writer admonishes the believer to:
Come in poverty and meanness,
Come defiled, without, within;
From infection and uncleanness,
From the leprosy of sin,
Wash your robes and make them white;
Ye shall walk with God in light.
The movement of this song is through the ruin and impurity of sin, sin as debility and uncleanness—as leprosy—that is made white, and in other verses, as sorrow that is made guilt free; as everlasting always and forever, signed in Christ’s death and sealed in Christ’s blood. The very poetics of these hymns is dependent upon the maintenance of blackness as a condition of biological impurity, where one drop is enough to stain you, and so, one must be drenched in the fountain—baptized over and over—in Christ’s enduring, all powerful, and universal blood in order to be made white.
Examining Liturgical Lineages
And so, I want to ponder the ways Christian religious formation, liturgical performances and rituals, and theo-aesthetic productions are haunted by these theopolitical conceptions of blood, power, race and sexuality, purity and impurity, that lend these hymns their affective potential in the first place. So when we consider the liturgical reproduction of these logics, is it any wonder Christian religious formation is one of the biggest ways white supremacy is maintained in contemporary US society?
Is it any wonder that these logics of blood and unity persist in growing Christian multicultural movements that do nothing to address white supremacy’s material affects on black bodies? Is it any wonder that shared baptism in Christ’s blood is the event that undergirds discourses of reconciliation which are proliferating wildly in evangelical (and non-evangelical) Christian parlance? From the emergence of reformed rappers to the Christianized “creative class”, the production of theo-aesthetics that preach unity even as they maintain white supremacist teleologies of the church, the world, and the body, are primary players in the extension of anti-black notions of governmentality and sovereignty through global Christianity. These liturgical performances continue to reproduce blackness as a condition fixed in biological debility that requires the redemptive cure rather than as a condition made to signify social dispossession that is enforceable through the violence of the state, police surveillance, and religious imperialism. Thus, no material change is actually required of white folks. Regardless of how much these theologies situate a compassionate white body as a progression in fights for racial justice, the material effects remain the same. There is no care in the systematic disinvestment of black schools and neighborhoods, the policing of black women’s sexuality through forced sterilization or the criminalization of her womb and reproductive rights, and the displacement of black people from their communities through an expanding prison system. There is no salvation in the white body, in the figure of whiteness who is able to be absolved of the crimes of white supremacy simply by praying a prayer, singing a song, or wishing hard enough. Who cleanse their hands of the sins of black enslavement and racial oppression through rituals invocations of Christ’s blood. Whiteness is covered in blood, but it is not the saving blood of Christ, it is the blood of millions slaughtered, dispossessed, made to feel suffering and pain, forced to labor tirelessly under violently coercive conditions in the name of God. In the name of power.
I want to offer some disclosure here, too, at the end of this piece. This is not, finally, meant to be a distancing of myself from these liturgical practices. In my responses to the videos shared, I still experience deep bonds to the particular musical affectations of these theo-logics. Rather than being able to separate myself from the reproduction of these ideas of sin, salvation, sexuality and race, I also have to contend with the ways my own black body and desires have been disciplined and shaped by these liturgical repetitions. This is not just about how white bodies are formed, then, but also how black and other raced bodies become formed through these logics with little to no prior consent. I was born into a Black Southern Baptist preacher’s family. What can be done about that upbringing and its affects? Must it all be discarded in exchange for something else? Is some secular formation of desire free of these anti-black reenactments? This piece is meant to do something different than transfer loyalties to another sovereign. It is meant to be something of an intervention—something of an attention to and articulation of an idea that has, for too long, gone unthought in my own life. My hope is that it enables space for those others who are also formed by these racialized logics and liturgies of the theological and political to share how they’ve been (de)formed by these repetitions, too.
That race mixing contaminated nations and could possibly lead to their downfall was claimed by Robert Knox in 1850 when he insisted, with specific reference to race mixing, that “race is everything: literature, science, art, in a word civilization depends on it” (Knox 1850, v).
* Here are some contemporary performances of these bloody hymns along with new Christian songs that contribute to the idea of bloodlines, race, and salvation:
Nothing But the Blood of Jesus by Jesus Culture
Jesus Paid it All by Mars Hill Church
The Blood Song by Kirk Franklin ft. Donnie McClurkin, Crystal Lewis, Jaci Velasquez
Reformed Rapper J. Miles explaining his EP “Slave Trade”
Amaryah, this is excellent. This reminds me of an article by Randall Bailey about Isaiah 1:18 (“‘They Shall Be White as Snow’: When Bad is Turned into Good,” Semeia 76 : 99–113), which one of the sources for the antiblack discourses you’ve described. Bailey’s argument is that white in this verse is not a metaphor for cleanness and purity but rather leprosy. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, white skin is frequently associated with skin disease.
In that light, Benjamin Rush’s assertion that blackness is a result of skin disease, and his use of this argument to support a Christian teleology, becomes extremely ironic. In the Bible, white is the color of skin disease—not black. White is a curse, is communicable, is dangerous—not black.
Amazing work here. Thanks for this article. This gives me lots to think about.
Thanks for the comment! I’ll have to check out that article. It sounds interesting for sure.
I’m a 75 yr old woman of German-English ancestry living in Canada tho born in the USA. The attitude you describe of “whiteness” being more desireable or better seems to me another expression of European settler arrogance leading to mental illness …. or something. Maybe jealousy? Look at how hard some white folks work to get a tan.
From what I understand, the “Blood” imagery is from the Temple sacrifices in Jewish-Christian Tradition. Understanding of anatomy, and life, was formed on the observation that when blood was shed, the person died. Therefore, life is in the blood. The sacrifice of animals was a substitute for human sacrifice – the giving of one’s life to the gods – and a definite improvement over offering one’s first born son. The “Blood” of Jesus would in this instance refer to the “Life” of Jesus, given for us, and his own integrity and faithfulness to his mission. At least that’s how I interpret the Scriptures use of the blood image.
Catherine of Siena went into ecstasy thinking about the blood of Jesus. I think she was a little nuts, tho she is a sister Dominican. I don’t find the image helpful, perhaps because we have a different understanding of how our bodies function these days.
I sometimes wonder if the prejudice about skin colour is particularly severe in the US South due to slavery (and maybe white guilt?) I noticed in coming to Canada that couples came in all sorts of interesting hues and it didn’t seem unusual or strange.
But we humans always seem to find someone who is different than ourselves to oppress and blame and kill. Then we add the sacrilege of doing it in “God’s Name”.
Thank you for your article and sharing your unique experience.
Barbara, thanks for your comment.
I’m a little confused about your equating mental illness with white supremacy. Are you meaning white supremacy as neurosis?
My point here is not about scriptural use of the blood image, but rather, how this imagery gets taken up during a particular historical moment that is also very concerned about keeping blood pure from racial taint.
While I think the US has a unique history of white supremacy, I find it is hardly an isolated phenomena and Canada has it’s own problems with white supremacy, particularly as it relates to indigenous peoples and their dispossession.
Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your engagement.
I used “mental illness” in a broad way. I don’t know what else to call it when people hate other people – especially when they “sacralize” it with quotes from the Bible.
Canada is in a process of reconcilliation with First Nations here. There was a Truth and Reconciliation meeting in Vancouver about two weeks ago, modeled on So Africa’s efforts between Black and White. First Nations are demanding, and sometimes getting, a voice in decisions for their territories. But there is so much still to be done to repair as much of the damage of colonization as is possible.
Thank you for this! If you haven’t read it yet, M. Shawn Copeland’s “Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being” examines closely the place of black women’s bodies in understanding various aspects of theological anthropology. Being a Catholic theologian, she engages more the sacramental nature of the body than the purity and blood language from hymnody, but much could refer.
Thanks John, for your comment. I have read Copeland’s book and appreciate a lot about it.
I just came to this CBC site – Blood: the Stuff of Life – from the Massey Lectures on a program called Ideas. I haven’t read it yet, but wonder if it is relevant to this conversation
I am wondering if you’d be willing to talk a bit about your reflections here on the language and logic of purity and the almost neurotic impulse throughout history to understand the work of the church as the traditioning of a particular culture. I’ve just begun reading a book on the psychology of disgust (called *Unclean* by Richard Beck). It is not a great book, but it does make the point that what we find disgusting and unclean–and the scapegoating thereof–is intrinsic the the boundary-defining moments in which a culture begins to emerge and is perpetuated. So, on the one hand, I hear you pointing out this operation in the hymnody of White Christian culture-making, and calling for a certain disavowal of this culture. On the other hand, if the logic of disgust and scapegoating is inherent in the emergence and sedimentation of *any* culture as such (and here I am thinking more of Girard than anyone), would the performance of blackness and the power of black bodies be not just a subversion of White Christian culture but perhaps a disavowal of the very idea of “Christian culture” itself?
Hi Nate. That is interesting to think with. Perhaps that is what I hope a performance of blackness would enact. A refusal of the cure, a refusal of redemption, and in this repudiation blackness seeks an end to white Christianity and its culture. That is, White Christianity would have to find itself unredeemable, I think, for it to be of any use in working with.
What do you think?
Hi! I guess what I’m asking is for you to expound a bit more on how you would want to think “blackness” here in relation to the problematic concept of “culture” itself. I take “culture” itself, as a concept, to be a construction of white historicist logic, invented as a means to secure what is originally “pure” about a people or a race vis-a-vis its encounter with that which is other. And so (and I think Jay Carter is helpful here), I think the affirmation of blackness is not so much the affirmation of *a* black culture or of a particular cultural power, but rather a kind of cultural transgression. The theological problem that blackness addresses is that of the ideal of a false, idolatrous (white) purity. And it addresses that problem by the ways in which it refuses to evince fear of impurity, promiscuity, miscegenation, and the like. And so, I’m not so much concerned to render White Christianity “useful” (to use your term) to work with, so as to “contaminate” it, and to render it un-identifiable as such. I hope that helps. I am neither a theorist of race nor of blackness, and so I mean my comments here as more of a query to you than as the putting forth a position, if you will.
Hmm, I guess I’m not really sure how I’d want to think that…
Yes, Mo! Just yes!
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